Eastern European travel informs Pittsburgh chef’s vision | TribLIVE.com
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Chef Trevett Hooper, owner of Legume in Oakland, recently took a trip to Eastern Europe, including a stop at Moscow's Red Square.

Legume has long taken pride in its farm-to-table ethos, showcasing the amazing bounty of regional Pennsylvania farms.

That’s a great plan for most of the year. But in Pennsylvania, we have this thing called winter.

Not a lot grows around here for a few months — a few very long months.

For that reason, Trevett Hooper, owner-chef of Legume, Oakland, takes his vacation in February. Instead of heading to sunnier climes where the only umbrellas are in the drinks, he tends to seek out the cold. This year, he plotted a winding itinerary starting in Budapest and winding through Tokaj and Szeged in Hungary, Krakow and Warsaw in Poland, and Moscow, Vladimir and St. Petersburg in Russia.

“Two Februaries ago, I went to Chicago,” Hooper says. “I wanted to see what they were cooking during the winter. They have a lot of things that a big city would have: amazing greenhouses providing them with lettuce. A great pork farmer, on a big enough scale that they can get as many local organic pork chops as they need (in the winter).

“Here, in Pittsburgh, those resources aren’t available to us, at least on that scale. I wanted to explore a part of the world that might look similar to Pittsburgh, in terms of climate, and the kinds of foods available in the winter.”

The concept for a different sort of restaurant has been marinating within the Legume team for a while. It’s called Dacha.

“I learned about dachas in National Geographic magazine,” Hooper says. “Dachas are basically little country dwellings for Russian urbanites. A lot of people live in those tall apartment buildings crammed into cities. It’s kind of an oasis from urban life. Most people have a garden at the dacha — fruit trees, gardens for greens, cucumbers, tomatoes.

“I thought that idea of an oasis from urban living and a way of connecting to nature and all that was an extension of what we’re already doing at Legume. I wanted to have a place in the city where we can really connect to some quiet, to connect with the earth.”

Dacha is still in the planning stages, but there is a website chronicling the trip and vision: dachapgh.com.

Hooper is from Maine and didn’t grow up with the pierogie-laden diet of a typical Pittsburgher.

He is one-quarter Russian, though, and hoped to reconnect with this heritage on the trip. Darrion Bowen — a server at Legume and Russian speaker, who had spent time there before — joined him for the trip.

Hooper set out clear goals online: “I hope to taste and cook with master cooks in the countries that have honed — for millennia — skills serving food produced in a limited growing season without reliable refrigeration: salting, smoking, pickling, jellying, all manners of preserving, adding layers of flavor, appeal and aesthetic genius. I’ll study the Russian wood-fired oven, the pech, a monumental cook-oven, which, in the not-too-distant past, dominated rural dwellings.”

From convivial gatherings at Michelin-starred restaurants in Budapest to extremely rustic, earthy gatherings in the boondocks, they managed to exceed even their most ambitious goals.

Bowen’s blog (interland sandhinterlands.wordpress.com) is replete with vivid scenes. There’s his encounter with the fabled Mangalica pig — a hairy breed that’s “the Kobe beef of pork” according to Modern Farmer magazine — on a farm in rural Hungary, for example:

“Olga’s farm and the others in the area had just somehow managed to slip under the radar and keep their pre-Soviet spirit alive. Straw-thatched roofs on the buildings, walls made from the clay underfoot. Here a smokehouse, here the goat pen, the goose pen, the pigpen, here the reconstruction of a traditional cottage with embroidered handiwork and garlands of drying paprika peppers.

“Morning frost still coated everything when we arrived. Olga hurried us inside and served us a swift round of homemade Hungarian fruit brandy, called Palinka, then walked us to the pen.”

It was a pretty unforgettable experience, even for a guy who has done his share of butchering and whole-animal cooking.

Hooper was particularly entranced by the Maslenitsa Festival in Suzdal, Russia, which seemed to make the decades and distance melt away. How can you not love a festival that features pancakes and snow-ball fights?

“It’s an old pagan festival, and they burn a big effigy,” Hooper says. “It’s a big deal in Russia. To experience that — my Russian culture in my family is gone. There’s no memory of it. It died with my great-grandparents. It wasn’t priority in my family to keep our Russian-ness. This is something my great-grandparents would have seen done. They’ve been burning this effigy for thousands of years.”

Hooper’s Dacha restaurant remains a work in progress, with no location chosen yet. Hooper is still sorting through his experiences in Eastern Europe but has a few ideas already.

Zurek, for one, will definitely be on the menu.

“We had it at the first meal in Poland,” Hooper says. “You take rye flour and water and ferment it for five days, make a rich broth with sausage or hardboiled egg, a little bit of cream. Add a sour mixture to it all — an unusual, delicious flavor. We already do a lot of fermentation here, and rye grows locally in Pittsburgh. It made a lot of sense to make it here.”

Mostly, it was just the different approach to food way out East that was inspiring.

“In Russia, the cucumber pickles were a revelation. They were everywhere. Some had been made the summer before, and they were still crunchy and delicious. This year, I’m going to try to specify with the farms I work with that they’re harvested a bit younger, before the seeds get too developed, so they stay crunchy.”

It’s not an arms race, but, perhaps, we need to be concerned with a “pickle gap” between us and the Russians.

“They have a much better pickle infrastructure,” Hooper says. “Here, it’s me at the restaurant. If I want pickles in the winter, I have to do it myself. There, there’s so many people who do this very old way of fermenting pickles and preserving them for the whole year.

“We visited two markets in Moscow, and there were probably eight different people who all had the same pickles: cucumber pickles, whole heads of (pickled) garlic, what they call “soaked apples,” and pickled tomatoes. They all had these. Every restaurant I ate at had a plate of pickled cabbage, cucumbers, tomatoes. I was at one restaurant, they said their farmers made their pickles for them. It’s another step we’re taking on as a restaurant. We’re building our own means of doing that.”

Michael Machosky is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at [email protected] or 412-320-7901.

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