“If we couldn’t find cheap land to farm on, we wouldn’t be able to do this.”
Alicia talks to chef Becca Hegarty, one of Zagat’s inaugural 30 Under 30 list of “culinary superstars” and co-founder of the Bitter Ends Garden & Luncheonette, an organic farm, bakery, and restaurant in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. They discuss the branding of the farm-to-table concept versus its realities, the economics of buying or renting land to grow food, and the emotional cost of caring for livestock destined to become meat.
Written and presented by Alicia Kennedy
Produced by Sareen Patel
ALICIA KENNEDY: This is Meatless, a podcast about eating from How We Get To Next. I’m Alicia Kennedy, a food and drink writer. I’ll be having conversations with chefs, writers, and more about how their personal and political beliefs determine whether or not they eat meat. This show asks the question, “How do identity, culture, economics, and history affect a diet?”
In this episode, I talk to Becca Hegarty of Pittsburgh’s Bitter Ends Luncheonette & Garden. It’s the night after she cooked at the James Beard House’s “vegan stars” dinner. We discuss how she ended up with a restaurant and farm, mixing bread dough in a hotel room, and why, as a vegetarian, she serves meat at Bitter Ends.
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ALICIA KENNEDY: Thank you so much for being here Becca.
BECCA HEGARTY: Yeah, thank you for having me.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Can you tell me about where you grew up and what you ate?
BECCA HEGARTY: I was born outside of Philadelphia. I think I mostly grew up, kind of, in Lancaster County, though I moved there in fourth grade, and my grandfather always had a garden, it was mostly, like, cucumbers, tomatoes, and green beans, and I think that for the longest time was, like, the only thing that grew in gardens to me, everything else, you know, my mom was a single mom, so I grew up eating like, taco box from Walmart, you know, like, meatloaf once a week, and I really, still to this day, like, blame meatloaf for being the reason why I don’t eat meat, really, because I feel like, we just had it so many times. But yeah, I didn’t grow up eating well, I would say. I mean, I grew up eating well in the sense that she tried really hard and got food on the table for her kids, but it wasn’t how I eat now and think people should be eating, yeah.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Right, so how did you end up working in food?
BECCA HEGARTY: I, my grandmother was always a baker, she, you know, every time there was a family gathering she would make a cake, you got to pick a cake on your birthday. Food was very important to my family, you know, Sundays everyone got together, and we would have dinner and something, you know, my mum was very big on, “It’s dinner time, everybody sits down, that’s what we’re doing, this is what a family does.”
But I think, in high school, it’s not presented to you as an option for a career, and so I got this job at this little restaurant, it was a row house turned into a breakfast spot. It was called Wish You Were Here, and the owner of that place was so inspiring to me. She was this tiny little woman who, she baked, you know, all the bread there, and it was a mostly vegan spot, just a lot of heart behind it. She was a badass, if something went wrong, she would stop everyone in the middle of the service and bring us all to the kitchen and yell at everyone, which was awesome because she was a tiny woman, it’s like, you got to love that, that’s scary. But she had gone to pastry school at L’Academie de Cuisine and she kind of opened my eyes to doing that, so I went there and then I got my externship at Woodbury Kitchen in Baltimore, which, kind of, just, I feel like the rest is like a very clear path.
I started doing pastry there but it was so inspiring, just the way they sourced everything and really cared for every step of the process and there was so much thought behind it, and I spent two years there, and I think that just kind of led the way, like I was never, never going to be able to work in a restaurant that didn’t have high standards like that. So, from there I moved to Pittsburgh and I worked at Dinette for a while, until I was the sous chef there, and then I ended up working for Rick Easton at Bread and Salt and I think that, I’m going to say was a nail in the coffin but it was like, I think it’s more positive than that because, like, after I worked for him, I was like I will never compromise again because that is why, I mean, he’s very talented, but that is why his food is so amazing, because he will not compromise on anything. So, from there, I just, sorry, I was going to do it. I tried working a corporate job after that, I opened the restaurant for the Carnegie Art Museum, but it was, like, not for me, a lot of rules, and so I stopped that, and I was like, I’m not ever, I don’t do restaurants anymore. We started the farm and then we, kind of, accidentally opened a restaurant.
