Maybe it's our assembly line roots, our harsh winters, our heartbreaking sports history or some of each, but in Buffalo we like to make common cause with our neighbors.
A group of chefs have brought this ethos to Buffalo’s culinary world in recent years, dubbed “New-School Buffalo” after they made farm-to-table not just a curiosity, but a matter-of-course. Big Fuss 5.0, a fundraiser for a local farm partner held at Artisan Kitchen & Baths on Nov. 11, harnessed their talents to help a local producer.
"We are better because of this event," said Steve Gedra of The Black Sheep, who organized it with Big Fuss founder Christa Glennie Seychew. "This event is important because it reminds us what happens every day in this city, and don't you forget it.”
Chefs need farmers and local partners, Gedra said, because “without them, we’ve got nothing."
Seychew started the event five years ago as part of her ongoing mission to strengthen ties between local farms and restaurants. Seven of the 10 restaurants participating this year did not exist at the time of Big Fuss 1.0. Using local ingredients was an exception, the stuff of daily specials. Today, all of the Big Fuss restaurants use local farms for a significant part of their sourcing.
The event benefited Rachel and Frank Dispenza, owners of Dispenza's Meat Market, one of the few outlets selling local meat. The Ransomville family business reopened recently after a fire. The Dispenzas have attended several Big Fuss events but said seeing the restaurants, foodies and supporters come out for them was "humbling and amazing."
"It's really legitimated telling our story," Rachel Dispenza said, of the support she felt from the Big Fuss turnout. "We were closed for nine months, and when our customers came back, a lot of them said, 'We can't believe you're still alive.'"
The Dispenzas were taken in by the culinary community in a very real way after that tragedy. Carmelo Raimondi of Carmelo's hired them when Rachel asked Raimondi if there was anything she could do to help their family stay afloat, during that time.
"He has a sign that says, 'Food is like life: Don't complicate it,'" Frank Dispenza explained. "And that just says it all. The fire almost helped us, because when you go through so many tough things, it's kind of cool to take a moment to breathe, look at where you are and see what you've discovered, through that journey."
With the support of their culinary family, the Dispenzas were able to reopen their grocery and processing plant recently, although they are not slaughtering animals yet. Britt’s Slaughterhouse in Middleport is taking their livestock and sending the carcasses back to the Dispenzas for processing, so they can continue doing it the way their local restaurant and walk-in customers expect: nothing but what nature intended.
“People wonder why our meat tastes better and we say it’s because that’s all it is: Just animal. We don’t do that funky stuff to it the other guys do. This is what it’s supposed to taste like,” Dispenza said.
Each Big Fuss restaurant used ingredients from a local farm in its one-off dishes, plated as attendees watched. Participants included The Black Sheep (Weiss Farms), Barrel + Brine (Thorpes Organic Family Farm), Buffalo Proper (Golden Hour Farm), Carmelo's (Tom Tower's Farm Market), CRaVing Restaurant (Niagara Mushrooms), Lloyd taco trucks (Plato Dale Farm), The Mansion on Delaware Avenue (Oles Family Farm), Marble + Rye (Painted Meadow), Ristorante Lombardo (Native Offerings Farm) and Toutant (T-Meadow Farm).
Gedra went out of his usual comfort zone – if the meat maestro has such a thing – with a chocolate truffle featuring eggplant, chocolate and Earl Grey with chile threads and sea salt on top. It was a rich, gooey, spoonful of delicious topped with the tiniest kick. Gedra's wife Ellen, also known as Black Sheep's visionary baker, did not even try to take credit.
“This was all Steve,” she said with a laugh, as she plated the truffles. “We let him play with chocolate, for this one.”
Ristorante Lombardo's Chef Michael Obarka served up a squash sformato with caramelized mushrooms, bacon, sage maple brown butter and saba. That little patty tasted like pumpkin pie's savory cousin, with smoky, umami bacon and just a hint of sweetness.
Relative newcomer Marble + Rye plated a Painted Meadow rabbit sausage with white corn polenta and pear mostarda, a simple, sweet and savory presentation that showcased the delicate flavor of that sausage.
Edward Forster of Buffalo Proper served apple, turnip and smoked gouda stacks with a smile, featuring Nickel City Cheese gouda and veggies from Golden Hour and LynOaken Farms. With a satisfying balance of crunch and cream, it tasted, well, proper.
Pete Cimino of Lloyd taco trucks said that while cooking for customers who are inches away from his station was exciting, the real reward was being able to showcase the ingredients the chefs’ farm partners provide, while trying out new presentations and recipes for the hungry crowd.
"Five years going strong, and the importance of these farms, this partnership, can't be understated," Cimino explained. "Without farms, we don't have a chance to provide food with the same level of quality ingredients. This event lets us get creative, think outside of the box and use ingredients we're not using on a daily basis, or test our recipes that may end up on our menus. For everything they do for us, this is really the very least we could do."
Seychew thanked the attendees, the farms, volunteers and of course, participating chefs, for highlighting the "fundamental link in the food chain that is Western New York.”
“I’m so proud of everyone who participates, but most of all, I’m proud of Buffalo,” she said. “This event wouldn’t be possible without community support.”
For the last five years, Seychew has worked relentlessly to promote that link through a variety of farm-to-table initiatives. If the packed house at the this fifth anniversary event was any indication, that link is holding as strong as the spirit of Buffalo itself. Or, as Frank Dispenza put it, “It’s a Buffalo thing.”
Lizz Schumer writes about food, drink and whimsy for a variety of publications. She is the content manager at Resurgence Brewing Company and the author of “Buffalo Steel.” She can be found online @eschumer, facebook.com/authorlizzschumer and lizzschumer.com.