Edible Ink: Stephen Eldridge of Smallman Galley's Provision PGH
By Matthew Hacke | Edited and Produced by Andrea Bosco Stehle
Stepping into Smallman Galley in the Strip District, it is hard not to go overboard trying the variety of food options that the space offers. Opened in December 2015 by two U.S. Navy lieutenants — both hailing from Pittsburgh — the fittingly named spot located on Smallman Street takes you on a journey of culinary creativity. Essentially, the space is your ship, and your destination is any one of the four restaurant incubators that dish out uniquely individual cuisine.
The concept of Smallman Galley is simple: Four undiscovered chefs are selected from an applicant pool to work in their own individual kitchen on a profit share. They are provided with all of the necessary cooking equipment, such as stoves, ovens, and refrigerators. The costs for gas and electricity, as well as bus and dish staff, are also covered. The only personal costs that the chefs incur are for their food, labor, smallwares, liability, workers’ compensation insurance, accounting, and legal fees. This program lasts for 18 months and helps each of the four chefs not only attain a following, but gain more experience as restaurateurs. The galley — ship speak for “kitchen” — is closed every Monday so that the chefs can meet with industry professionals ranging from intellectual property lawyers to urban development groups.
The four restaurants, currently in the space until May 2017 when a new round of chefs will be selected for the rotational program, are Aubergine Bistro, Carota Café, Josephine’s Toast, and Provision PGH. Each restaurant brings with it its own distinct flavors, influences, and bites. Mixing and matching entrees, sides, desserts, and snacks from any of the eateries is highly encouraged and another perk of the space.
Aside from the dishes themselves, some of the chefs who work there are just as creative and colorful — literally. The art often goes beyond the food prepared in the kitchen, and in some cases, is displayed in the form of tattoos on the chef’s body. The owner and chef of Provision PGH, Stephen Eldridge, is a perfect example. In addition to the artistry he presents on the plate, he has acquired more than his fair share of tattoos.
Eldridge made the move to the ‘Burgh from Phoenix, Ariz. — along with his wife, Susan, and their two-year-old daughter, Sharon — a little over a year ago after he applied and was selected as one of the galley chefs. Eldridge has worked in restaurants most of his life — starting out as a server and bartender in his mother’s restaurant 25 years ago — but it wasn’t until he spent a summer working at a restaurant in Nantucket that he realized his true calling was in cooking.
“I went out there to work as a bartender and a server, but was immediately blown away by the two chefs that worked in the kitchen — they knew how to cook. The fish was just pulled out of the water that morning. All of the produce was grown on the site. It just opened my mind to different food,” says Eldridge. The rest is history.
After attending a six-month cooking program at a small school in Arizona, Eldridge worked his way up from line cook to executive chef over the years. His end goal has always been to own and run his own kitchen before his 40th birthday — and he happily reached that goal with Provision PGH and the help of the Smallman Galley a month before the big day. Not only has the experience of running Provision PGH been an incredible one for Eldridge, but the reception has also been even better for this chef whose American dishes are influenced by the melting pot of cultures of this great nation.
The next step for Eldridge after his run at the Smallman Galley ends in May 2017 is to open a 5,000-square-foot restaurant, event, and catering space a few blocks north of Smallman Galley. The restaurant, called Billet and Bloom, is appropriately named for the Steel City. “My partners and I wanted to pay homage to Pittsburgh. Billet and bloom are pieces of refined steel. One is square and one is rectangular. And so it’s a foundation of savory and sweet,” says Eldridge.
Hoping to open the restaurant early next summer, Eldridge will look to bring some of the dishes that Provision PGH is known for — including its famous burger — over to Billet and Bloom, but for the most part, it will be an entirely new menu and feel. “We want to make it extremely family friendly, so mom and dad can come and have a good beer or cocktail and something good to eat with the kids,” Eldridge says. “Being a father of two girls myself, I know how hard it is to go somewhere to eat if the kids don’t like what they’re eating.”
