Local Chef’s Menu Embraces ‘Home’

By Cori Agostinelli Kalupson, October 2014

The Nittany Valley Society spends much time as a group talking, writing, musing about what defines and affects one’s sense of place.  What unique qualities does a region have to have in order for one to call it “home?”  It has been a fascinating exercise for me, a 40-year resident of State College, to hear others’ experiences as to how they woke up one day and found themselves rooted in the Nittany Valley.  We are fortunate to live in an area rich with opportunities, one that is, for those who dare to leave, also an easy place to return.

Perhaps I was spoiled by living in an agriculture-rich area for most of my life (and I would be remiss if I didn’t mention my Italian roots), but food has always been synonymous with home for me.  From giant, decadent tailgate menus to holiday dinners to cooking for my husband and children, I take food very personally.  I frequent the local Farmers Markets and justify the calories in Creamery ice cream because I could, theoretically, meet the cows who provided the milk.  It has shaped my experience and, on no small scale, my identity as a professional and as a human being.

The Nittany Valley has a colorful dining scene, to say the least. In addition to the obligatory college-town pizza joints on every block, there is now cuisine from across the country – New York deli, Cajun-Creole, Traditional American, fusion – and around the world.  Drive out of downtown State College, and you’ll find breweries, distilleries, and funky restaurants just waiting to be discovered by newcomers to the area.  Most local places – including some of my old stomping grounds – are jumping with both feet into the farm-to-table movement, embracing tradition as well as the local bounty, to great success. This wasn’t always such a fun place to eat – there were gems, but they were few and far between – but it is now, and keeps getting better every year.

One of two hotels on the Penn State campus, the Nittany Lion Inn, offers two such options through its Dining Room and Whiskers Lounge. Inspired by our upcoming Willow Gathering, I visited with the Inn’s Chef Andrew Monk to talk about the menu and, selfishly, to get into his head.   I’ve followed the buzz since he landed here eight years ago and jumped at the chance to spend a few minutes with him. With a focus on locally-sourced dishes and ingredients, Chef Monk aims to craft a dining experience that evokes a distinct sense of our place, of home.

Chef moved here with his family eight years ago to accept a Sous Chef position at the Inn.  He carried with him inspiration from the seeds of a concept, Invictus, ultimately designed to help at-risk youth in areas more urban than ours by putting them to work and teaching them a trade.  Chef chuckles when he talks about his own misspent youth and how he eventually determined that he would “become a decent citizen through the kitchen.”  The best chefs have a similar motivation: They blend passion and magic and just enough ego to build a reputation; they are rebels and rule-breakers, artists and teachers and businesspeople all wrapped up in a white chef coat.

Monk realized quickly that the size and breadth of the Nittany Lion Inn’s needs could effect enormous change on a significantly larger scale than he was able with his now-retired (and terribly missed) food truck, The Sustainable Kitchen.  Done carefully, a primarily locally-sourced menu will have a positive impact on the entire growing community and ultimately our local economy.  The challenge, of course, is not with the selection of available foods (that is, we can’t grow mangoes in Central PA, but how often do we really need mangoes?), but instead with the volume that growers can reasonably provide.  Using co-ops and with further community support, this is merely a hurdle to overcome and not an insurmountable stumbling block.

We come to know “home” in our hearts and minds, through our thoughts and feelings, but also with our senses – the feel of a cool, Autumn breeze welcoming Fall back to the Valley, the crackling sound as it rustles the drying leaves, the aromas of grilling that waft over the fields on home football Saturdays. Monk’s mission is to help his guests experience this place through their taste buds: Fried Fasta goat ravioli served with grilled tomato curry ketchup; vegan chipotle mac & cheese; Pennsylvania-produced Italian meats and cheeses; Gemelli pretzels and local mustard; burgers from Rising Spring meats, produce from a variety of growers in the region. He explained that 90% of the Whiskers menu is comprised of local foods.  The goal is to reach 100% by the end of the year, in addition to increasing the local offerings on the Dining Room and Banquet menus.

At eight years and counting, Chef been here longer than he previously lived in any other city.  To arrive in a place like the Nittany Valley and be successful, personally and professionally, is to become immersed in all that there is to offer, which he has done beautifully.  I left our meeting armed with a million ideas and a couple of points of research.  When I returned home I looked up a restaurant in Denmark that he referenced: NOMA.  On the first page was the statement, “In an effort to shape our way of cooking, we look to our landscape and delve into our ingredients and culture, hoping to rediscover our history and shape our future.”  What a lovely – and delicious – thought.

I’m excited to see what he has to show us at the Willow Gathering on December 6 and hope to coax him out of the kitchen to visit with us.