Convos From the Kitchen

Things learned from casual chats with local chefs about our area’s culinary challenges and creative potential

by Laura Mustio  |  photos by Matt Fern

If you’re like most people, your face to face contact with the chef of your favorite local restaurant has been limited. Maybe even non-existent. (In fact, many of us might not know our favorite chefs’ names and wouldn’t recognize them if we bumped into them at the grocery store!) 

One of the perks of working with the Restaurant Week team (besides the occasional taste test!) is the chance to chat with our local chefs one on one. While photographer Matt Fern gives each dish superstar treatment in front of his camera, I have the opportunity to chat with restaurant owners, chefs, and staff about the behind the scenes of it all.

When it comes to dreaming up creative new menu additions, it’s not a lack of ideas that’s the hurdle, but ensuring that a chef can find enough of a certain ingredient to feed the large crowds that regularly visit. Chef Dustin Jones of downtown State College’s Federal Taphouse, one of Happy Valley’s largest restaurants, can see up to 1,000 guests on a busy football game weekend. As we chatted about his (delicious!) Restaurant Week pork chop entrée, Dustin talked about the sourcing struggle that he can face as he plans for crowds. “I wanted to do soft shell crab, but with Restaurant Week happening at the tail end of that season, I couldn’t be sure I’d be able to source enough for that dish.” Happy Valley’s distance from major food hubs means finding large quantities of specialty ingredients can be tough.

Happy Valley restaurants, though, have a knack for problem solving.

To work with Federal Taphouse’s size and to open up more opportunities to create outside of his typical menu offerings, Dustin shared upcoming plans for small-scale special dinners that would allow him to work with a broader spectrum of ingredients. He’s also been shifting his kitchen’s focus since he took over last fall. “We’re going back to making everything from scratch,” he shared – an effort that has not gone unnoticed by guests who are commenting that the restaurant’s food is better than it’s ever been. 

While chefs are contending with continued price increases, they’re serving the community and dishing up great dining experiences anyway. Where supply chain issues persist, they’re innovating and making it work. Creekside at the Gamble Mill’s Chef Michael Marx shared that he’s had to swap out fan favorite items from his menu with new dishes in an effort to keep costs accessible for guests. Starting June 25, Creekside will add Sunday brunch to their weekend offerings after hearing locals comment on the lack of places to eat in Bellefonte on Sunday mornings. There’s a drive to fill in the gaps, feed people good food, and relentlessly overcome hurdles to ensure our culinary community remains vibrant. 

And it’s a heck of a lot to juggle. It’s consistent reinvention and on-the-spot tweaking that most of us, as diners, will never see. Our local chefs and their teams continue to alchemize stress, uncertainty, and behind the scenes challenges into the food experiences that become the centerpieces of our celebrations, comfort when we need it, or a great meal when we don’t have the energy to cook it. 

And while we may individually frequent a specific restaurant only a couple times a year, the team of people at that restaurant shows up for us, as a community, every single day. 

So here are a few things I’m celebrating from behind the scenes of Restaurant Week:

Learning about Hublersburg Inn’s wildly popular Italian Wine chef’s dinner! (Making a mental note to get tickets for the next one…) 

State Burger Co. co-owner Dustin Smith enthusiastically rattling off a laundry list of divine-sounding bakery items – coming soon! 

The Field’s menu featuring an array of local beverages and ingredients. 

And every other restaurant on our list going out of their way to make something fun, creative, and delicious for all of us extremely lucky Happy Valley eaters.

If Restaurant Week reminds us of anything, I hope it’s that our food scene is not an “us” (the diners) and “them” (the restaurants) dynamic. 

It’s individual people, all a part of our community, who have an opportunity to serve each other. Some of our neighbors are cooking us wonderful, creative food. And others are supporting and cheering on and eating!