Food Systems and how to create a history / by David Bernabo


(image: Still from Food Systems; Avenue B at Churchview Farm Dinner Series)

I’m sitting at my kitchen table listening to a new record by some of my friends. It will be out there in the world in a few months, and it is a wonderful record. It’s the kind of record that you can sink into. Admittedly, it is very easy to listen to and very easy to like. It makes me remember what good crafting can do for a project - the kind of crafting that allows projects to be viewed as seamless, whole. It is a refreshing feeling after spending the last seven months working on two new films, changing things, switching directions, meeting an endless parade of new people doing very interesting things. (Yes, this post is actually about me.)

Food Systems is the name of both films. The idea for the film arose from a conversation with Kevin Sousa during the filming of Ongoing Box: A Film About Process. A film that charts the history or histories of restaurants in Pittsburgh. It seemed like a great idea to go back to the 10s, the 30s, the 60s, the 80s, the 90s, and so on. I had a grand idea for a title sequence of early 20th century newspaper restaurant reviews - scrolling microfilm, close-ups, mid shots, intense detail of the deteriorated type. Then, as it turns out, restaurant reviews were not much of thing back then. In fact, restaurants were not much of a thing either. Many restaurants were attached to hotels and many of the food reviews dealt with weddings, galas, celebrations. I did find that Chinese restaurants have been around since the 20s/30s. Sushi was introduced in downtown Pittsburgh in 1982. Thai in '84. Or so the clippings from the Pittsburgh Press and Post-Gazette say. Also, with a 55 to 70 hour work week, it proved unfeasible to track down the older crew of restaurateurs who had long sold or retired their restaurants. I know where some of them hang-out, but . . . Also, use of Post-Gazette articles is much more expensive than my self-funded budget could afford (probably more on the funding aspect in the coming six months).

So, the scope changed. A history of Pittsburgh restaurants from the 90s to now. Good. Then a few more detours occurred. I had the good fortune to meet Ehrrin Keenan, Manager of Special Distributions at the Pittsburgh Community Food Bank, who told me that I should be looking at the food bank and other ideas of how people get food. At that point, it seemed irresponsible to only focus on high-end restaurants. There are certainly issues and areas of improvement in restaurant systems, but a scope creep seemed appropriate. This is how we arrived at two films in four chapters. This is also how I arrived at a series of iterative lists of sequences and shots that come with editing a film while shooting and researching a film. See below.

The next question is how does one build a history, especially a history that incorporates thousands of people, conflicting trends, outliers that blow apart narrative lines, and a history that misrepresents itself (thanks social media). Well, I started with a theory garnered from some initial interviews. Big Burrito had a big impact. Big Burrito brought an aura of hipness to restaurants. Brought exotic fruits. Brought new flavor pairings. Brought the concept of food meeting design meeting music meeting atmosphere. That places us in the mid-90s. From there, I can pair Dish as a contemporary, a chef-owned restaurant, a place that is still a foodie haven, a place that has delicious food and has had delicious food from the beginning. Out of Big Burrito, we have an explosion new chefs and, more importantly, chefs working creatively while remaining in the city. Around 2005, Legume opens. Shortly after, a series of chef-owned restaurants open, each with a unique style and unique ability to draw a certain clientele. That leads to the diversity of options that Pittsburgh experiences today. This is a pretty clean history.

Except that it is not a full history. What about the ethnic restaurants that have been running strong for 20+ years, i.e. Taste of India. Then, as Trevett Hooper at Legume mentioned, there was a previous wave of chef-owned restaurants that set the stage for the chefs that exist today, i.e. Tony Pais. A possible reason for their exclusion from local history is the lack of a current social media presence. And then what of the 80s and 90s boom of “personality”-based restaurateurs - owners that were not necessarily chefs, but that drew patrons just by being them. "You be you," as multiple friends often say. So, this history can get a bit messy. There needs to be a balance of acknowledgement and respect while still providing enough detail that the movie serves more of a purpose than just a Google search. That is the current challenge.

I recently read John D’Agata’s About a Mountain. The nonfiction work provides a mix of anecdotes and research about the federal government’s attempts at storing the nation’s nuclear waste inside the Yucca mountain. Even at a underestimated 10,000 de-nuclearizing period, there were mounds of issues with this plan. The subject matter, positioned around a storyline of moving his mother to Las Vegas, is fascinating on its own, but D’Agata’s writing structure is bold and fun. There is a lot of play with repeated sentence forms. He also plays with time in a way that opened up a few options for editing this film. From this book, I realized there are really no rules for editing a piece as long as it works and communicates the message.  

So, here we are. The first film is about 60% finished and incorporates two chapters (history of restaurants, farm dinners). The second film is closer to 10% finished and deals with food sourcing (farms, neighborhoods, food deserts) and solutions for growing food problems (community gardens, educating on diet, legislative changes, new models).

If you like, here is a clip from what I call "The Montage." Swiss friends, Le Rex, have graciously allowed the use of much of their music. I'll filling in the rest along with one other hopeful.