Fearless Feasts

Using photography to explore the culinary audacity that is enriching Cleveland’s diverse culture


by Hilary Bovay

One of my favorite movies growing up was My Neighbor Totoro, the story of a family living in postwar rural Japan. My mom – an incredible home cook who draws inspiration from her roots in Switzerland – watched it with me. Together we marveled at the important role that cultivation plays throughout the film. It vividly depicts the family’s appreciation for nature and love for home-grown fruits and vegetables. There’s a scene where the children’s grandmother shows them how to pick corn and other vegetables from her enormous garden. The granddaughters joyfully chomp on cucumbers and lovingly wash tomatoes in a basket. Together they harvest a cornucopia of hand-picked delectables. The reverence for food shown in that scene (and others throughout the movie) easily translates to present-day Cleveland, where the farm-to-table experience has taken on a life of its own.

Totoros performing their ritual to help the garden grow.

With photographs, I want to explore the ethos and ingenuity that is woven into the food of our diverse community.

The people of Cleveland have pride in their food. Not the boastful kind – it’s the kind of pride that causes foodies’ cheeks to glow because their smiles are so big, their passions palpable. It’s the same kind of pride that compels a person to declare to a stranger in a grocery checkout line that the peaches found at the Shaker Square Farmers’ Market are “the best peaches you’ll ever find.” (This happened to me!) Cleveland’s food culture brings people together from all walks of life. Farmers, chefs, bakers, home cooks, baristas, bartenders, brewers and foragers alike are ambassadors of our food, and in Cleveland, they pour their collective heart into what they do.

Cleveland’s food scene is infused with a collaborative spirit. Collaborations such as the one between farmer and chef: Chef Jonathon Sawyer utilizes the garlic of Thaxton’s Garlic Farm in his menus year-round. Such as the one between ethnic food stand and bartender: Carabao Filipino Cuisine recently hosted a pop-up dinner at bar The Spotted Owl. Such as the one between brewer and baker: Market Garden Brewery serves the pretzels of Zoss, The Swiss Baker. Such as the one between well-equipped establishment and home-based creator: Platform Beer Co. has an Incubator program that gives home brewers the opportunity to have further training and assists with their business plan. Best of all, Platform brews large batches of guests’ recipes and distributes them to the public. And then, of course, there exists the collaboration between all of these food purveyors and their consumers.

Visualize, if you will, the warm and welcoming scene created when people in Cleveland come together to share a meal. A sense of community is fostered. A respect for the ritual of eating food together is clear. There is also inclusiveness in the community here. It is incredibly comforting to know that at most places I go, I’ll be able to find gluten-free choices on the menu, or at least be able to consult with the staff about accommodating my dietary needs. Most chefs here are understanding of special dietary needs and want to do everything they can to give their customers a great meal. Whether a world-renowned chef and owner of multiple restaurants, or a humble chef at home who finds joy in baking cakes for friends’ celebrations, both want the people they are creating dishes for to have an enriching experience. The food purveyors of Cleveland are storytellers, and by giving them patronage, we are seeing the world through their eyes.

With photographs, I want to celebrate the pride, passion, love, collaboration and sense of community that permeates the food culture of Cleveland.

Not only do I want to document the poignant slices of life intertwined within Cleveland’s food scene, I also want to showcase the moments most consumers don’t usually see. There is so much that happens behind-the-scenes that leads up to the fully-refined, plated meal. I want to photograph the process: the experimentation and attention to detail that goes into every step – from idea germination to final presentation. For our mad-scientist-esque chefs, turning a neglected ingredient into a pièce de résistance may be an everyday event, but it’s a marvel in our eyes.

Carnivore, omnivore, paleo, gluten-free, vegetarian, vegan, pescetarian. These titles help people communicate the exact makeup of their diet. Even having no title at all for one’s diet is a food identity in itself – there’s a certain satisfaction in having a diet without limitations. But whatever one’s food identity may be, many chefs in Cleveland take care to label their creations with specificity. Not only is it more likely that you’ll come across a menu with “GF” and “V” labels than one without any labels at all, but there are also a number of menus that reveal where the ingredients were sourced. The food menus at Forage Public House and Urban Farmer Steakhouse are leading examples of this. At Forage Public House, almost every meat, cheese and vegetable is sourced in Ohio. A dish like the Rabbit Loin, which comes from Briar Wood Farms in Sullivan, Ohio, has additions of foraged wild huckleberries and living watercress from local cooperative Green City Growers, making it a meal that exemplifies so much of Ohio’s bounty. And at Urban Farmer Steakhouse, the menu makes special note of how each cow was grass- or corn-fed. As more customers want to know the origins and exact makeup of their food, chefs want to highlight their local sources by name, while remaining transparent about the origin of ingredients that aren’t local.

