Parker Bosley

Tracing the Roots of Locavore Cleveland

It can be difficult to pinpoint a beginning. To figure out when a shift started to take place. We look for events, moments that served as catalysts. Only years later and with the benefit of hindsight can we say, “This is where it started.”

For me, it started in Ohio City. It was late 2005, and I had saved up to take a friend to nice dinner at a place run by an eccentric chef I had read about in the Scene. It was my friend’s birthday, and celebrating that event provided an excuse for leaving the East Side, where we were both temporary residing as graduate students, and venturing across the river for a dinner at a place that I really couldn’t afford.

I was new to Cleveland and wanted to see what this little restaurant with big philosophies was all about. It would be two years before “locavore” gained recognition in the Oxford American Dictionary, but apparently the guy running this place had been doing it for years. Looking back, it was kind of a selfish thing to do on someone else’s birthday, dragging her across town in the snow to some place I was dying to try. But once the first course hit the table it was clear we were experiencing food in a way we had never before.

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The idea of eating local wasn’t new for me. I grew up with blueberries in the backyard and surrounded by U-pick farms in the Garden State. I moved here from the Pacific Northwest, where my rent had come with membership to a CSA and two food co-ops. I’d been shopping at the North Union Farmers Market at Shaker Square since arriving in Ohio, and had been gardening for a few years.

But at Parker’s New American Bistro things were different. The food was unlike what I had eaten anywhere. It wasn’t that it was odd, or distinctly foreign, or hard to get my head around— there weren’t any gimmicks. It was just clean, delicious, confident . . . the food was rooted in more than technique; it was rooted in a sense of place. A simple salad of pristine greens dressed with finesse. A perfect slice of pork terrine that reflected the entire life of the animal. A dessert reflecting the best of our orchards. We left stuffed, but hungry for more of whatever it was we had just experienced.

It would be a couple of years before I got to meet chef Parker Bosley, the man responsible for teaching Cleveland what it’s like to eat Ohio. I was waiting to get some knives back from a sharpener at a pretty desolate farmers market in Lakewood when I was approached by someone who seemed to have something to do with running the place. Before long I was asked where I like to eat in Cleveland.

“Parker’s is probably my favorite restaurant, but it’s kind of expensive.” The response, a grinning “Oh, I’m Parker,” was a bit unnerving. After hastily apologizing for the not-even-close-to-rarified turkey reuben I was lunching on, Parker and I began to chat. The chats have continued, and much of what I’m learning from the discussions is that our area’s local food movement began well before I had that winter’s night meal on Bridge Avenue. And, if Parker has his way, the growth of that movement is not going to stop anytime soon.

The roots of what would become Parker’s influential restaurant can be traced back to well before it opened, to the too-perfectly named Farmington, a rural township in Trumbull County. There Parker grew up on a typical dairy farm of the time, small by today’s standards, with around 30 Holsteins milking at any given time. There were chickens for eggs and meat, the family hog and, of course, a vegetable garden. He speaks with nostalgia about bartering vegetables with the neighbors, and reverence about the old breeds of free-range chicken that necessitated an amount of cooking seldom required of today’s meat birds, which are bred for fast growth and profuse bosoms.

It was a traditional household with his mother and grandmother preparing the meals, and while he was drawn to the kitchen, he wasn’t about to get any time on the stove. Parker described an era where everyone had their roles, and in those times “a guy did not cook.” Parker’s grandmother enforced the rules and emphasized manners, ensuring that the food the family worked so hard to produce and prepare was treated with the respect and ceremony befitting the sacrifice it took to get it there. Things were slow, purposeful and formal, three qualities that were ingrained in Parker, and would manifest themselves in his future endeavors.

