How a Pittsburgh Restaurant is Expanding Our Choice of Proteins
Most restaurateurs spend a lot of time trying to keep bugs out of the kitchen. Don Mahaney, on the other hand, spends his time thinking about new ways to bring them in.
Mahaney is the owner of Scratch Food & Beverage, a community-focused restaurant that opened in Troy Hill in 2015. Scratch is the first restaurant in Pittsburgh (and one of only a handful in the country) to give insects a prime spot on their menu. While you may have bought a scorpion lollipop from a gift shop or eaten a fried cricket to gross out a friend, Scratch’s decision to bug out is motivated by more than novelty.
“Edible insects offer a sustainable protein source for an ever hungrier world,” explains Kevin Bachhuber in a recent TEDxTalk. Bachhuber, the founder and CEO of Big Cricket Farms, became interested in raising insects for consumption after a trip to Thailand, where roasted insects are popular bar snacks and street fare. Initially enamored with the taste, Bachhuber soon discovered that crickets and other insects could help relieve some of the intense environmental pressures of modern industrial agriculture. “They use a fraction of the food, water, and space used by traditional livestock, like chickens, cows and pigs,” he notes.
In addition to their smaller ecological footprint, insects are also a valuable source of nutrition. A 2002 study found that, ounce for ounce, mealworms contain nearly as much protein and metabolic energy as beef, yet boast less fat and higher vitamin content. And the incredible range of edible insects (a U.N. report puts the number of documented edible species at more than 1900) means worlds of unexplored gastronomic potential. The flavors of various insects have been compared to mushrooms, pistachios, shrimp, and even bacon.
So, bugs are nutritious, sustainable, and delicious food sources that have a time-honored place in cuisines all around the world. Still not convinced? You’re not alone. Fear and disgust are biologically programmed, culturally conditioned reactions to bugs that are difficult to overcome, regardless of inspiring talks and official reports.
Thankfully, Mahaney and his team aren’t creating dishes out of a Fear Factor challenge. “Presenting it as a novelty would just be serving a tortilla shell full of bugs,” laughs Executive Chef Matt Petruna. “By attempting to downplay that as much as we can, it just becomes another protein source.” Edible insects can be processed into flour, tofu-like textured protein, and other shelf-stable ingredients that can be seamlessly incorporated into a variety of recipes. For one new offering, Petruna whipped up pork wontons, with the crustacean-like “tofu” replacing the traditional shrimp.
For Mahaney, introducing these alternative proteins is just one piece of a larger effort to spark dialogues and question our collective food values. “It helps catalyze a conversation about what we eat and why we eat it,” says Mahaney. “Where are we sourcing these things from? What’s the ecological impact of what we eat? I think that when you make a basic shift in what a restaurant is offering, it brings a lot of those questions to the fore.” Mahaney envisions Scratch as an ever-changing community space: today it’s bugs, but tomorrow will most certainly bring something new.
Scratch Food & Beverage will hold a preview dinner for the new menu on August 31. Mahaney and Petruna are starting small, working crickets and mealworms into a handful of dishes (there will still be plenty of bugless options for less adventurous eaters). Though Mahaney continues to source new insects and Petruna continues to experiment with them in the kitchen, they are not aiming to become “that bug restaurant.” Instead, Mahaney just wants people to talk. “Really, my ultimate hope is that the conversation can become enlivened here in the greater Pittsburgh area,” he says. “I’m interested in people reframing their experience with food. What is that you’re putting in your mouth?” When one of those things is a cricket, you can bet there will be some chatter.
Before I headed out the door at Scratch, I tossed back a handful of roasted mealworms. They were delicious, much like those little sesame sticks you see in grocery store bulk bins. And, perhaps one day soon, that’s exactly where they’ll be.
Join TABLE for a special preview dinner on August 31. Check out our events page for more information.