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051 – Jeff Deloff, Threepenny Café

051 – Jeff Deloff, Threepenny Café

jeff-deloff-threepenny-cafeSustainable Work. How does a newly transplanted chef ingratiate himself in what can be a challenging and certainly competitive market? How do you promote a fairly new restaurant when folks are still missing the one that was there before? Meet Chef Jeff Deloff of Threepenny Café who finds himself in this position. Threepenny has been open two years. So why don’t more people know about it? What are the special challenges Charlottesville restaurants encounter when they open and how do they stay open? Further, how do you compete with the behemoth The Downtown Mall has become? West Main has its own special charms, but the fact remains when people visit they go to The Mall first.

Never fear, Jeff loves a challenge and has the stamina, passion, and dedication to overcome these obstacles quickly becoming a resounding refrain in a region like Charlottesville with its ever-growing development and parking difficulties. Threepenny has free parking but what about the rest? One solution is to participate in community events which Threepenny does on a regular basis. The other is to have a strong mission, in this case local, fresh, organic, and sustainable food sourcing. Where other restaurants talk the talk but secretly pass items from big corporations through the back door, Jeff uses local producers and purveyors. But he’s not a hard-line party activist either. There are some items you just can’t get. When your mission is to serve the very best, simplest ingredients possible, you have to strike a balance. For your ideals and the restaurant’s bottom line. That’s the reality.

We discuss this balance at length. And dig down the rabbit hole of what exactly makes a food sustainable. Threepenny was just awarded the highest honor from Foodwaze, an app rating restaurants based on their level of responsible product sourcing. Foodwaze modeled itself after Chef Nora Pouillon’s restaurant, who I interviewed for this very podcast. How hard is that level of environmental consciousness to sustain while still making a profit? We talk about the realities particularly in the area of distribution. How do misconceptions about seasonal produce fit into it all? We discuss that as well.

Threepenny sources its seafood using Seafood Watch and the Marine Stewardship Council, a rarity in the restaurant world where the bottom line is king. Did you know seafood is seasonal? Available in limited quantities? Animals are a renewable resource. You raise cattle and pigs. But you can’t do that on a similar scale with seafood. Once they’re gone, they’re gone. Our seas are overfished and we’re doing very little about it. Why are “trash fish” like mackerel, sardines, and wahoo underutilized? Pro tip: if you see mackerel on the menu, order it. It’s a fragile fish that doesn’t last. So if they’ve got it, it must be fresh. ThreePenny has it. In season of course.

Jeff’s food history is long. He grew up in Hannibal, New York where his uncle worked at Aunt Sarah’s Pancake House. Watching him operate the flattop, often making 10 omelets at once, ignited a passion for cooking. He began at 16 as a dishwasher, arriving for his interview in a tie. The boss hired him on the spot and became a mentor. After earning a degree from the Culinary Institute of America you’d think he’d trot off to become a celebrity in New York. But Jeff’s goals are more meaningful: creating the best food using the freshest ingredients, not overworking them so they sing beautiful solos all by themselves. After tasting his lemon goat cheese gnocchi at this year’s Iron Chef competition? He does that and much more.

“Salt enhances flavors, pepper changes it.”

Jeff and owner Merope Pavlides work well together, seeing eye to eye on their vision for the restaurant. She gives him freedom in the kitchen to design menus and together they make sure the bottom line is met. Another important factor and potential obstacle to a restaurant’s success, one this pair has overcome.

What is the hierarchy in the restaurant world? What can we do about the absurd amount of food waste occurring in restaurants all over the country? Does writing a blog for the restaurant provide as much satisfaction as cooking? How do his partnerships with local producers provide much more than ingredients? And how exactly did he prepare that delicious gnocchi in only 30 minutes? What was his game plan? We cover it all.

My favorite episodes are those where I feel the earnestness and dedication coming off the guest in waves. Ones where I leave knowing more than when I sat down. This was one of those. It was also the last time I recorded at In a Flash Laser Engraving. Thank you Sara Gould for your continuous support. Need a gorgeous office space? Contact her before someone else grabs it! Then enjoy this thoughtful episode. Cheers.

SHOW NOTES – Links to resources talked about during the podcast:

  • The Unwanted Job – Chef Chris Hill talks about the importance of the dishwasher.
  • The Mind of a Chef – Chef Gabrielle Hamilton discusses food waste in restaurants.
  • Global Fishing Watch – An environmental group working tirelessly to eradicate overfishing in our oceans.
  • Nothing in the House – Blogger Emily Hilliard profiles “Desperation Pies” and provides me with a winning pie recipe. Thanks Emily!

This episode is sponsored by In a Flash Laser Engraving.

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