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Nittany Lion Inn Chef Launches 'Grand Experiment' in Local Food

by on May 29, 2013 9:30 AM

The revamped menu at Whiskers at The Nittany Lion Inn includes the following footnote: "As you read through this menu keep in mind that you are participating in a grand experiment in local food."

Executive Chef Andrew Monk handed me a copy of this menu last week, but I learned of this “experiment” months earlier when my husband happily discovered “Chickpea and Kale Stew” on the menu.

While his taste buds typically prefer a burger or a turkey sandwich, he’s also health-conscious. With Monk in the kitchen, he knew he wouldn’t have to sacrifice the former for the latter. So he took a chance on the stew, which turned out to be delicious.

My husband and I were loyal customers of Monk’s Sustainable Kitchen food truck (Click HERE for more information.) and, like many others in this town, lamented the culinary loss when Monk traded in his truck for the head chef’s hat at the Inn.

In my mind, I linked the Inn to Penn State events only; as a student the summer between my sophomore and junior year, I assembled countless cheese plates as a member of the kitchen staff. I cynically assumed that the large institution would homogenize Monk’s predilection for local food.

I was wrong — The Nittany Lion Inn has embraced it. “From top to bottom, they’ve been very supportive,” he reported in a brief chat between the lunch and dinner shifts.

A pasta section features locally made pasta from The Fasta Ravioli Company, which the menu explains is run by a Penn State alumnus and former cook at the Inn. The “Vegan & Vegetarian” section surpasses the perfunctory Portobello burger included as the sole plant-based item on many bar menus.

There’s the “Chickpea and Kale Stew,” along with “Vegan Sliders” — an entrée that Monk happily notes is a popular item among customers who aren’t actually vegan — “Chickpea Falafel,” “Lentils and Seitan” and “Quarter Pound Beet Burger” made with shredded beets, brown rice and lentils.

Monk fine-tuned his vegan skills while running the Sustainable Kitchen. His marketing manager and many of his customers were vegan, a group that Monk says is extremely knowledgeable about their food choices. He purchases his vegetables from Tuscarora Organic Growers, a cooperative of organic fruit and vegetable farmers that includes some Centre County growers.

My omnivore husband can return to the Inn and get his meat fix, too. At “Whiskers,” vegan and meat entrées co-exist, earning equal attention. “There’s no reason you can’t have one and not the other,” Monk says.

Entrées include Cuban style local beef, local pork burritos and, for fish eaters, local trout. Burgers and sandwiches range from slow-roasted local pulled pork to free-range grilled chicken. Both beef burgers, one of which features a fried local organic egg alongside a slice of Goot Essa cheddar cheese, include a description you won’t find in most American restaurants: “8 oz. from a single steer.”

Monk buys between one and two grass-fed cows monthly from Rising Spring Meat Company, with each animal yielding between 300 and 600 pounds of beef. Rising Spring, a new USDA-inspected local meat processor in Penns Valley, also sells its meat to Elk Creek Café, the Red Horse Tavern and The Village Eating House.

Rising Spring has a retail operation on Cooper Street in Spring Mills, but those of us closer to State College can now buy their meat on Saturdays at Meyer Dairy.

The employees at Rising Spring will meet most of the animals they process before they leave the fields. That information is passed on to customers, giving them the ability to trace their burgers and other cuts back to the source.

“Your (traditional) ground beef can come from a hundred different cows,” Monk says. “Whereas with this I can take you out to whoever raised that cow.”

But will customers pay $15 for a burger that comes with a backstory? The Nittany Lion Inn is employing students from the University’s Hotel Restaurant Management program to find out. The students will investigate the menu item’s sweet spot: the price at which enough customers are willing to pay for a grass-fed burger to make the menu item sustainable.

One positive sign that suggests customers are willing to pay more: Rising Spring reports that some people have walked into their store as a direct result of eating a dish Monk prepared at the Inn.

Later this month, the Inn will begin trumpeting the locally inspired menu at Whiskers. (Some of the menu items also appear in the Dining Room, but the bar was a more manageable venue for the local food experiment.)

A new Facebook page and forthcoming chef’s blog will educate customers about the Inn’s role in the local food economy, as well as Monk’s philosophy for using these ingredients in his kitchen. One of those tenets is “nose to tail cooking,” using, for example, every part of the cow, from the ground beef that makes up the burgers to the hindquarter used in the cheese steak.

As Monk explains, investing in the people and the land that grow our food falls in line with the university’s sustainability mission. By modeling how a restaurant works with local producers, the restaurant is also providing outreach to the community.

As for the customers? I can’t speak for all of them, but I’ll happily sign up for this local food experiment.



Michele Marchetti is a freelance writer and the former managing editor of StateCollege.com. Prior to moving to State College, she spent more than 10 years writing for national magazines. Her work has appeared in a wide variety of publications, including Fortune, Fortune Small Business, Glamour, U.S. News & World Report, Runner's World, Good Housekeeping, Working Mother, Yoga Life and The Philadelphia Inquirer. Follow her on Twitter at http://twitter.com/MMStateCollege or contact her at [email protected]
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