Full Circle

Full Circle with: Brett Sawyer of The Plum

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As Clevelanders, we are lucky to have a dedicated group of professionals here that work hard to build and promote a better food system. The Plum is one local business that is doing just that, and Chef Brett Sawyer is the driving force behind the mission. He opened The Plum with partner Jonah Oryszak in 2016, and his dedication to supporting local farms and reducing food waste is nothing short of impressive.  

Here’s the lowdown on Brett’s journey: He spent some time in college, both at Ohio State and the University of Akron, often not attending class (we’ve all been there) and working at restaurants in various front-of-the-house positions. He eventually moved to France, where, not surprisingly, he became more interested in cooking. After returning home from France, Brett was contemplating a career as a chef. He moved back to Akron and worked as a bartender at Chrissie Hynde’s former restaurant VegiTerranean, but ultimately Brett had his eyes set on the kitchen. Then low and behold, one day a line cook job opened up and he took it. From that moment on Brett’s love for cooking was solidified.  

After working as a line cook at a few spots around Akron, Brett decided to move to Chicago, and it was there that he got into working with local farms. “It was very much the beginning of places like Chicago, New York, San Francisco getting into the locavore and sustainable movements. The first place I worked in Chicago was called Three Aces, and I was one of the opening line cooks. It was the first place I ever worked that we were using local farms for most of our meat, produce, cheeses and charcuterie. Everything was completely hand made in house, I mean everything. It was a very big deal for me because I had never seen anything like that.”

After three years in Chicago, Brett came back to Cleveland with a vision to eventually open his own place. He worked at the Greenhouse Tavern and Trentina while working on his concept and began building relationships with farmers in the region. “When I was working for [Jonathan] Sawyer, he was a big proponent of local farms and sustainability. Composting was a huge thing and that was really where I learned about it. So when we opened The Plum, we knew we were definitely gonna compost. I mean, why wouldn’t we?”

When we opened The Plum, we knew we were definitely gonna compost. I mean, why wouldn’t we? - Brett Sawyer

That last statement says it all. It’s a philosophy Brett is carrying over to a new concept he’s about to launch, but we’ll get to that in a minute. Brett takes this ethos to heart because it’s simply second nature to him, and it’s precisely why he chose to work with Rust Belt Riders. “They’re great people. Not only are we stoked to be working with them, but they do a great job of keeping up with everything, they’re always on top of it.”

Often we assume that restaurants prioritize sourcing from local farms and incorporating sustainable practices like composting and reducing food waste because it’s a good thing to do. While that’s absolutely true, it’s not the only reason. “We don’t de-stem herbs, the whole herb goes right into the dish. We use the leaves and tops of vegetables as much as we can by incorporating them into purees and mixing them into our salad greens. So the whole vegetable is a very important aspect, not just from a sustainability perspective, but from a cost perspective. If we’re paying by the pound for something, and we’re throwing away a half of it because it’s excess, then we’re literally throwing money into the trash. So it’s important to us to use as much of the vegetable as we possibly can.”

It’s important to us to use as much of the vegetable as we possibly can - Brett Sawyer

As consumers and food lovers that are concerned about climate change, many of us make it a priority to support businesses that build their operation on sustainable practices. It’s our way of voting with our dollars, and it’s a crucial piece of the puzzle. But in the grand scheme of things, supporting those businesses is just one step in the process. Ultimately if we want to make an impact, we have to learn from their example and implement those practices at home by making it a part of our daily lives. We’re lucky to have chefs like Brett who show us that reducing food waste and supporting local farms is totally possible, and most importantly, that it’s not hard.

Ok, enough preaching. Remember that new concept I mentioned…..Brett and the rest of the gang are set to open up a new spot in mid-January. The new Battery Park location is called Good Company and will be more of a modern, hip sports bar with a menu reflects the concept. Think burgers, fries, wings, potato skins, and all that but with plenty of vegan and vegetarian options too.