After college and while working as a teacher in France Parker rediscovered those dinner table rituals that he loved as a child alive and well in French restaurants. He recalls seeing women foraging and wondering what they were up to. Later that evening, dining out, Parker discovered what it was all about when he was served the salade de saison comprised of tender young dandelion greens of the same type the women had been collecting. The food at those restaurants exuded a terroir that was both familiar and a revelation. That expression of fierce seasonality and locality would serve as a basis for what Parker would eventually bring back to Northeast Ohio.

It wasn’t just the eating with the seasons that stuck with Parker, or the quality of ingredients, which was a given. He also spoke of the uniqueness of each region, and how each locale served food that played to its strengths. How as he traveled closer to Basque country near the Spanish border, suddenly garlic and tomato showed up, in a dish of poulet basquaise. Just a few hours down the road and food was completely different, but just as wonderful. And so Parker took away an ethos that he continues to preach to this day: Do what you’re best at, and express that perfectly.

While teaching, Parker had been working part-time in restaurants, and he eventually decided to make it his career. In order to obtain the skills he thought he would need to perform to his selfimposed standards, Parker wrote to French chef Michel Pasquet, offering to work for no pay at his restaurant in Paris, Restaurant Michel Pasquet. Once there Parker set about learning all he could about the French cooking tradition that he so admired. Parker speaks with reverence about the staff’s tireless work and the exacting standards for which French cuisine is known. They worked to be ready for 11:30am service, after the completion of which the entire staff left, only to return again at 5pm, eat together and prepare for dinner.

Parker stressed that the discipline of the kitchen in Paris and the staff’s involvement with every step of the process was fundamental in the production of such high cuisine. If your prep was sloppy, that was your sloppy prep that you would be cooking with that afternoon or evening. It would be you who brought the completed dish made with the sloppy prep to the pass, to be scrutinized by the chef. There was no one else to blame, and nowhere to hide. And so developed another tenant of the philosophy that guides Parker to this day: Be accountable. Be accountable to those who buy the food you raise. Be accountable to those who eat the food you prepare. Be accountable to those eating alongside you. For food to be enjoyed at the highest level, on the altar of the dinner table, everyone from the grower to the cook to the diner must respect what it is that they are doing and be accountable to each other.

Back in Cleveland, Parker found cohorts in the owners of the fondly remembered Sammy’s, where a like-minded couple wanted to bring Parker’s type of change to the region. He began training cooks in Sammy’s kitchen, and before long he was hiring staff. He had a platform where he could take the best of his youth and travels and combine them to produce something significant. He also had a platform to start spreading the gospel.

Parker wanted to keep cooking, but he wanted to cook with the ingredients he had grown up with. There was one problem though: Three decades after he left Farmington, such ingredients were nowhere to be found in the region. So he set out to “go find good tomatoes.” And he knew that if he found those tomatoes, serving them would only work at a low-volume specialty restaurant. Speaking with candor about that time, Parker said simply, “I wasn’t interested in cranking shit out on a Saturday night.”

The search for those tomatoes started at farm stands in the country. Parker would drive through the region, talking to the people at those stands, asking what else they had. He’d speak with Ohio State University Extension offices, where occasionally they’d set up a meeting where he would offer to buy whatever farmers were growing. Some of those offices, like the one in Geauga County, thought Parker’s ideas were interesting. Some of the growers weren’t as enthusiastic, asking why he was going backwards, to a time before modern, industrialized agriculture and all the conveniences that come along with it.

It’s unlikely that any of those growers or folks at the extension offices knew what was about to happen here. No one could have guessed that Parker’s restaurant would receive national attention, and that eating locally would regain its place at the center of our cuisine, ushering in a new way some restaurants would fill their walk-ins and consumers their refrigerators.

When Parker started he was working without a net. There was no infrastructure for the type of food he was purchasing. But slowly the growers got on board. Killbuck Valley Mushrooms, Tea Hills Farms, the fabled Chef ’s Garden—some of today’s best regional producers worked with Parker early on. Parker wanted the best, and these growers wanted to focus on what they did best. Today we benefit from the success of those early relationships both at restaurants and at farmers markets.