If you’re looking for a tried-and-true example of the American Melting Pot, you need look no further than Cleveland, and I want to visually represent the ethnic culture here.

The immigrant population in Cleveland is significant – for example, we have the largest population of Slovenians in the world outside of Slovenia, according to the Cleveland Historical Team. Tucked away in the kitchens of St. Vitus Church, a group of Slovenian women wake up at 4:30 a.m. several times a year to create krofe, otherwise known as Slovenian raised donuts. One of the few ways that people outside of St. Vitus can get their hands on delicious krofe is through  Cleveland Kurentovanje, a Slovenian festival that marks the end of winter and beginning of spring.

The origin and sharing of ethnic recipes further reflects and influences the cultural anthropology of Cleveland. Specialized techniques and combinations of ingredients have been passed down from generation to generation, and so many contemporary chefs, bakers and others are allowing these recipes to be enjoyed by customers old and new. Griffin Cider Works advertises founder Richard Read’s heritage as an Englishman and his background of making authentic cider from an early age. South Indian restaurant Taste of Kerala is known for its use of undiluted Indian spices. Local chain Angie’s Soul Cafe, with multiple offshoots including ZanZibar Soul Fusion, prides itself on founder Angie’s roots in the soul food of South Carolina. I would love to photograph Chef Angie in one of her kitchens, cooking up some classic Fried Green Tomatoes and Carolina-style Catfish. La Plaza, a Mexican supermarket, is one of Cleveland’s well-kept secrets – there you’ll find authentic, double-tortilla-wrapped tacos.

Additionally, many chefs who don’t come from ethnic backgrounds are influenced by ethnic chefs, and appreciatively study and adapt traditional recipes while adding their own tweaks and flairs: restaurants like Momocho, with Chef Eric Williams providing a contemporary take on Mexican traditions, and Adega at the 9, where Chef Eddie Tancredi applies his training and travels to a Mediterranean-inspired menu. And at Coquette Patisserie – a place where the ubiquitous “Cleveland is my Paris” bumper sticker can find new meaning – Chef Britt-Marie Culey offers traditionally-made French macarons and pastries, with flavors and accents from her garden and from local farms.

Innovative chefs and food purveyors are paving the way for sustainability by showing consumers how every part of a vegetable and animal can be used.

Chef Jonathon Sawyer does this with a variety of his menu items at Trentina, including the edible beef suet candle that accompanies the Table Bread. Chef Sawyer also strongly utilizes foraged ingredients, like the local mushrooms highlighted on his Menu Bianco Tasting Menu. Foraging represents another facet of human ingenuity in shaping food. By using flowers, herbs, plants and fungi found in local nature, we learn more about our environment while discovering new and unusual flavors for our palettes. Forager Jeremy Umansky incorporates his foraged ingredients and awe-inspiring techniques into a variety of projects, such as pop-up dinners at the Katz Club Diner and Flour Restaurant. He also teaches classes on the subject at nearby elementary schools. Seeing and hearing about some of his creations will leave you wide-eyed – words like “wild,” “cured,” “spores,” and “pickled” aren’t uncommon for the self-described gastronome. These visuals lend themselves to a wealth of photographic possibilities. I’d love to capture the adventure of exploring local environments and the search for exceptional ingredients. Additionally, I want to photograph the surprising ways that those ingredients are preserved and transformed – such as Umansky’s koji cultured pork chops – before they are finally served.

There are local farms showcasing innovation as well. Green City Growers, a company that prides itself on being “the largest food-production greenhouse in a core urban area in the United States,” uses only hydroponic growing methods. Green City Growers is also a worker-owned company, which allows employees to share in the company’s profits.