ALICIA KENNEDY: When you say high standards and, like, Bread and Salt not compromising on stuff, how do you define that in your approach?
BECCA HEGARTY: I think that, for me, cooking is more about presenting beautiful products rather than, you know, being, like, vegan or not vegan or meat, it’s just like, there are humans that are working really hard with high standards to do beautiful things and, I think, Rick really never did that, like, he’d rather not have anything to sell than sell something that his whole heart wasn’t behind, and so we just really connected immediately on that. Because no one likes to do stuff they don’t want to do or believe in, and I think we were kind of all forced to think that we have to do that to make it, and I guess you kind of do sometimes, but I don’t want to.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Right, right, right, and how does that translate, like business-wise?
BECCA HEGARTY: Bad. Not great, but I mean, I think that, if you have that point of view, you’re not doing it for money. It’s not about money, obviously, like, I have to pay my bills, but I don’t do this to be like, “I’m, someday, I’m going to, like, have a boat and, you know, be very wealthy,” because I think it’s more important to, like, showcase all these other things that people are doing and share them with people and all enjoy it.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Right. And so what is the, you sort of gave the background to how Bitter Ends began, but what made you start a farm?
BECCA HEGARTY: I was tired of compromising, I think, and at the time, Jason Oddo and I, he had been working for another farm and I would, you know, any day off I could, I would go up there and even, just like, look at stuff and walk around. Any farmer that Rick was using, I was like, “I’m going to go and investigate, like, what they’re doing,” and, you know, you would see all these people who are so connected to their food and then, in a lot of restaurants, you would have to come back and be like, but this is like, not translating at all.
It just gets lost or, like, sometimes it is, and it’s not explained, like when it is or isn’t. If you buy from, you know, Who Cooks For You Farm, like sometimes, and you get to say that you always do, and it just felt wrong. I don’t like lying and I think, I think a lot of things are lying and maybe the lines are blurred but to me it’s always lying. So, I was like, I don’t believe in restaurants, like, I just, we’re going to farm, like, let’s get more connected to it and we were going to cook at, you know, a farmer’s market, just with our produce and we started doing that and it was fun. It was, I mean, we were like doing it out of our apartment and that was insane. The fire department came, like every Saturday morning, and we’d just be, we’re like, “This is totally normal, we’re just running out, like, if you just shut the alarms off, we gotta go.” But a space opened up, that is just this tiny, single building that we had all, separately, been in love with but, we heard it was for rent and, honestly, we didn’t really think a lot about it. We just like, next thing we knew, we were just signing these papers and we were like, “OK, I guess we better find some money to do this.” So it really was an accident, I think.
My mom was also very sick at the time, and I wanted her to, she didn’t really approve of me leaving this, like, job at the museum that paid me well and, like, made my life make sense. So, I think I really wanted her to see the passion and heart behind it was going to make something more important, so we just dove right in. And we, we didn’t have any money. I think we opened the restaurant for just, right under $20,000 and, like, the floors are plywood, the ceiling leaks but, you know, it’s our little, our little shithole, if I can say that.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Yeah, you can say that. So, it’s both like a big shop and a luncheonette and you’re at the farm, like…?
BECCA HEGARTY: So it’s, we have an oven, I have this stacked oven, it can bake nine loaves of bread at a time, and we make the bread, we make some pastries and then we do salads and sandwiches and, kind of, whatever we want, specials, you know, if we want to make a yule log, like we do whatever we want, and then we do also have a farm. I, Jason Oddo runs the farm, he’s our farmer. It’s his farm, it’s a half acre of plants, and he now, I don’t get there a lot anymore. We got a lot busier than I anticipated, which is great, but I don’t get to the farm a lot, so he harvests everyday and brings it in to the city.
ALICIA KENNEDY: And then are you selling produce as well, or is it all, kind of, going back into the….?
BECCA HEGARTY: Currently we, well, this past season, we did not sell any produce, everything we grew, we used for the restaurant, and then the peak of this season was 100 percent of what we, you know, were using there. In the winter, mostly now, we just finished up salad mix and radicchio, so everything else is from our friends at Who Cooks For You, or a couple of farms out east.
ALICIA KENNEDY: And so, I read in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, I think it was right when you opened, they were, they were talking about esoteric varietals of things, I don’t know if that was a correct characterization?
