198 Match Factory Place Bellefonte, PA 16823
By Serge Bielanko
The first thing you notice about Big Spring Spirits wide-open dining and drinking hall is that this is it. There's no backstage, so to speak. No kitchen behind closed doors where chefs toil away in a cloud of hidden smoke and steam out of sight, out of mind. Here, the only thing back behind the walls of the joint are vast distillery vats and mechanisms, like dinosaurs and dragons peeking in through the windows behind the bar.
And over there in the corner is 'the kitchen', if you can even call it that. You walked right by it when you first walked in but you didn't notice because, let's face it, when you first walk into a place you feel like everyone is staring at you. Because they are. It's a small area, a counter top maybe the size of a Civil War General's inflated marble grave slab; a some coolers; some dishes in stacks; stainless steel; maybe room for two people and that's it.
But there's only one standing back there.
And her name is Meghan McCraken.
Which, right there, is probably all you need to know, if I'm gonna be honest with you.
These days, after driving around Centre County for years, working her butt off to bring the food to the people as a food truck pioneer with her Nomad Kitchen truck, the people have begun coming to Meghan. This past summer she was offered a more permanent position as the main chef at Big Spring Spirits, an offer she accepted. Fast forward a few months later, the word has evidently hit the proverbial street.
Most nights and weekend afternoons now, for at least few hours there, you'll have to take your first drink or two at the bar while you wait for a table to dine. That's how good this whole thing has become. And its a beautiful thing indeed. In a town once pigeon-hole'd by decent Italian food and not-so-great bar burgers and fries, McCraken is helping to put 198 Match Factory Place in Bellefonte on the map of Pennsylvania foodie hotspots.
(Oh yeah, by the way, full disclosure, okay? Journalistic integrity and all. Fact is: I've known Meghan for quite a while now. We both lived in Penns Valley. And beyond that: she lives with my brother now, in a farmhouse with goats in the yard and classic Pennsy mountains on both sides of their valley. They have gorgeous little gardens: all herbs and fancy stuff I'd kill in 20 minutes with a hose nozzle like a .45. But the fact that I know her and I'm writing about her isn't anything less than legit, I don't think. Truth is: my job is to write the county into your heart, or maybe your guts.)
About this food.
Go see for yourself? Head to Big Springs and check out Meghan and Nomad Kitchen's Official Kick-Off Party this Thursday, Sept. 19th. There will be all kinds of free appetizers to go along with her regular menu. Plus $5 cocktails from 5-7pm and one of the county's most epic musical achievements of all time (that's right, you heard me), Wicked Chicken, will be performing live at 7pm.
It's the perfect opportunity to welcome a serious talent to town. And to eat cutting edge food made with fresh local ingredients and prepared from the heart.
If that's not enough to convince you, then maybe this will.
I'll leave you with a little interview I did with the chef herself.
Go try her food.
Bellefonte.com: So now you are head chef at Big Spring Spirits cooking ALL their food most nights of the week. Is this a dream come true for you? Why?
Chef Meghan McCracken: It really is. I’m so excited to be able to be collaborating with a forward-thinking business and feel supported by Big Spring in allowing me to fully express my creativity and experimental nature to try out new things, yet maintaining my autonomy as Nomad Kitchen, which I’ve worked very hard on for the last 5 years as a single woman-owned business. I’ve stayed true to my original core values of my biz and it paid off after a long haul of challenges to work and think through..and take risks on.
How would you describe your own personal food philosophy when it comes to what you make?
I like the word ‘Nomad’ because it conjures rootedness in culture, yet free-flowing, free-form, and wandering. I love making food that is rustic and yet spice-filled, taking simple fresh ingredients and combining them with spices and flavors to make something that is not necessarily traditional but conjures a sense of comfort. I get an idea of a flavor combination in my head that I want to convey and go from there. I enjoy bringing people pleasure through food. I think we forget that pleasure is important in our lives. I love watching people eat the food I create and because Big Spring has an open kitchen, I am able to be making dishes while interacting with customers and watching everyone around the room eating and sharing and talking together around a plate of food I made just for them and that’s the feels right there for me.
Are Big Spring Spirits diners adventurous and curious? Or are they playing it safe most of the time?
People love sandwiches and tacos and pizza. And I do, too, but I’m pushing them a little to try shawarma and curries and some staples but with new flavors thrown in...like lamb flatbreads, banh mi tacos or Israeli meatballs.
How often do you find yourself experimenting with dishes...tinkering with recipes or even making them up as you go along?
I don’t really use recipes, except for my secret hummus recipe which I worked at and experimented to perfect, starting first from a traditional middle eastern style hummus using tons of tahini then tweaking what I personally liked. That’s pretty much the only recipe I’ve made that I stick to each time. It’s in my head so of course it has variations, but I feel like I’ve mastered it. Everything else is jazz improv.
