Christa Glennie Seychew: On the Fabric of Food

Christa Glennie Seychew 2016 by kc kratt

“After 10 years of grinding it is very hard for me to be okay with taking my foot off the gas. And that’s why, honestly, I think it was divine intervention that got me sick as f*ck. I don’t think I would have stopped until I fell down dead.”

Christa Glennie Seychew and her work have been major catalysts in Buffalo’s food revival scene for the last decade-plus. A perennial hustler, the non-stop work and dedication caught up with Christa physically a couple years ago, forcing her to ease up on the grind. Now, however, is the perfect time for a break. Buffalo’s culinary community is fully recognized as a truly wonderful element in a metropolis long overdue for regrowth, thanks in massive part to Christa’s tireless pursuit all those years.

“I was only sleeping about 3 hours a night for about 8 years. It wasn’t that I thought about it. I wasn’t like, ‘Oh, I’m going to exhaust myself and make things work.’ It was more like, I see things that need to be done and I was driven almost the way that people who eat in their sleep are driven to get up and eat things and they’re not even paying attention.

“I was madly passionate where I felt almost divinely pushed to do something and I couldn’t even rationalize and say, ‘Oh I shouldn’t do that, I don’t have time, or this I might lose money on, or this might be a bad person to work with.’ I was just, driven. To see something happen here, that I believed could happen, but that I thought all the players didn’t believe could happen,” Christa said.

The tale of her hustle is a fun one to cobble together. Made of many individual pieces that build upon each other to illustrate an expansive body of work, it officially began in 2005, when Christa had a chance encounter with Buffalo Rising founder Newell Nussbaumer. Nussbaumer told her of his burgeoning website featuring only Buffalo-centric items of interest. This piqued her interest immediately. “What do you mean, you only write about Buffalo?,” the former Seattleite asked. “Nobody did that. And I was the only person I knew who liked Buffalo.”

FYS Chef and Market Lunch 2010, photo by Nate Peracciny

Christa told Nussbaumer of a chef who had recently opened his own restaurant but was forced to travel to Canada to procure farmed ingredients for his kitchen, as Buffalo did not have enough farmers’ markets to support the restaurant industry at the time. Christa found this incredulous and suggested he check the story out. Nussbaumer instead implored her to write the story — and so fell the first piece of the puzzle that makes up Buffalo’s current restaurant scene.

Christa talking to the Nickel City Chef crowd

A few months after that, Buffalo Rising got a sizable investment from an angel investor living in Boston. With this seed money they were able to develop a staff and print publication and secured Christa as their food editor based on her compelling story about the chef. She had never written for publication prior to that.

“I just grinded at that f***ing job. I was out on the street, meeting new people, talking to people about food, in whatever capacity I could imagine, every minute of every day from there on out. I met a lot of people, I had a lot of really cool experiences, and I was introduced to all kinds of new ideas, even though I had gone to culinary school and worked in food most of my life. I started to see that Joe Blow over here was doing something really cool that would benefit from knowing Jane Doe over here and they didn’t know each other,” she said.

“Over time I started to realize that building a network of people and creating an experience that would introduce the general public to what brilliance can happen when you put the right people with the right ideas together, would be a way to really move the scene forward.”

In order to begin familiarizing the general public about what was going on in their own city’s restaurants in an age when a celebrity chef was better known than the guy in a kitchen down the street, Christa began organizing learning events such as canning classes, chocolate tastings, and conferences where people in the industry could meet each other and listen to national speakers. “We tried to start elevating the general understanding of food in the area,” she said.

By 2008 the money had run out and Buffalo Rising had to let go of their people. Christa knew she had to continue the hustle, and quick. “It was right at the beginnings of the major financial depression that hit the country, the recession that came in 2008, and I was like, ‘Who’s going to hire me? I have to be home every day at 2 o’clock to get my kids off the bus, I have no college education, my job just let me go, what am I going to do?’ I decided that I was going to take what I’m passionate about and find a way to make it work.”

Feed Your Soul 2012 farm tour

Feed Your Soul Productions was then born. “It started out as a way to connect all the farmers that I knew to all the chefs that I knew, to try to figure out how to make sourcing work so that we could have more farm-fresh food,” she said. Local farmers were throwing out crops, not knowing how or where to distribute them effectively, while local chefs were complaining that crops they ordered from big box distribution centers were rotten in peak season. Christa knew they needed a point person.

She began a farm tours enterprise, putting chefs on buses in order to get them out to the agricultural region surrounding the city and meeting the farmers. She organized farmers’ market cooking demonstrations where chefs utilized the crops of the day and talked to the public about the farms and how to prepare food seasonally and locally.

It was this farm-to-table work that sparked a new piece of the puzzle. “In there came the idea for Nickel City Chef,” Christa explained. A cooking competition that pits local chefs against each other in a live demonstration, it’s “infused with this idea of hyperlocal, farm-focused, and super intense, rigorous, culinary discipline…and gives these chefs a chance to show off stuff they can’t do in their restaurant because everyone just wants to buy the macaroni and cheese,” she said.

