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Fellowship of food

From established chefs to emerging younger cooks and business owners, there is a taste for collaboration within Buffalo’s booming restaurant and bar scene.

In an industry that can evoke cutthroat competition and tightly guarded recipes, many Buffalo restaurant owners and chefs are flinging open their doors, welcoming in their supposed rivals and even sharing their secret sauces.

“I’m not surprised to see it happening here, and the community embracing it,” said Christian Wilmott, co-owner of Marble + Rye. “Of course, there’s an element of fun involved. Changing things up, working with new people is exciting and invigorating.”

Collaborations take the form of special events with guest chefs; popular bartenders taking shifts at each other’s places; and wine and spirit stores and distributors working with restaurant clients to offer tastings or meals that include food and drink pairings. The emphasis is on the creativity and mutual benefits for all.

Mike Andrzejewski (“Mike A.”), a 40+ year veteran of Buffalo’s restaurant scene, is frequently credited by the newer generation as having encouraged and inspired this community spirit. Younger chefs have several motivations to expand upon it.

Ellen and Steven Gedra, the pastry chef/head chef husband-and-wife duo who own the Black Sheep restaurant, are leading the charge.

“At Europa, we started early, doing truffle dinners with Mike A.,” said Steven Gedra, referring to their first restaurant, Bistro Europa. “Collaboration is great for me and my staff. As the chef or owner you can kind of stop learning. When other chefs are in our kitchen, we all get to learn, teach and grow.”

Edward Forster, who once worked at Andrzejewski’s defunct Mike A.’s and now mans the kitchen at The Dapper Goose, agrees that fresh ideas are important.

“Every day I want to gain new perspective from someone I respect,” said Forster. “When Victor [Parra Gonzalez, of Las Puertas] was here, I went outside of my comfort zone, which is great. He’s incredibly creative. We also had common ground. And some of his ingredients or methods might work their way into our menu.”

At Marble + Rye, said Wilmott, collaboration is also about trust. “Independent restaurants do things our own way,” he said. “When we decide to collaborate, we’re saying ‘we believe in what this partner is doing; we want to showcase and be part of it.’”

A recent collaborative success was Marble + Rye’s 12-week brunch series with both Butter Block Patisserie and Remedy House. Another two-sided benefit of working together, said Wilmott, is that guests can experience a new business or restaurant, and participating businesses get cross-exposure to potential new customers.

The collaborative impulse is strong in Paula Paradise, co-owner of Paradise Wine. She has a regular alliance with Las Puertas; they are both located in Five Points, on Buffalo’s West Side. Guests who purchase their BYO bottle at Paradise before dining at the restaurant have their corkage fee waived; the establishments also promote each other on Facebook.

Paradise partners with many other restaurants too, cohosting wine pairing dinners.

“We’ve done three dinners with Marble + Rye; I love their food and they are super into wine,” she said. “In the past, the wine shop or vendor would ‘sponsor’ wine pairing dinners, but not really be involved. Now we sit with the chefs, taste the wines together, and talk about how they’ll be paired with the food.”

“Paula knows the products very well, and with her culinary background, she’s well-versed in food pairing,” attested Forster. “She can speak to why and how the wine works with the food. We do events like the Spit Bucket Challenge; we’ve invited two wine purveyors to bring in their styles of wine, it’s exciting and intriguing for us and our guests.”

Since his wildly popular Midnight Mass guest-chef events ended, Gedra launched the “once a month-ish” Sunday Supper 716 series. He invites other chefs to present their menu in his venue, and his customers and friends fill up the cozy restaurant, at around $55 a head. Recent collaborations included Michael Dimmer from Marble + Rye (July), Forster (August), “2/2,” formerly of Kaydara (September) and Gedra’s own family, including his mother and his sister Jill Gedra, owner of Nickel City Cheese & Mercantile (October).

This is one upside of Buffalo’s reputation as occasionally being behind the curve with trends—attitudes and perceptions both have room to improve. And that’s a good thing.

“Younger chefs are trying to create a more vibrant culinary scene—they’re willing to shake it up and try new things. That makes for a very exciting environment,” said Paradise.

“It’s still easy to wow people here,” Gedra added. “They’re coming, and they see we can do some stuff.” He’s built relationships with a variety of chefs, including Brian Kiendl of The White Carrot (Mayville, NY) and nationally renowned author Hank Shaw.

Why is collaboration working so well in Buffalo now? “It’s been happening everywhere for a while, my generation is now at the forefront,” said Gedra, who is 40. “A lot of my friends agree: We want to break it up, not just do service all the time. Also, we cap the Sunday dinners at 50 people. They are basically a thinly veiled excuse to throw a party with your friends.”

The primary beneficiaries, of course, are local diners. You can easily follow establishments who are getting in the groove; social media pages and websites often list upcoming collaborative events. Other restaurants to watch include Craving, Elm Street Bakery, Merge, Oliver’s, Toutant and Vera.

Paradise holds that the benefits go beyond the micro-worlds of food and beverage. “There are not just collaborations amongst businesses within the service industry. There is also collaboration between the service industry and the community,” she said. “Jill Gedra and [chef] Kate Elliott recently created an event to celebrate Tony Bourdain’s life and raise awareness and money around suicide prevention. Jill and Althea Luehrsen of Leadership Buffalo and I, as women-owned and -run organizations, hosted a fundraiser to raise money for girls’ education. It’s important that business owners reach out to the community and become involved.”

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