Vegan Or Not, You’ll Love Shire Kitchen’s Community Dinners
Mariana Bergtold in the tempeh shed, where the kitchen manufactures 100 pounds of chickpea tempeh at a time.
By Lisa Green
Fans of the Dancing Vegan, a plant-based, takeout shop in Pittsfield, Mass., were severely disappointed when Chef Mariana Bergtold closed its doors in 2009. Even now, local vegans (and others) wistfully refer to the days when outrageously good vegan food was available and conveniently located, every day.
But now, those same fans can rejoice, because Bergtold, who left the Berkshires to head the kitchen of the largest retreat center in Hawaii, is back, and so is the magic she creates sans eggs, dairy and other non-vegan ingredients. The self-confessed workaholic has opened Shire Kitchen, a vegan commercial production kitchen that lives within Shire City Sanctuary. Besides producing its own tempeh and seitan, Shire Kitchen offers full-service catering, cooking classes, and the icing (vegan, of course) on the cake: the Shire Kitchen First Friday Community Dinners.
Each month, Bergtold selects an ethnic cuisine and goes to town with it, first conducting copious research on the foods of that culture and then preparing a plant-based menu from start to finish. This month, since the dinner fell on May 5, it was cuisine in honor of Cinco de Mayo. Around 40 people dug into a variety of salsas, guacamole, chili con queso and oyster mushroom ceviche — all just starters, which were waiting at each table. The main course, served buffet style, included squash and pablano tamales, tempeh tacquitos, vegetable mole and more. Carmel flan and churros finished off the meal for those who could muster one more bite. Drinks, too, were Mexican inspired: a coconut tamarind mixture and hibiscus iced tea.
June’s dinner will celebrate Indonesian food, and in July, it’ll be Southern barbeque. You don’t have to be vegan to love what comes out of this kitchen, but the variety and flavors you encounter will inspire you.
Tables are set up in the kitchen, family style; the food itself is the icebreaker that gets conversations started. Bergtold visits each table to talk about the flavors and ingredients of the dishes, and she seems to enjoy the feedback she gets. Of course, it’s pretty much unanimously enthusiastic.
“I’ve had some people who met here who come every month now to see their new friends,” Bergtold says. “Some are my former customers from the Dancing Vegan. There are some people who lean to the far right politically, and others to the left. I’m hoping if we break bread together, maybe we can talk to each other.”
Bergtold’s generosity of spirit informs all that she does. A French-trained (Cordon Bleu) chef who worked in corporate settings and restaurants, she was diagnosed with terminal cancer in 2002. The now-closed Kushi Institute, a macrobiotic-based wellness facility, brought her to the Berkshires and renewed her interest in natural foods. And now, full of energy and quick to laugh, she runs programs to share the benefits of eating healthfully.
At Shire Kitchen, everything is on wheels so the space can be set up for its various activities: manufacturing, classes and community dinners.
Education is a big part of her mission. The kitchen hires interns who are home-schooled and students from Alchemy Initiative. “I’ve almost turned the kitchen into a school,” Bergtold says. “We train the kids and help them get a job.”
She teaches a cooking class the Saturday after each community dinner, and starting this week, will be cooking and selling her food at the Downtown Pittsfield Farmers Market. She has also embarked upon an additional business, manufacturing a chickpea-based tempeh. In fact, Shire Kitchen recently bought the Hosta Hill tempeh division, and Bergtold’s soy-free version is being produced in the kitchen, along with a take-and-bake tempeh puffed pastry. At this point, it’s still an artisanal — read “small batch” — product (“You can’t get chickpeas in a big bag,” Bergtold says with a smile) but it will be available at farmers markets and on the menus of local restaurants.
Bergtold, originally a California girl, began her career in the early ‘80s when the food revolution was just beginning. “I’ve been in the middle of it and loved it,” she says. Happily for us, she’s back in the Berkshires, which she says resonates with her. And her culinary prowess keeps us coming back to her kitchen.