Cleveland chefs are no strangers to exploring creative ways to elevate the textures and flavors of our food. At Piccadilly Artisan Creamery, artisans use liquid nitrogen to make each individual ice cream order. Not only does the process look amazing, with smoke billowing out of the mixers, but this technique minimizes the number of ice crystals in the ice cream, making the final product exceptionally smooth and creamy. Innovation is also on display with the local companies that focus on gluten-free baked goods. At Uncommon Grains, Gluten-Free Goodness, which is based out of their home kitchen, Michelle and Dave Mctygue have perfected their bread and pastry blends to make wonderfully satisfying products with the same flavors and textures of their gluten-based counterparts. And Michelle and Dave never use preservatives or artificial ingredients in their baking.

Choosing locally-sourced vegetables, livestock and more supports community farms, allowing small, family-run businesses to thrive. By giving more of our patronage to these companies, they are encouraged to continue their practices, and thus organic farming and sustainable harvesting practices prosper. Cleveland chefs like Chef Karen Small of The Flying Fig, Chef Douglas Katz of Fire Food & Drink, and Chef Ben Bebenroth of Spice Kitchen & Bar all focus on creating dishes comprised of ingredients from local farms (and in the case of Spice, from their own farm, Spice Acres). The City Grow Green Machine food truck uses only ingredients from their own farm and other local, responsible farms. Photographically, the City Grow Green Machine would be an excellent opportunity to highlight a full day of farm-to-table, from the expanse of a farm to the narrow food truck kitchen: documenting the gathering of ingredients in the morning, meal preparation in the afternoon, and cooking and serving from the food truck in the evening.

Mackenzie Creamery, in their production of goat cheese, is dedicated to making their products without hormones or GMOs. They even converted their creamery facility and farm to be completely eco-friendly, right down to the insulation in the walls. Farms like Spice Acres, Ohio City Farm, and Front 9 Farm, as well as the stands at our plentiful markets and other CSAs in our city, are always considering the environment and the effect they have on it. And organizations like Green Corps, which is a part of the Cleveland Botanical Garden, are passing farming knowledge down on to the next generation by creating programs to give city youth active learning opportunities. Programs like this advocate thoughtful growing practices within our community, and give hope that the city’s forward-thinking food culture will only continue to prosper.

The idea that organic foods are better-tasting may be up for debate, but it cannot be argued that the environmental and health benefits are reason enough for many people to choose organic over conventionally-grown. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations goes into detail about why sustainable practices are so important for the earth. For example, the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides often pollutes groundwater, but organic farming encourages biodiversity, strengthens soil structure, and helps plants better preserve their nutrients. In addition, organic farming promotes the use of renewable energy resources, in contrast to the damaging greenhouse effects increased by fossil-fueled, non-organic farming. The UN further illustrates the importance of organic farming with the following:

“Organic agriculture considers the medium- and long-term effect of agricultural interventions on the agro-ecosystem. It aims to produce food while establishing an ecological balance to prevent soil fertility or pest problems. Organic agriculture takes a proactive approach as opposed to treating problems after they emerge. ...By opting for organic products, the consumer through his/her purchasing power promotes a less polluting agricultural system.”

Any naysayers that claim organic farming produces less yield than conventional farming are proven wrong by the long-term study carried out by Rodale Institute. As the Huffington Post writes on the Institute’s findings:

“Side-by-side match-ups of the yield on organic and conventional plots showed no difference whatsoever in overall corn, soy or wheat production per acre. Indeed, in years of drought conditions, yields in organic plots were 30% higher than those in conventional plots.”

By ushering out a reliance on pesticides and other environmentally-damaging practices, and focusing on the latest in sustainable and organic farming techniques, we can leave the earth better than we found it for future generations. I want my photographs to illustrate the mindful practices of our local farmers and restaurants that strive for sustainability in their day-to-day. Fred and Chris Thaxton, of Thaxton’s Garlic Farm, are a shining example of a farming business thinking ahead: they have been growing organically and sustainably for over fifteen years, and they’ve developed a history with their crops. They have almost exclusively been reusing garlic and garlic seeds from their own crop over those many years, which gives them better control. In their own words: “The benefit of our history is that all the garlic you buy from us has been developed and enriched in our ground for many years.” It’s practices like these that advocate for both the farm and the table, and would lend themselves to inspiring photographs.

