Laissez les bons temps rouler!
Twenty years ago, Duke Gastiger happened on an unlikely source for filé powder, the spicy herb made from the American sassafras tree and essential to authentic gumbo: his mom.
After Duke, chef and co-owner of Spats Café and Speakeasy, couldn’t find a commercial filé provider in the Northeast, his mom, who had moved to the Florida Panhandle in 1982, packed up a dozen jars of filé powder and shipped them to State College.
The system worked great for years — until the day she attempted to save money on shipping and transferred the spices into bags.
“It turns out that sassafras in a bag looks exactly like something illegal and was, in fact, once searched,” says Duke with a laugh. “My mother was almost accused of being a trafficker.”
It’s all in the name of bringing authentic, high-quality food to the Central Pennsylvania restaurant inspired by Cajun/Creole techniques from Louisiana.
A special Mardi Gras menu begins Thursday, Feb. 23 and continues through Fat Tuesday on Feb. 28. Sunday, Feb. 26 is the annual ’Nawlins five-course dinner, paired with wines at Spats and beer at The Rathskeller. (Tickets are available at Spats.)
Duke and his staff were still fine-tuning the Mardi Gras menu when I contacted them in January, but bison filet and Florida black grouper were contenders. (Last year’s five-course Mardi Gras wine-tasting dinner sold out. In this case, the early bird gets the gator.)
While the exceptionally prepared food brings people back to Spats, it’s the behind-the-scenes sourcing that helps make those dishes shine.
“Our ultimate responsibility is to know the process that goes into getting a final product to our customer,” says Jeremy Gastiger, Duke’s son and the person tasked with sourcing. That includes not only understanding the product’s origin, but also how it’s harvested.
Spats sources locally when it can, and customers can peruse a binder of local farms from which the restaurant regularly buys. The sweet potatoes, baby kale, celeriac, ginger and black garlic that were also on the wish list for this year’s Mardi Gras menu will come from sources familiar to the restaurant’s customers. But rather than local sourcing, the goal at Spats is “responsible sourcing” for the healthiest, most delicious offerings.
That means local and domestic when possible, and avoiding parts of Asia and other areas “with poorly managed waters” for seafood. Crawfish comes from Louisiana. And the shrimp that goes into the customer favorite Voodoo Shrimp? It’s not the same shrimp you’ll find in your grocery’s freezer. “Shrimp farmed in China is not the same thing as shrimp harvested wild in the Gulf of Mexico,” Jeremy says.
The care that Duke, Jeremy and the rest of the staff take with sourcing comes through in one of Duke’s other strong suits: storytelling. “I’ve become a pretty big preacher in my old age,” he says. In a Culinary Week event I attended at Spats a few years ago, I’m not sure what I enjoyed more: the heavenly gumbo or the tales Duke weaved as he held court in the dining room.
It was then that I first realized that, just like the vegetables that can be traced back to the soil a few miles from Spats, the gator on the menu also has an origin story.
“One of the sad stories of Katrina is that most of the small gator farms were wiped out,” he says. “Most of the gators in captivity were loose in the neighborhoods.” Today, the gator at Spats comes from Georgia.
I also credit Duke for piquing my interest in a food I only recently learned to appreciate: grits. In celebration of Mardi Gras 2001, Spats featured the creamy, stone-ground cornmeal dish at its wine dinner and received glowing accolades. It went on the menu soon after and has been there ever since.
Today the grits come from Iowa. But Duke is currently investigating Castle Valley Mill, a Pennsylvania organic, stone-ground grits mill. Duke’s developing relationship with the mill is another lesson in responsible sourcing — for Duke, and for those who are lucky enough to be in the dining room when he steps out of the kitchen.
Castle Valley’s grits come from Bucks County, rather than huge farms in the Midwest, and are made from non-GMO yellow dent corn, which is processed slowly on antique buhrstone mills in order to preserve the vitamins and nutrients of the grain.
While the mill is on Duke’s radar, its ability to provide the necessary 12 to 14 pounds of grits Spats uses weekly remains to be seen. But Duke is hopeful about his future partnering with businesses that funnel more money to small farms. As more restaurants like Spats adopt responsible sourcing, he says, expect growth in the number of small-batch producers that can sell at a commercial level.
As for Duke’s own introduction to grits, it happened on his first visit to his parents’ Florida home. When a waitress brought him “two eggs, sausage and grits,” which Duke had made clear he wanted with potatoes, she looked at him and said, “You get grits whether you want them or not.”
You’ll find a gentler brand of customer service at Spats Café, but responsible eating means ordering those grits. •SCM