While the chef-farmer relationship may seem obvious now, even at times commoditized, it wasn’t then, certainly not in Northeast Ohio, but the participants were ready. Growers started coming to the back of the restaurant three or four times a week, and sometimes they’d have surprises. One day the lady who delivered her chickens brought in some goat cheese she had made on the farm. Parker’s was small, so it was flexible. Goat cheese made an appearance on the menu that night. This type of thing was maybe happening in restaurants out in California, but in Cleveland? It was now.

Parker’s exacting nature wasn’t limited to vegetables, poultry and cheese. That hanger steak that’s always the safe bet at just about any restaurant in town? Parker did that— declaring during our interview, “I brought the hanger steak to Cleveland.”

Parker told the story of eating a steak out west that reminded him of the beef of his youth. After inquiring about the cut, he came back to Cleveland committed to finding a source for it here. His quest for the hanger took him to the Ohio State University for a butchering seminar, where he located the cut. Then to a Cleveland purveyor, who couldn’t be bothered to extract that piece of “trim” with the precision necessary to provide something suitable for a white tablecloth establishment.

But Parker would not be denied the hanger. When the processor in town wouldn’t give him what he sought, he went to the country, where he had been having better luck obtaining the raw materials for his restaurant. He went down to see Mike Jessee at Dee-Jays Custom Butchering and Processing in Fredericktown, who happily obliged. Since then Dee-Jays has risen with the success of local foods, growing from a micro-regional butchering operation occasionally sought out by dedicated chefs willing to take a drive, to something of a local legend, making two deliveries a week to some of the best restaurants in the city. When Parker introduced the hanger steak to Cleveland, he introduced DeeJays too. And both Cleveland and Dee-Jays are the better for it.

While Parker was developing connections and relationships outside of the restaurant, he was developing talent in the kitchen as well. Some of the area’s most committed and celebrated local food chefs worked at Parker’s. That meal I had in 2005 was prepared by Andy Strizak, who is now plying his trade at Spice Kitchen + Bar with Ben Bebenroth, another Parker’s alum. Mike Mariola in Wooster, who runs South Market Bistro, The Rail and the City Square Steakhouse, paid his dues at Parker’s. Karen Small, chef/owner of the Flying Fig, has been a longtime collaborator. These are some heavy hitters in our region’s local food community, and Parker is the common thread.

Now Parker has reached an age where he’s no longer interested in running a restaurant, but closing the doors of Parker’s hasn’t slowed him down. Perhaps his most ambitious project is with Innovative Farmers of Ohio, a nonprofit dedicated to ensuring a long and successful future for our region’s agricultural producers. He’s working with farmers to help them do what they’re best at, and then helping them realize a sustainable living by maximizing the value of their goods and obtaining a fair price for what they produce. He is also the chef-in-residence at Fresh Fork Market, Trevor Clatterbuck’s local foods business he advised since it was a startup. Fresh Fork serves as a onestop shop where residential and commercial purchasers can find some of the best food from the region

Outside of his formal roles in IFOH and Fresh Fork, Parker continues to informally work with farmers and mentor young chefs. When Adam Lambert and Nate Sieg from Bar Cento offered to help some friends and me break down a forest-raised hog we got from Millgate Farm, Parker was there, watching the fruit of his hard work with what I hope was a little pride. Here was a pig, raised with the utmost respect; the grower who raised it; and two chefs processing the animal with the deference it deserved. The rural grower had built his business in large part from sales at the North Union Farmers Market that Parker helped to build.
The chefs were working with professionalism, honing their own teaching skills so that they will be able to train another crop of young chefs to prepare food with that all too-rare sense of accountability. And the group that bought the hog, turned on in large part from a meal enjoyed at Parker’s years ago, buying into this rediscovered system of food production.

It was all there—the country, the city, the farmer, restaurant professionals and food enthusiasts all working away in the shadow of the man who has dedicated himself to bringing these elements together.