Interview by Murie Gillett
Photos provided by Jacalyn Meyvis
In June, we started partnering with Boomtown Table to host the Whistle Stop Dinners. Each dinner takes you on a tour through a different neighborhood, giving participants an opportunity to not only enjoy multiple courses, but also learn about what they're eating and hear from the restaurants owners and chefs themselves.Leah Stacy is the co-founder of Boomtown Table (and Upstate Social Sessions, journalist, professor... the impressive list goes on!). Since she's spent so much time behind the scenes to help make The Whistle Stop Dinners happen, we thought we'd throw her into the forefront for a change and chat a little bit about her love for Rochester and its food scene.
Tell me about yourself, and how that brought you to Boomtown Table.
I grew up in the Rochester area and went to undergrad in the Rochester area. Then for grad school, I went to the Newhouse School at Syracuse University for arts journalism. When I got out of Syracuse, a roundabout set of circumstances landed me back in Rochester - there was a boy and I ended up marrying him. We decided to make Rochester our home and really put down roots here, and we noticed that a lot of other people our age were coming back to Rochester.
I was editor-in-chief of (585) magazine for almost two years, and also worked for the Democrat and Chronicle (both freelance and full-time, before and after grad school). I became really interested in the food and drink culture in Rochester because it seems to be growing at a very, very fast rate, and the Finger Lakes has so much going on that it puts us on a sort of national platform.
In late 2014, I had a conversation with my friend Chuck Cerankosky (who co-owns Good Luck and Cure) about how there was a need for more in-depth local food and drink coverage. Long story short, I left the magazine in summer 2015 to become a full-time professor at Nazareth College, with the opportunity to do freelance and creative projects on the side.
One of the projects I really wanted to focus on was Boomtown Table. We had been talking about doing it, and now I actually had the time to do it. Around the same time, Danielle Raymo, owner of Rochester Brainery, and I started Upstate Social Sessions as well. That’s a totally different story, but all of these different things were happening at the same time and it was so cool.
We launched Boomtown Table last December and we’ve been live for almost nine months. People really like it, and we have a great team. Most of us work full-time and then do this stuff on the side. We’re still figuring out where we fit in in the overall food and drink landscape, because we’re not really a food blog; we’re doing a lot of behind-the-scenes stuff. We are trying to tell really good stories to get people excited about and interested in food and drink on a local level.
What do you find unique and exciting about Rochester’s food scene?
I think a lot of it rests on our proximity to the Finger Lakes. We have something in the Finger Lakes that so many parts of the country lack, and that is a really exciting mostly-drink scene, but they’re also doing a lot with grain. There’s probably more going on with grain than people realize. I’ve heard people say that this area could be the next breadbasket, whereas that had previously been the Midwest.
In addition to the wine scene, we have distilleries and craft cideries. Those are booming! Then, of course, there are breweries, and so many people making food products. Every single day I hear about somebody doing something new - and a lot of these people are young, which is exciting. I think it’s trendy to be in food and drink right now, but also… is it really going to go out of style? Because people have to eat and drink.
You’ve been holding these Whistle Stop Dinners in different neighborhoods. How do you choose which neighborhood you’ll go to next, and how do you choose the restaurants?
We started with Neighborhood of the Arts because Rochester Brainery is located there. Since we are partnering with them, we wanted people to get a sneak peek of their new space. Also, Neighborhood of the Arts is so walkable and we had talked to a couple of restaurants that had expressed interest in being a part of these dinners. It was the natural choice for the first one.
With the South Wedge, we wanted to go to the other side of the city. Every neighborhood has to have a couple things: three or four stops that are close enough for the groups to walk to, because that’s the whole point, and then we have to find three or four stops that are able and willing to be a part of this. We always reach out to more than three or four when we start, and then go with whoever is free and on board - it pretty much falls into place from there.
The next one we’re going to be doing is in the Public Market. There’s so much construction going on, so it’s neat to get people in there and show them, 'Oh, you can still go to the market.'
Why do you think it’s exciting and important for diners to know the story behind the food they are eating?
That’s the whole point of Boomtown Table: to get behind-the-scenes and tell stories. When you connect a story to a product or experience, you’re bringing in an intimacy with your audience, your reader - and also an emotional connection. They might relate to it somehow. It might remind them of something their grandmother used to cook. Eating and drinking is already a really happy experience, but we can enhance that by letting people know the history or thought process behind the food and drink in front of them. It makes it so much more special. People have written feedback like that about these dinners, actually.
What do you hope that Boomtown will bring to the Rochester dining scene?
More stories! More familiarity. Everyone tends to stay in their own neighborhoods, even downtown. I hope that by getting these stories and photo galleries out, we can help people become more involved and invested in the food scene as a whole, whether that’s downtown, in the suburbs, or a dinner where they walk around a neighborhood.
The more people get involved, the more supported the scene will feel, and it’s also going to grow more with support. That could drive tourism, boost the economy, and create jobs. Anytime you spend money on local people, local products or local businesses you’re just helping the place you call home. If we can bring an emotional connection with the stories, it will encourage people to support local restaurants and producers.
I want to ask you which Rochester restaurant is your current favorite. Is that too difficult of a question for you right now?
I don’t really have an answer for that. I’m one of those people who likes to always either eat something new or go somewhere new. Whenever my husband and I are picking a restaurant I get a little bit bratty about it because if we had a really great meal at a place last week, he’ll say, “Oh, let’s go back there because that was so good!” and I say, “No! We already did that! We have to do something new!” I have a running list of places in my phone that we haven’t been to yet.
What should readers understand about Boomtown Table?
We aren’t a food blog or a bunch of social media channels. We’re not reviewing food at all, actually. We never review restaurants, we don’t review dishes - that’s not what we do. We get behind-the-scenes, we tell stories about the community, and we even have people from the restaurant and farming industries on the team to help us do that better. (Psst... If you want to get involved, email firstname.lastname@example.org. We’re always looking for new faces to add to the team.)
Want to join us for the next Whistle Stop Dinner on August 24th? Register here.