Soon after moving here to Cleveland from my native Newport, Rhode Island, I learned that I have Celiac disease. Intense stomach pain had plagued me for the better part of a year, and upon discovering that gluten was to blame, I was disheartened. Wheat-based products were a big part of my diet – from pasta (my beloved) to croissants, from paninis to cereal...the list goes on. As family and friends learned about Celiac disease, questions such as, “You mean you can’t have bread?” became the norm. I didn’t eat well for a couple of months afterward, and ended up underweight. At the recommendation of my gastroenterologist, I booked a few sessions with a nutritionist. She was helpful, and encouraged me to find protein in plants and legumes, but I continued to rely on bread and pasta substitutes for the bulk of my food intake. Ultimately, like most life lessons that actually stick, I had to make my own mistakes – and do my own research – to learn something about myself. Through the bountiful, powerful farm-to-table movement here in Cleveland, I soon found my way.

Michelle and Dave Mctygue of Uncommon Grains; Chef Britt-Marie Culey of Coquette Patisserie; Chef Eric Williams of Momocho; The Shaker Square Farmers’ Market. These are a few of the people and places that have made me feel at home here, especially with my dietary restrictions. Their victories are victories for the city, and are just some of the ones that I want this exhibit to celebrate. The diversity throughout the food community here is what makes Cleveland so special, and the ingenuity that food purveyors bring to their unique products is what makes it unforgettable.

While compiling and organizing potential subjects for this project, I was inspired by how much crossover there is between its contributors. I am eager to photograph Cleveland’s food culture and its surrounding community, utilizing my fly-on-the-wall approach to document it. Through my years of experience photographing a wide variety of subjects, I’ve found that allowing moments, scenes and expressions to unfold naturally is my favorite method – it’s life being lived. In addition, I strive to emphasize color and utilize available light in my photography. I believe that staying true to the photographic techniques I have honed, and bringing my unending curiosity and excitement about the diverse range of food identities in the greater Cleveland area, makes me the best candidate to create this unique exhibition for the Cleveland Museum of Natural History.


Project Outline


Where does our food come from?

Showcasing where our food originates starts with our vegetable and livestock farmers, as well as our foragers.


The origin of our food is important to…

Local farms and CSAs

  • Care that goes into planting, growing and harvesting

  • Day-to-day responsibilities of raising livestock

  • Beekeepers harvesting honey

  • Special technology and practices that farmers utilize to ensure organic and sustainable growing

  • Gathering of weekly CSA deliveries and patrons picking up their shares at drop-off points

  • Variety of fruits, vegetables, herbs and more grown at different farms

  • Farms growing any unusual or specialty crops

  • Programs run by local farms, teaching community youth about sustainable farming practices

Specific examples

  • Green City Growers, Green Corps (part of Cleveland Botanical Garden), Ohio City Farm (one of the largest urban farms in the country), Spice Acres (owned by The Spice Companies), Front 9 Farm (CSA), Rittman Orchards, Red Basket Farm, MorningSide Farm, Sippel Family Farm

  • Farms that focus on one product

  • Thaxton’s Organic Garlic farm, BJ Gourmet Garlic Farm, E’s Bees, Ohio Honey Company

 

Farmers’ Markets

  • Setting up market stands before the market opens

  • Farmers’ and food purveyors’ interactions with their customers

  • Preparation of on-site samples and meals, when available, and patrons’ enjoyment of the samples and meals

  • Devoted, early-bird market shoppers

Specific examples

  • North Union Farmers Market locations: Shaker Square Market, Chagrin Falls Market, Public Square Market, Playhouse Square Market, University Hospitals Market

  • West Side Market stands: Rooted in Cleveland, Classic Seafood

 

Foragers

  • Foragers exploring local environments and discovering ingredients along their path

  • Foragers sharing knowledge of found ingredients with others, especially younger generations

  • Interesting ingredients found in nature, particularly those that are native to and/or only found in our region

  • How these ingredients are prepared, and their innovative incorporation into final dishes and meals

Specific examples

  • Jeremy Umansky, Jonathon Sawyer

 

Beverage creators

  • Growing vineyard grapes for wine, winemaking process

  • Patrons creating custom batches of wine blends

  • Beer-brewing process at craft breweries – e.g. Chris McConnell brewing at Platform Beer Co.