Whichever direction Stephen Eldridge and the other chefs at Smallman Galley look to set sail in next, the waters look calm, inviting, and prosperous for this group of talent. Provision PGH, 54 21st St., Strip District. 412.904.2444. smallmangalley.org/provision-pgh. provisionpgh.com.
Number of tattoos: 13
First Tattoo: A little evil leprechaun on my right arm. I’m Irish and I was young.
What started his tattoo craze: I always thought tattoos were cool. I think it was to piss my parents off, to be honest. I pierced my ears in high school — at school — and made them mad. Then I got tattooed and that made my mom mad. My parents by no means are — for lack of a better word — square, but I grew up an Irish Catholic kid. I like the body art. I like the way it looks.
Next tattoo: Next up are my knuckles. I’m just waiting to get out of [Smallman Galley]. I’ll probably get something else before that, but I can’t get my knuckles tattooed with how many burgers we cook on this little tiny cast iron. We’ve cooked 8,000 burgers in 10 months on it. I don’t want to say what I’m going to get tattooed on my knuckles because I don’t want anybody else to go take it. It’s something from the kitchen. It’s perfect.
Most recent tattoos: These three — [of different cuts of a fish, cow, and pig on his left arm] — a couple months apart. The tattoos came from my love of using an entire animal when I cook. I waited until I got my first executive chef job before I tattooed lower on my arms. I’d always wanted the pig. So I got this and I was just going to get a small pig, but my tattoo artist back in Phoenix was like, ‘You’ve been waiting for this. So let’s do it right.’ He did all three. He’s the only one who is going to touch my whole left arm. So when I go back to Arizona, he’s going to do a duck — so it’s a meat sleeve, essentially.
Favorite Tattoo: Probably the pig. And my hashtag. I have a hashtag on my neck on my right side. It says, #blowsomes—up. When my wife and I first met, we had this vision of something that we wanted to do — like visions coming to fruition of things that we are working on and one of the things we used to say to each other was, ‘Let’s go blow some s— up. Let’s go f— with people’s minds.’ I had just gotten my first executive chef job and I was working closely with her, learning about marketing — she was director of marketing and sales for a catering company that owned the restaurant that I was opening. That’s how we actually met and started to hang out. She was teaching me what Twitter was and how to Instagram properly and things like that.
Tattoo Regrets: Yeah. Kind of. The whole outside of my left leg. It was supposed to be kind of like the style of a pinup girl, more than it is. My tattoo artist kind of went off and started doing his own thing on my leg. I think if I get some color in it, it’ll look better, but it was my second tattoo and I haven’t done anything to it since.
Stephen Eldridge of Provision PGH in Smallman Galley sources from four to five local farms: Root and Heart Farm, Churchview Farm, be.wild.er farm, and Goodness Grows Farm, which supplies the pork for his banh mi dish. One of his most popular items is his Provision Fry, essentially a vegetarian poutine, covered with lentils, aioli, goat cheese, pickled onions, and an onion purée. He goes through 350-360 pounds of potatoes a week!
“The lyrics from the Mumford and Sons song ‘Awake My Soul’ on my right arm — ‘In these bodies we will live, in these bodies we will die. Where you invest your love, you invest your life.’ [When] my aunt passed away, I was just heartbroken. She was one of my best friends. And so I got that in honor and in tribute of her — in memory of her.”
"The one guilty pleasure I have in food is a hot pocket — don’t tell anybody. All chefs go home and eat foods you’d never think that they would eat. Philly Cheesesteak hot pockets. My other guilty pleasure is a bowl of cereal — Honey Nut Cheerios, Apple Jacks. I like a good granola. Ice cream is the other one. A friend of mine, Chad [Townsend], owns Millie’s Homemade Ice Cream. They make really great ice cream, so we always have a container or two of chocolate or peanut butter ice cream in the freezer, too.”