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Restaurant Talent Migration

Return migration—native sons and daughters coming home after cutting their teeth in a Big City—is responsible for a burgeoning world-class restaurant culture in previously forgotten or ignored locations.
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A plate from Notion in East Liberty, a neighborhood in Pittsburgh. (PHOTO: FACEBOOK)

A plate from Notion in East Liberty, a neighborhood in Pittsburgh. (PHOTO: FACEBOOK)

In the foodie universe, Pittsburgh was a culinary cul-de-sac. On the other hand, Cleveland has sported a vibrant restaurant scene for quite some time. Regardless, both cities suffered from a Rust Belt reputation. What could be worth eating in a dying backwater? A recent New York Times article to the rescue:

Until recently, the American food revolution seemed to bypass this region, leaping from Chicago to Philadelphia without making stops in places like Toledo, Cleveland, Akron, and Pittsburgh.

These cities of the Rust Belt, which edges around the Great Lakes from Buffalo to Detroit, are linked in many ways: by a shared history of industry, by a network of defunct canals and decaying railroads, and by thousands of acres of farmland.

Now, the region is linked by a group of educated, ambitious chefs who are building a new kind of network. Its scale is tiny compared with the steel and shipbuilding empires of the region’s past. But they are nonetheless convinced that an interdependent web of chefs, butchers, farmers, millers, bakers, and brewers will help bring the local landscape back into balance.

To that end, they are cooking sustainably, supporting agriculture, and raising families—all while making world-class food with a strong sense of place. One hundred and thirty miles northwest of Pittsburgh, in Cleveland, the chef Jonathon Sawyer has nudged along a transformation since he and his wife, Amelia, opened the Greenhouse Tavern in 2009. The imaginative, approachable, precisely flavored dishes he pulls off there have helped Cleveland make the transition from bratwurst and braciole to broccoli escabeche, duck zampone and Ohio-raised strip steaks with shallot mignonnette.

Mr. Sawyer lived and cooked in New York City for five years, working for the chef Charlie Palmer, before he and his wife decided to raise their children back in their hometown.

Knowledge and expertise do not travel well. Migration is the vehicle for the diffusion of innovation. Talent leaving Chicago would skip over the Rust Belt and land in a coastal metro. Over the last decade, that pattern has changed as native daughters and sons returned home after cutting their teeth in a Big City:

Hoon Kim, owner of Fukuda in Bloomfield, also cited strong relationships among restaurant folks as a reason to open his first place last fall.

Mr. Kim, 38, moved to Pittsburgh from New York seven years ago with his wife, a Pittsburgh native, to start Pittsburgh Prep, an East Liberty-based tutoring company.

This past year, with a little extra money and an entrepreneurial spirit, Mr. Kim decided to pursue a lifelong ambition to open a restaurant inspired by his Japanese upbringing. Before opening, Mr. Kim said he "did a hearty bit of research," and was pleased to find the restaurant community "warm and inviting."

Boomerang Bob Broskey, sous chef at the recently reopened Notion in East Liberty, said he knew few people in the restaurant community, but gained footing after staging in restaurants for two months. Mr. Broskey returned from Chicago because "it was the right move at the right time," he said.

Working under Dave Racicot at Notion appealed to him because he is passionate about fine dining and hopes to see more of it in the area.

For cities a few pegs down the urban hierarchy, a talent influx from a global gateway such as New York, Chicago, or D.C. is vital. Pittsburgh's burgeoning dining scene is particularly ironic. Recently, a Burgh restaurant was able to lure a world class sommelier from Washington. Usually there is some sort of connection. Few people would pick up and move to Pittsburgh or Cleveland without some extensive knowledge of the place. The negative stereotypes deter most migrants, save expats who have some first-hand experience.

Return migration has fostered enough of a restaurant culture to warrant mention in the New York Times. The stereotypes, or mesofacts, are eroding, opening the door for newcomers with no ties to Pittsburgh:

Or, imagine you are considering relocating to another city. Not recognizing the slow change in the economic fortunes of various metropolitan areas, you immediately dismiss certain cities. For example, Pittsburgh, a city in the core of the historic Rust Belt of the United States, was for a long time considered to be something of a city to avoid. But recently, its economic fortunes have changed, swapping steel mills for technology, with its job growth ranked sixth in the entire United States.

Our perception of place impacts migration, either impeding or facilitating knowledge transfer. The best way to get out of the downward spiral is brain drain. The brightest young adults network in an alpha global city. Some return home, bringing with them sorely needed expertise and often a trailing spouse. Ben Winchester has studied this kind of brain gain in rural communities. Towns fret over high school graduates leaving while ignoring the college graduates who have moved back. Perhaps the population is declining. The workforce is getting smarter. Tastes are more cosmopolitan. The world is flatter. One doesn't need to be in New York to eat New York.