  • Harvesting apples for cider, fermentation and blending process

  • Growing, drying, curing and blending tea leaves

  • Roasting and blending coffee beans

  • Process of fermenting tea to create kombucha

  • Process of creating and bottling small-batch sodas

  • Juiceries choosing fruits and vegetables for juicing, juicing process, compiling cleansing batches for buyers

Specific examples

  • Tea & coffee: Cleveland Tea Revival, t by Sarah/Sage & Spice Wellness Botanicals, Rising Star Coffee Roasters, Phoenix Coffee, Vintage Tea & Coffee

  • Health drinks: Bearded Buch, Beet Jar Juice Bar, Daily Press

  • Wine: Kosicek Vineyards, Vineyards & Biocellar of Chateau Hough, St. Joseph Vineyard, M Cellars, CLE Urban Winery (opening July 15 in Cleveland Heights)

  • Beer & cider:  Platform Beer Co., Griffin Cider Works, Great Lakes Brewing Co., Fat Head’s Brewery, Butcher and the Brewer, Market Garden, Nano Brew

How is our food prepared?

From their home kitchens to their five-star restaurants and everything in-between, so many Cleveland chefs fashion their food with incredible care.


The preparation of our food is important to…

Home chefs

  • Chefs making food throughout the week to prepare stock for the Farmers’ Markets

  • How chefs utilize space at when working at home, whether they have a designated space in the house, or whether they must work around the day-to-day use of the kitchen

Specific examples

  • Uncommon Grains, MinusG Gluten Free

 

Chefs using local common spaces to create their products

  • Chefs collaborating with each other in a common space

  • How different chefs/companies share a larger space, carve out their own identities

  • Chefs utilizing the space and tools that they would not have access to in a home kitchen

Specific examples

  • Cleveland Culinary Launch & Kitchen members: Brewnuts, Cleveland Kraut, Pope’s Kitchen, Randy’s Pickles, Rust Belt Pepper Co., Philomena Bake Shop, Sidekicks Salsa, Saucisson

  • Platform Beer Co.’s Brewery Incubator

  • Restaurants and catering focusing on using local, organic ingredients

 

Chefs gathering ingredients from their own gardens

  • Sustainability practices of restaurants, extra work done day-to-day to be environmentally-friendly

  • Process of bringing ingredients from the farm in the morning to the dinner table at night

  • Chefs meeting with farmers to select specific fruits, vegetables, herbs, meats and more

Specific examples

  • Trentina, Coquette Patisserie, TownHall, Flying Fig, Crop Kitchen, Lucky’s Cafe, Fire, Spice Kitchen & Bar/Spice of Life Catering, Washington Place Bistro & Inn, AMP 150, Forage Public House, Bar Cento, Urban Farmer, Katz Club Diner pop-up dinners, Gigi’s on Fairmount, Luxe Kitchen and Lounge, Café Avalaun, Pier W

 

Ethnic restaurants

  • How traditions are passed down to bring specialty ethnic cuisine to this region, showcase the way traditions are used in cooking

  • Rare ingredients used for ethnic cuisine, especially if they are locally-sourced

  • Chefs collaborating in the kitchen with the people who passed traditions down to them, and/or chefs visually referencing the people who imparted traditions to them

  • Ethnic-influenced restaurants and food purveyors adding their own twists to traditional dishes

  • From-scratch creation of key traditional dishes

  • Rabbi inspecting food for Kosher

Specific examples

  • Krofe-making at St. Vitus, Taste of Kerala, Angie’s Soul Cafe/Zanzibar Soul Fusion, Manpreet Kaur Brar (Mod Meals & Sunny’s Kitchen), Helen Shkolnikov (Mod Meals), Algebra Tea House, Superior Pho, Southern Cafe, Black Box Fix, MoMo’s Kebab, tacos inside/outside at La Plaza, Mia Bella, Guarino’s, Presti’s, Mama Santa’s, Sokolowski’s, Sterle’s Country House

  • Ethnic-influenced: L’albatros, Flour Restaurant, Nora, Dante, Adega at The 9, Citizen Pie, Momocho