2015 Nickel City Chef challenger Satomi Smith of Sato

In addition to the long-term networking events Christa produced over the course of those many years, there were other projects that helped round out the knowledge base for people interested in learning about and taking part in the culinary scene of the city. After Buffalo Rising, Christa became the food editor (and later, senior editor) at Buffalo Spree magazine, where she continued to tell the story of the people who created the fabric of food in the community.

In 2010 she, along with Chef Steve Gedra of The Black Sheep, co-founded, produced, and hosted Big FUSS, a fundraiser benefitting a designated farm, held at Artisan Kitchen and Baths annually until 2015.

In conjunction with Chef Mike Andrzejewski and Seabar she also produced IN, a monthly industry night that featured culinary feats by local chefs (IN’s Eggcellent Adventure, Spamtastic 2.0, and Sake to Me being examples of the swath of themes). Fifty-some-odd free events were produced from 2012 until recently.

Nickel City Chef shot from the crowd

Christa was also co-host on the Grain of Salt podcast, a continuation of the original Buffalo Eats podcast, from 2014 until recently. The podcast is currently on hiatus but it and the Buffalo Eats podcast remain an excellent body of work that detail the evolution of the Buffalo food scene as it was happening in real time over the course of many years.

This past year she offered major administrative assistance with Nickel City Drink, a 5-day cocktail festival held in 7 locations and featuring 57 workshops, seminars, and tasting events. Jon Karel of Buffalo Proper was the producer; all proceeds went to Crisis Services.

She has also acted as an informal consultant to many restaurateurs, been a judge in dozens of food and drink competitions, been honored with ambassadorship awards, spoken to audiences and journalists about the Buffalo food movement, and more.

Oh, and she also wrote two regional cookbooks, so.

…it lets us keep our awesomeness to ourselves a little bit longer…

A food scene in a city can elevate the metropolis to an extra-ordinary status, and it’s that part of the revival puzzle that Christa evangelizes with great admiration. “It’s how Portland is Portland, it’s how Burlington is Burlington, and it’s how San Francisco is San Francisco,” she said. “But more importantly, the shared communal experience that used to happen because we all worked together or because we all believed in the same god or because we all lived in the same neighborhood, we don’t really have that anymore. Add mobile technology into that and we’re even more divided. In public now we’re divided. In group settings we’re all looking at our phone, right? One of the few places where people still have communal, shared experiences is around a table.

“And so I think that’s really fundamental to the sense of community. How people experience and enjoy their community with community, is in a restaurant. A restaurant that’s hosted by people who live in the area, who are using food that’s grown in the area, and they’re taking care of people who are part of their region, who are all experiencing each other and this food all at the same time…it’s very different than the other kinds of communal consumption we do,” Christa continued.

“And of course, if we talk about terroir, there’s the inherent flavor of a region in its food…there’s that differentiation, but then there’s also the terroir that’s more of a generalization, which is our ethnic backgrounds. The blending here of very hardy, blue collar, Eastern European fare, with the nuance of today’s immigrant community bringing all of this really crazy cool Asian food. These are the flavors of our community, and everywhere you go, that’s a unique story.”

Nickel City Chef Edward Forster

When asked where she saw Buffalo falling in relation to its Rust Belt peers, Christa exuded confidence about the region. “It’s an unpopular theory, but I think we’re actually better than our peers. Having eaten through Cleveland and Pittsburgh, and while I have admiration for many of the people in the scene in both of those places, and there’s some really beautiful restaurants, and while I think we could use more variety here, I do think that we, by and large, have as many if not more valuable, delicious restaurant experiences to be had,” she said.

“Unfortunately we’re last to the table in the Rust Belt food revival story, but that’s okay because it lets us keep our awesomeness to ourselves a little bit longer, and I don’t have a problem with that.”

Nickel City Chef is entering its ninth season this year; tickets go on sale this Friday, January 6, at 9 a.m. “I could not be more excited about it…We have really fun match-ups; there’s not a weak link in the bunch,” she said. Joining the judges’ panel will be three James Beard Award-nominated chefs and a representative from Serious Eats, a prominent national food blog. “This year was the hardest year ever to choose challenging chefs…We’ve never had so many amazing applications. It was really sad; I almost added extra shows on because we had so many good applications. I’m really excited about this year,” she said.

Christa *plans* to remain relatively quiet in 2017 (after Nickel City Chef wraps, of course). She is gearing up to get her eldest child through her senior year of high school and into college in the fall, and helping to mitigate her 15-year-old daughter through the ever-fun teen years.

“As much as people might think that I like the limelight because I’m the first person to hop on a microphone or I’m the first person to call press and say, ‘This awesome thing is happening, you have to get down here,’ it’s never been about me, it’s been about the idea. Sharing the idea and getting people to believe and buy into the idea. If I don’t have an idea, I’m just going to shut up,” she laughed.