BECCA HEGARTY: I mean, we definitely, I think, I could say that we maybe just think too hard about everything, but it’s, I think it’s good? Because, you know, like cucumbers are great, they’re so amazing no matter what, I’ll eat any of them, but if you can sort through different varieties, and like, find, find one with a story and, you know, kind of like, an ancestry behind it, like that’s so beautiful, and I think that a big part of Bitter Ends is, like, every single ingredient we use, like, has something that we fell in love with it, whether it’s like, “No, we just love jimmies, like, we just love sprinkles, and so we’re going to do that because it’s from our childhood, that we remember that.” Or, it’s like, “No, Jimmy Nardello peppers are awesome because Jimmy Nardello carried them over to the United States,” and, like, everything has a story of someone, whether that’s us or someone else, that they were very passionate about.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Right, and so this is like a very, kind of, intense rendition of, like, farm-to-table, which a lot of people would call, maybe, bullshit, a lot of the time now, but what do you think of that phrase?
BECCA HEGARTY: I don’t want to, like, talk shit on this, but I think that like anything else, it’s a trend, and, like, anyone can say it, kind of like I touched on earlier, like, what isn’t farm-to-table now? Technically, everything is farm-to-table, but I just didn’t want to lose people or I’m like, if I’m going to say that we’re doing that, like, we’re going to do it and if we’re going to get labels out, I don’t want to not know the farm coming to the table and, like, that’s, that’s part of the deal for us. Like, I want, you know, it tastes better when, the carrot tastes better when you know like, “OK, Chris and Aeros grew that,” and, like, “Cedar, like, fell in the mud when they were harvesting and they had to like dig him out and wash him off, and then bring them all down here and then they, like, knock over all the mugs when they come,” and it’s awesome, like, that’s important, that makes carrots taste better to me.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Right, right, right, right, right. And, I feel like, there should be more of, like, a natural alliance to this, this ethos around food, like, with vegans and, and you know, chefs and farmers and that sort of thing, but I don’t think it exists. Do you think that there is, like, a real relationship or dialogue with vegans and this kind of farm-to-actual-table connection?
BECCA HEGARTY: I mean, I certainly think in some aspects, there is. You know, sometimes, like, you know, no matter how much of a lie, I think most of farm-to-table restaurant are, like, it is opening up a dialogue. We get to sit here and talk about this, I don’t, you know, could we have done this, 15 years ago? Probably not. But I do think it’s hard, because you can’t, like, we can’t expand, like, this concept does not work on a larger scale. It’s like, this is, this is an age-old concept of having, you know, like, a neighborhood support itself, with like all of the farmers around it, it’s coming in, but it doesn’t make 100 sandwiches a day, it’s never going to do that, but at least not in Pittsburgh.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Right, right, right. So what is, why was Pittsburgh the right place for this project?
BECCA HEGARTY: I don’t know that it was the right place for the project, it’s just kind of where we were. And I guess it was the right place because it’s so, it’s so much cheaper, like, we, if our rent wasn’t as cheap as it is, we wouldn’t be able to do this project at all. You know, if we couldn’t find cheap land to, like, farm on, we wouldn’t be able to, to do this. It’s, and also, you know, there are, there’s nothing like this happening in Pittsburgh, so it’s like, kind of, special to everyone there, or weird, I don’t know. It’s one, it’s both, the same thing, I think.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Do you feel, kind of, embraced by the community there?
BECCA HEGARTY: Yeah, mostly I do feel embraced. It’s hard because the neighborhood is very old school neighborhood, you know, our prices are too big, like, we’re just this bougie, hipster restaurant, you know, all the classic things which I think come along with, like, being a young woman owning a restaurant and, like, you know, my aesthetics are just, like, too cute and, like, that kind of stuff. But also Pittsburgh is, like, a middle-class meat-eating town, and so when you’re like, “A veggie hoagie, it’s made of radishes and pumpkins,” and they’re like, “What?” But when you feed people food that, like, is good, and you 100 percent stand behind, like with your heart, it’s hard for people to just hate that. So, it’s mostly OK.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Yeah. What do you, what is your response to that kind of reaction to, like, local sustainable food, like when people are like, “That’s bougie, that’s not for everyone”?