Most folks don't realize the super long hours of work that goes into a chef's job. You are working when you're at work....and you're often working when you're at home too. Give us an idea of what a work day is like for you?
Good point. It’s true, I'm never not working, really. My brain is always thinking about “work” in some way or another. But, yes, it includes a fair bit of daydreaming about flavors, menu conjuring, menu planning, creating grocery lists, grocery shopping, emailing local farms and local purveyors each week to order and pay invoices, driving to my favorite farms for specific items, to-do list making, often 6 hours of food prep; then being there to actually create and plate and serve. Then there are dishes and breakdown and clean-up. And I’m a one woman show. Many days are 14 hour days for me, all said and done. You have to love something a whole lot to put that much in. And I do.
You've had your Nomad Kitchen food truck for a few years now and that has become very popular with Centre County foodies. How do you think food truck life prepared you/influenced you for Big Spring?
I started Nomad Kitchen Food Truck about 4 years ago and it was a wild ride. It was hard. It was really hard, honestly. There were endless challenges on the daily. But also, running a food truck gave me the ability to 100% experiment because I had full autonomy to do exactly whatever I wanted to make. Some things worked, some didn’t. And that’s the artistic business process, that’s the evolution, allowing yourself to go there where you’re not completely sure, but taking the leap and trying. I learned so much and gained so much experience and worked so so hard to make it my own.
Where do you like to shop for local ingredients? (if it's a secret...just tell me you have a secret source for this or that!)
Windswept Farm delivers me weekly beautiful fresh produce that is truly spectacular. Meg Weidendorf is my favorite farmer. The quality of the produce is unbeatable. I think they must put some serious love into their dirt over there or some other secret ingredient.
Do you think that Bellefonte and Centre County, being smack in the middle of a pretty bountiful part of so many farms and food sources, is kind of a foodie's paradise? If so, why?
We are so incredibly lucky to have access to fresh food at an abundance. When you start with a cucumber that tastes better than a cucumber, you’re already halfway there. But I also think that I need to say something a bit controversial here. From someone who’s had the experience of both living on farms where literally everything from the butter to the bread to the cream to the bacon was sourced on the farm... to having lived in cities in food deserts in areas with little access to fresh food, it’s possible to create good food with what you have to work with. As long as you have access to it in the first place, that should be a right of all people no matter where you live.
What do you wish we had more of here in Centre County when it comes to cooking?
I don’t feel deprived of any ingredients in the least here, honestly. I have the International Market on Allen Street, my favorite grocery store in our area, which I frequent at least once per week for coconut milk, my favorite basmati rice, and spices. I have endless access to local farms and farmers markets and farm stands galore, where I’m meeting the person who grew what I’m putting my money into and that feels direct and good and wholesome and economically healthy.
We also have amazing chefs who are each doing their own cool things with this food and creating their own innovative niche in their own way in our area like Chefs Claudia and Eric Sarnow at the Hummingbird Room, Chef Mark Johnson at the Cheese Shoppe, and Chef Quintin and Liz Wicks at Revival Kitchen. There's also Bobbie Dash and Barbara Lange at Bobbie’s Kitchen and Erin Condo McCracken at LeRoy’s Infamous UpTexas BBQ. I find inspiration from people who go at it their own way.
What's on tap for your fall menus? Anything exciting? If you could create one menu with no limits for a special Meghan's Dream Menu Night at Big Spring Spirits....what would it look like?
Dream Night: Nomad Kitchen Moroccan Nights at Big Spring Spirits!!! I love making Moroccan food and have done several pop-up Moroccan dinners. Thursday, October 3rd from 5-9pm will be our first big Moroccan Night at Big Spring featuring belly dancer Shannon Bishop, owner and instructor at Black Cat Bellydance. We haven’t yet publicized that info, so you’re getting the first scoop. We’ll be doing one Moroccan night the first Thursday of every month beginning in October!
Last question. The foodie scene has changed a lot over the last decade...much of it for the better. Yet it still requires hard work and serious commitment from those who want to work in the culinary industry. What's your advice for young people hoping to someday maybe own a food truck or be a chef?
Work hard, start from the ground floor, the experience and knowledge and trust in yourself that you will gain will be irreplaceable. Listen to your heart. Take as many risks as possible. Find mentors. Read and listen and study. Respect the process and that will eventually allow you to think outside the box to create your own place in the world.
Nomad Kitchen Official Kick-Off Party.
Thursday, September 19th.
Big Spring Spirits. 198 Match Factory Place, Bellefonte.
Wicked Chicken playing 7-9pm. FREE appetizers.
Full Nomad Kitchen menu will be available, as well as $5 cocktails from 5-7pm.
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