Good Company Interior

Good Company Interior

“We're using Certified Angus Beef for steaks and our burger grind. We actually went to Wooster and spent seven hours grinding in different cuts of meat to come up with a signature grind for our restaurant, so nobody else will have this burger. All that meat will come from Boliantz in Ashland. The vegetarian option will be a mushroom terrine that we'll slice into patties and we’ll have a vegan version of our burger too. We're also making chicken patties in house, and we're gonna do our own housemade vegan chickpea patties. So food wise it will be what you know of a sports bar, but we'll have a lot more options for vegetarians and vegans.”

While Good Company’s menu won’t be quite as seasonal as The Plum’s, Brett is still emphasizing locally sourced ingredients when possible and incorporating sustainability practices and composting into the operation. “It's what we believe in, creating as less of a carbon footprint as much as we possibly can. If we're still bringing in imported foods in the winter time and we're still getting vegetables and fruit from other states, to us we should at least be composting and lessening our carbon footprint if we can't order as much locally.”

Full Circle with: Dave Kocab of the Black Pig

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Sometimes you stumble upon your passion by accident. Such was the case for David Kocab, Head Chef at The Black Pig in Ohio City, who up until he started working in kitchens didn’t really have any idea what he wanted to do. “I just kind of haphazardly found myself in kitchens, and I liked it, it was really comfortable for me. I ended up just being naturally good at it when I hadn't really found anything like that in my life before.”

Once David made the decision that he wanted to pursue a career as a chef, culinary school seemed like the logical next step. About a month later he moved to Portland to do just that. “It was great cause I finally found schooling that I liked. I felt like that annoying 5th grade kid that's like "oh, I love school, I'm here to learn today", but I felt like that! Finally! It was really nice! I lived out there for three years. It was really cool because you see how integrated food and agriculture is into society, into the communities and everything. And up until I left Cleveland, there was no emphasis on supporting local agriculture. Maybe Karen [Small] was the only person doing it before I left.”

Eventually, Cleveland was calling out to David, and he was listening. He moved back in 2013 after a brief stint in LA, and started working with Karen Small at The Flying Fig, then The Greenhouse Tavern and a string of other places until he eventually landed his first job as Head Chef at Trentina. His time there really allowed him to hone in on his farm to table passion. “It’s a small restaurant with 35 seats and a tasting menu, so I was able to focus on quality over quantity. It was great, I got to work with whoever I wanted to work with locally. And it introduced me to so many more people locally that have an appreciation for that kind of thing.”

Over the years, educating people through food has become super important to David and he’s made it the cornerstone of his mission since he started as Head Chef at The Black Pig a little over a year ago. Those of us who are involved in food systems work recognize the need to create engaging conversations with consumers to help them understand the intricacies the food system and how it affects them. That is particularly true when it comes to food waste, which could possibly be the least understood part of the food system and is also an integral part of David’s mission.

“Locally food waste is not talked about enough. I think it's talked about nationally but I think it's talked about in a way that is not receptive for people to care. Cause it's always shaming us, and people do not respond well to that. It’s great to have a partner like Rust Belt Riders because they're bringing up a topic of conversation and changing a social norm essentially. They influence it to the point where we're all thinking about food waste now, whether it's actively thinking about it or subconsciously thinking about it. It's got to start somewhere.”

While the farm to table movement has made a lot of progress over the last several years, we still have a long way to go. Creating an atmosphere that is built on responsible sourcing and solid sustainability practices is no easy feat, and it requires real dedication. “As a chef you know that you could put lobster mac or a caprese salad on the menu in February and it'll sell out. But even though this is a business, it's not all about that. I like the path that I've chosen, the people I've chosen to put myself around. We don't play that way because we don't have to. We're a small independent restaurant, we have certain ethos and beliefs and we can push those out there because we know enough people will support us. After seeing how food can affect a society and a community, as I did in Portland, I feel like there's a lot of societal correlations that can be applied here. For me, I'm always trying to make Cleveland better. And right now, a huge way to make Cleveland better is to strengthen the community.”