More Than the Sum of its Ingredients
At Open Seat, participants exchange one ingredient for a whole meal — and a renewed sense of community.
If you know the story of Stone Soup, then you know that just one ingredient can make a delicious meal. But the attendees at December’s Open Seat dinner were not reluctant townspeople feeding visiting soldiers during lean wartime, but extremely enthusiastic local residents coming together to enjoy food and community.
Open Seat, which was started by local pastor Tim Parker and chef Thomas Novosel, is a simple concept: Each participant shops for and drops off one ingredient as assigned by the organizers; then a few days later everyone shows up to enjoy a meal made by Novosel using all the contributions. In December, that was a hearty vegetarian lasagna paired with Parker’s Amish-style sourdough and followed up by creme brulee.
Though that was only the second Open Seat dinner the pair has run, the concept has already garnered a lot of attention. Parker and Novosel want each dinner to grow and for the concept to evolve because, at its base, it’s all about community.
After working together on last summer’s Healthy Bodies Project and Summer Food Service Program’s free lunch initiative, Novosel says Parker inspired him to give back. “Everybody is there and working as a team and I hadn’t really thought about contributing like that, just giving back through what you do,” he says. “That really opened my eyes to believe in myself and in the idea I had.”
Novosel, who owns the local catering and private cooking business Happy Valley Chef, says Parker asked him to name one thing he’d like to do. “I said, ‘Have everybody gathered at one table, talking, eating great food, and just getting to know one another.’ He said, ‘Let’s do it.’”
Novosel and his son, Owen.
Upon arrival at the dinner, we signed in, put on name tags and found a seat at one of the four large tables at CommonPlace in downtown State College. I knew a few people in the room, but it was mostly full of new faces. We started off the evening with an activity — not exactly what I was expecting, but I liked the chance to hear each person’s name and answer to a random question on cards handed out by Parker. (“What are you working on right now?” or “What would you do more if it was acceptable in public?”)
Then it was time to eat. Novosel served up huge portions of oozing lasagna, and we grabbed slices of homemade bread on our way back to the table. As we ate, I asked my tablemates where they had purchased their ingredients. The woman next to me brought cream from Meyer Dairy — “the good stuff” — and the pair of friends across from me had delivered sheets of pasta from Fasta Ravioli & Co.
While our email announcing our ingredient assignments had encouraged us to shop locally, I wasn’t sure how far some people might have gone; after all, it was December, and winter is a hard time to source locally, even for foodies in the know.
But almost everyone I spoke to gave a local source. One woman told me a long tale of trying to find local fresh rosemary — when the usual places didn’t pan out, she asked friends and located a plant that had been moved inside for the winter. When a last-minute scheduling conflict hampered her acquisition, she bought a small plant at Trader Joe’s. “I figure it can be planted and then become local rosemary,” she said. As for me, my carrot assignment was fulfilled at the Boalsburg Farmers Market thanks to Jade Family Farm — the only ones I could find locally.
This focus on local is part of the Open Seat concept: Both Parker and Novosel hope the microcosm of the dinners can expand outwards to the larger community.
“It’s so great to have everything at the farmers markets,” said Novosel. “But when you’re not at the market, you don’t really know what’s going on or what farmers have in season. I thought Open Seat would be a cool way to showcase all that is going on all year.”
And the pair plans to continue all year as well, building each event a little bigger than the last to include more and more people.
“There are two ways I talk about to ‘love your neighbor,’” said Parker. “The first best way is to buy locally. The second best is to sit across from them at the table.”
The next Open Seat dinner is scheduled for Feb. 10 and registration will open the week of Jan. 20. Check the Facebook page for updates.
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