BECCA HEGARTY: You know, I get it, because the infrastructure for farming is not there yet, like, there are places where you can get an egg and cheese sandwich in Pittsburgh and it’ll cost you four dollars, but it costs a lot of money to get all of these ingredients into our restaurant, like, we can’t charge four dollars for that, and so it is kind of a battle because, like, food affordability is very important but, you know, you have face the facts that, like, a four dollar egg and cheese isn’t actually feeding you, like that isn’t good for you, that’s not food and fuel for your body, like it costs more money now to fuel your body, so, it’s hard. I mean people are always going to be mean to you.
ALICIA KENNEDY: That’s very true. So last night you were a part of the launch of this vegan dinner series at the James Beard House, and at the end of the night everyone was going around and kind of, like, saying their inspiration and you said, “I just really love vegetables,” which I loved a lot. But, what, what was, how did you end up there, like what were your thoughts on doing that?
BECCA HEGARTY: Oh man. I ended up there because I love vegetables. I, like, fell in love with Superiority Burger. As soon as a I found out about Superiority Burger, I was like, “This rules, Brooks is awesome,” and I’m kind of a freak, like, when I get inspired by someone, or a food person or like a bread baker, I will just, like, I will write them, I will show up and be like, “Hi,” but then I’ll just be really weird and awkward when I get there.
And so I had met Brooks a couple times through Rick Easton and, I don’t know, I posted a picture of some flatbread on Instagram one day, and he just wrote me, and he was like, “Do you want to do this dinner?” And I was like, “No, I’m too scared, I’m not fancy, like, do we have to buy chef coats, I don’t know.” But, I, you have to push yourself to do things that make you uncomfortable, so we did it and it was insane. I still, sort of, am like, “Did I just do that?” I don’t know.
ALICIA KENNEDY: What was the inspiration behind your dishes because for the, like hors d’oeuvre hour you did an everything pretzel chip with bean dip, and for the main course you did a warm chicory toast that came with a salad? Like, what did you bring with you, and how did you make all that happen?
BECCA HEGARTY: So, we brought everything with us. I chose those two dishes because I think that food, like, while I’m like, OK, farming, I love vegetables, I do think, like, that food is nostalgic, and, like, food should sometimes be fun and, like, not so pretentious, and I was like, and we had been talking, we talk about dip trio a lot, we love dips and chips, and our favorite chip is an everything pretzel chip. And so I had been talking forever, I’m like, “Someday I’m going to make this and it’s going to be great,” and then Brooks was like, “OK, well you have to do a passed hors d’oeuvre,” and so I just started dehydrating onions and garlic and made these chips and then beans, Rancho Gordo is just cool, and I was like, “Brooks, that’s like Superiority Burger, we got to do beans.”
So, we just made a bean dip, and then our farmer, Jason, is like super into radicchio, and radicchio is awesome, I mean, Bitter Ends is, like, about radicchio and also our farm is located, kind of, within the ownership of a natural burial cemetery, so it’s, like, kind of dark. But, anyway, so, he was practicing forcing all of these radicchios, which I found out is a secret I’m not allowed to talk about the process of, but he was practicing forcing these radicchios and we had all these chervil, like, buried in snow, so we just dug all that up, and we like salad, I mean we all love salad, and I like making bread, so it all just kind of like, I was like, “We’ll do a fun thing and then we’ll do like a farm thing.”
ALICIA KENNEDY: Right, right, right. And you were mixing the dough in your hotel room?
BECCA HEGARTY: Yeah, I mix the dough in the hotel room, Brooks was like, “You can just mix it at Superiority Burger,” but I was, just, like, so nervous that I was like, “I’m just going to mix in the hotel room and bring it over there,” because, you know, I let it bulk ferment for four hours and do this series of folds and I was like, “I’m just going to hang out there, and I’m going to run out of things to chat about, and then I’m going to panic, it’s so small in there.” So I just mixed it in the hotel room, which was fun. It’s like covered in flour and I’m wondering if, like, we’ll be charged.
ALICIA KENNEDY: So what, what was the process like for preparing everything else, were you, kind of, in the kitchen at the Beard House all day, or…?
