Food Systems: A Night Out | Film | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Food Systems: A Night Out

Documentary goes behind the kitchen doors of the local restaurant scene

After a successful Kickstarter and months of shooting and editing, David Bernabo is releasing Food Systems: A Night Out, the first of three installments in a series about Pittsburgh’s food and restaurant culture. A 105-minute compilation of interviews and mesmerizing, fast-paced cooking montages allow the viewer to step into the world behind the swinging doors.

By peeking into the lives of those whose sweat and innovation are making Pittsburgh a world-class dining city, the film focuses on the culture of who we are and where our culinary traditions came from. As to where we are going, Bernabo leaves that mostly up to the viewer.

Most of the interviewees are big-hitter chefs like Jamilka Borges, Sonja Finn, Toni Pais, Bill Fuller, Keith Fuller and Kevin Sousa. But Bernabo (also known locally as a musican, composer and performance artist) is careful to include food writers, historians, educators, servers and even a few politicians to give the full scope of what it takes to create “third places” (where we live our lives when we aren’t at home or work). 

The film’s major calling card is the tribute it pays to the history of Pittsburgh cuisine through the eyes and memories of those who have been in the industry since the 1970s — when, according to Tim Ryan, the President of the Culinary Institute of America, even sourcing things like fresh herbs was difficult.

Because restaurants are places of comings and goings, their life cycles often make huge impacts on the food culture but leave little physical trace after they’re gone. Each interviewee is linked to every other through the web of these life cycles. Many of them learned their craft side by side in the famous kitchens of La Normande, Big Burrito and Baum Vivant, and went on to open successful restaurants of their own.  

click to enlarge Scenes from the film Food Systems: A Night Out - FILM STILLS COURTESY OF DAVID BERNABO
Film stills courtesy of David Bernabo
Scenes from the film Food Systems: A Night Out

While history is paid its due, the film homes in on the present as well. A particularly endearing discussion of restaurant lingo reveals the more personal sides of those being interviewed. It’s hard for even the most professional staff not to crack a smile over the terse, often odd words that get thrown around in a fast-paced working environment. I’ve long wondered where “crabbo,” the industry word for a quart-sized deli container, came from, and thanks to Bill Fuller, I have my answer. 

Equally as refreshing is Bernabo’s decision not to shy away from addressing the industry’s issues with sexism. Sonja Finn and Hilary Zozula both discuss (if briefly) the problems that can face a female chef/owner and how frustrating it can be to come up in a male-dominated profession. Sexism, along with racism and fair wages, are the trinity of issues that restaurants have begun to tackle publicly over the last few years. Hopefully, a further discussion of all three will show up in the final two installments of Food Systems.

From Kevin Sousa’s molecular-gastronomy ventures and the now-closed Le Pommier’s chicken-liver mousse that has found a second life at Thin Man Sandwich Shop to Finn’s own pizza ovens, the thread of community is everywhere to be found in this film. Tribalism in the restaurant world is strong, born of an arena where hard work is king and every night is a baptism by fire. At one point during a montage, the Sharpied words “eye of the tiger,” scrawled across the top of the stainless steel line counter, flash on screen during a cooking montage. No sequence better sums up the tone of the piece. 

The film itself is a mixed bag of styles. It oscillates between beautiful, warm shots that look like they could be stills out of Food and Wine Magazine, and hyper-realistic scene-setting footage that often focuses on the gritty side of Pittsburgh’s cityscape. The music, written by Bernabo and Le Rex, is used masterfully particularly through the kitchen montages, where cooks flash pans and move as though they could hear the sound track as well. The driving drums during the opening sequence of a busy kitchen plating for service made me feel like I was right back in my apron on the line … although with significantly less swearing under my breath.

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