  • Stands at West Side Market: Ohio City Pasta, Frank’s Bratwurst, Pierogi Palace, Judy’s Oasis

  • Stand at Night Market: Carabao

  • Kosher: Unger’s Kosher Bakery & Food, Boris’ Kosher Meats

 

Bakeries

  • From-scratch process of bread, pastry, and specialty dessert-making; particularly complex or unusual baking techniques

  • Decoration giving flair to breads/pastries/desserts

  • Incorporating local ingredients into desserts

Specific examples

  • Coquette Patisserie, On The Rise, Cleveland Bagel Co., Philomena Bake Shop, Zoss: The Swiss Baker

 

Dairy farms

  • Cheesemaking process

  • Blending other locally-sourced ingredients into cheeses to give them distinct flavors

  • Farmers milking their cows, goats, sheep

  • Pasteurization process

  • Family working together on a farm

Specific examples

  • Mackenzie Creamery, Lake Erie Creamery, Yellow House Cheese, Kokoborrego

 

Meat curing, fermentation and more

  • Sausage creation, adding local ingredients to create specialty sausages

  • Dehydration and curing process

  • Specialty cooking techniques for different meats

Specific examples

  • Saucisson, Larder: A Curated Delicatessen & Bakery (fermenting foraged ingredients), Bar Cento, Mabel’s BBQ (Chef Michael Symon’s new restaurant)

How is our food enjoyed?

Community gatherings in Cleveland revolve around food – we always bond over a shared meal.


The enjoyment of our food is important to…

Food trucks

  • Creating great meals in tiny, cramped spaces, and how chefs make use of the small spaces

  • Bringing farm-fresh products to daily food truck menus

Specific examples

  • The Green Machine Food Truck/City Grow Green Machine, The Orange Trük, Chill Pop Shop, Wok n Roll, food truck gatherings at Legacy Village

 

Festivals

  • Large number of people that festivals attract

  • Moments of pause and food enjoyment amidst a busy festival

  • Food vendors interacting with their customers

Specific examples

  • Night Market, Garlic Festival

 

Music venues

  • People gathering with food to see local music acts

  • Band nightlife post-show – e.g. The Commonwealth eating and hanging out at Citizen Pie after playing at the Beachland Ballroom (enjoying quality food in the Waterloo area, where the band was formed)

Specific examples

  • Happy Dog West/East, Nighttown, Beachland Ballroom & Tavern

 

Family/friend gatherings at home

  • Social aspects of sharing a meal with those you love

  • Passing plates of homemade food around a table, showcasing local products in the dishes and on the table

  • Collaborating in the kitchen while making a meal

Specific examples

  • Local friends’ homes, family gathering at home

 

Family/friend gatherings out and about

  • People sharing food and drink, passing things around – e.g. two friends sharing a pot of tea and plates of toast with spreads at Cleveland Tea Revival

  • Bartenders, waiters and other food purveyors interacting with customers, sharing knowledge

  • Restaurants/bars preparing the food/drink right in front of their customers, customers enjoying it almost as a “show”

  • Food tours teaching groups about new foods they may never have tried, or foods that are foreign to them

  • Friends picnicking in a park during a community event, sharing dishes made with local ingredients

Specific examples

  • Punch Bowl Social, Jukebox, Gigi’s, Momocho, Cleveland Tea Revival, Trentina, Prosperity Social Club, Mason’s Creamery, Coquette Patisserie, Spotted Owl, Yuzu, Graffiti: A Social Kitchen, Asiatown Food Tours, Porco Lounge & Tiki Room, Wade Oval Wednesdays, outdoor concerts & movies in Coventry Village

 

Helping and sharing with those in need

  • Volunteers sitting down and sharing a meal with those in need

  • Delivering meals to those in need and visiting with them

  • Students forming friendships with the homeless

  • Local restaurants hosting evenings specifically to feed those in need

Specific examples

  • The Saint Benedict Joseph Labre Ministry to the Homeless in partnership with St. Ignatius High School, Mindful Mondays with Greater Cleveland Food Bank

 

Healthy locally-based delivery services

  • Process of preparing and packaging healthy meals for delivery

  • Coordinating delivery routes and delivering meals to customers

Specific examples

  • Mod Meals, LunchOwl


Extended Portfolio