BECCA HEGARTY: I woke up early and went to Superiority Burger, where I baked off the breads, and then I walked that over to the Beard House, where we picked all the herbs and cleaned the chicories. I had made the chips before we left Pittsburgh, and craisins I had made, you know, during cranberry season. It wasn’t that bad, I’m just, it was, I don’t, it was my first, like, fancy event.
ALICIA KENNEDY: No, of course, yeah, no, that place is, is, it can create stress.
BECCA HEGARTY: Yeah, and everyone is like, “Wow, you know, you don’t have to do your dishes,” and for some reason that made me, like, more nervous. They were like, “I’ll get that for you,” and I was like, “This is weird.”
ALICIA KENNEDY: I was actually curious about the cranberries in the salad because I was like, this is so much like a craisin, but they can’t have opened an Ocean Spray bag downstairs. What was, what made you want to do that, kind of, element?
BECCA HEGARTY: I think that I do everything I can to store stuff for the winter, because in Pittsburgh, like, we have nothing. I mean there’s nothing. So I was getting cranberries from the middle of the state, and I was craisining them for a lot, and I knew that this was coming, so, I saved a bunch for the event.
ALICIA KENNEDY: That’s awesome. And what, were you always into bread baking or how did that become, kind of, a focus?
BECCA HEGARTY: When I was doing my externship at Woodbury, I did some bread shifts, but I think I was learning so much at that point that it didn’t go anywhere. I knew that it was fun, but it was still just so like an extern just trying to not get fired that I couldn’t really focus on it, and then I met and started working for Rick and I just, kind of, fell in love with it because, one, it’s meditative, it’s great, but also it’s so hard, it’s so incredibly hard, and I love to make things difficult for myself. So, I was like, “OK,” I think I tried baking one loaf of bread and it was horrible and I was like, “Well, now I have to do this for the rest of life.”
ALICIA KENNEDY: And, you’re baking off loaves everyday at the restaurant, and how many sandwiches do you serve?
BECCA HEGARTY: It depends. On the weekend we can get pretty busy and I think we’ll max out. I make 30 baguettes usually, and I can do around 20 loaves a day, which is 80 sandwiches. Sometimes they’ll carry over, but we’re probably on a busy day doing max 120.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Right, right, right, and are you sourcing your flour locally?
BECCA HEGARTY: We source our flour from Central Milling right now, which is a great organic company that’s employee-owned. The problem with local flour is I’m not a great bread baker, and it rains a lot which kind of breaks down the gluten structure, so I’m not at a skill set where I can do that successfully yet.
ALICIA KENNEDY: So, for you, is cooking a political act?
BECCA HEGARTY: Yeah, I mean, of course cooking is a political act. You’re always, I mean, we’re always facing, you know, is this affordable? Like, is this helping people, one way or another? You know, farming and food accessibility are always going to be problems. I think for me personally, because that is so stressful to work through and, like, will you ever be able to 100 percent do the right thing? Like, probably not. For me, I think cooking is a little more emotional than it is political, just because I’m not going to be able to fix the world through a tomato sandwich, but we might be able to touch people’s lives emotionally through a tomato sandwich. Or, you know, they can just eat it, and physically feel better. I don’t know, that’s tough.
ALICIA KENNEDY: And where does meat come in at Bitter Ends?
BECCA HEGARTY: We do serve meat at Bitter Ends. We only serve meat from two farms, primarily from Fallen Aspen Farm, they’re, they’re a pork farm and they’re just so amazing. I mean, I personally do not eat meat, but I think that people are going to eat meat, and there are, like, passionate, caring, good projects, like Fallen Aspen, that, you know, if they’re going to eat it, we can make sure that these animals were loved and responsibly-raised, and Jake and Desiree from Fallen Aspen are so great. They have so many, I think they have two, at least, pet pigs, that like, sometimes they just can’t even do it, they just fall in love and I’ve, you know, we go to their farm as often as we can. Jake’s always just, like, laying down with the pigs. They have a hard time with it, which is important. I think, I think that you should probably cry or feel bad when you kill something. Sometimes I even like, you know, just like, pulling a turnip out of the ground, it’s beautiful and it’s amazing, but part of that beauty is in death, a little bit.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Thank you so much for coming.
BECCA HEGARTY: Oh, yeah, thank you for having me.
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