Still from "Eating & Working & Eating & Working," courtesy of Dave Bernabo.

There’s the scene with Gina Merante of Linea Verde Green Market and her early morning excursion to the Strip to pick up produce. And there’s the scene of hands-on kneading of pizza dough by Neil Blazin of Driftwood Oven. The documentary “Eating & Working & Eating & Working” illuminates what goes on locally in the hours before the food hits your plate.

The film peels back the myriad layers of Pittsburgh’s restaurant scene like the layers of an onion. Though there are plenty of beautiful dishes, lovingly prepared — it’s also a pointed, unsentimental look at the things that make food service work difficult.

It’s showing on Row House Cinema’s online platform through next Friday. It can also be viewed on Vimeo.

“The restaurant industry is high-tension, low margins on a profit,” says filmmaker Dave Bernabo. “So it’s a struggle in almost every single way. But to some of the people I’ve talked to, it also seems very rewarding, and you can be very creative.”

The film follows eight people, from before dawn to the end of the workday, as they go about their lives in various Pittsburgh kitchens.

Still from “Eating & Working & Eating & Working” by Dave Bernabo.
Still from “Eating & Working & Eating & Working” by Dave Bernabo.

Shooting food preparation is something Bernabo really enjoys.

“I love watching process and people just making things,” says Bernabo. “Thai Gourmet is always super-fun. There’s a lot of fire, and you see them turn out a lot of dishes really quickly.

Reed & Co. was really interesting, to see how they make juices and smoothies and everything. Just to see everything that goes into that is a natural plant-based thing — it’s cool to see how wholesome it all looks. Station is always great. The dishes reflect this balance of technique and deliciousness.”

Others featured include Don Mahaney of Scratch Food & Beverage in Troy Hill and Jasmine Cho of the bakery Yummyholic.

The film offers a chance to talk about the distinctive challenges of the food business.

Still from “Eating & Working & Eating & Working.”
Still from “Eating & Working & Eating & Working.”

For Mahaney, it’s all about the human connection. “Not treating people like cogs in wheels, not treating people like objects–but like people who are actually engaged in this process by which another person benefits.”

Interspersed between the restaurant workers in the film are food academics, journalists and activists, adding perspective to this examination of restaurant labor. One thing that keeps coming up is the unequal distribution of power in the restaurant industry.

“Having supportive management can really alleviate a lot of the problems you may have with customers,” says food writer Celine Roberts, in the film. “I’ve worked for a couple of business owners who have told me, ‘If you have a problem with a customer, and feel you’re being talked down to or violated in any way, you have my permission to ask them to leave.’ That’s extremely empowering. It makes you feel, ‘I have agency in this situation. I don’t just have to sit back and take this verbal or even physical harassment.’”

When the management is less supportive, it’s a problem.

“Am I going to sacrifice my paycheck, in order to stand up for myself in this situation?” asks Roberts.

Bernabo has made a number of documentaries, including one about Moundsville, W.Va. This is actually his fifth film about food.

“There were some themes I wanted to talk about in those films, and it seemed like people were slightly hesitant,” says Bernabo.

In 2014, people didn’t want to talk about sexism in the industry.

“When I made this film in 2018, people would more readily talk about it,” he says. “So there was a shift in the general culture of what people were willing to talk about, with their own experiences.”

“Eating & Working” also takes a surprisingly in-depth look into the neighborhood-based discriminatory legacy of redlining.

“The way Pittsburgh’s neighborhoods are separated by race, and how racism is extremely present here, are because things (were) set up that way,” says Bernabo. “You see the differences in the way people are treated and what kinds of jobs people can get.”

In some ways, the film is a time capsule of Pittsburgh’s thriving restaurant industry before the COVID-19 collapse. As the food business enters a painful new era of restrictions and uncertainty, there are chances to change things, notes Bernabo.

“I think it represents an opportunity to address these problems, when you’re kind of restructuring how a restaurant can work, post-COVID-19,” he says. “I don’t think a lot of these issues are necessary. A lot of it is ego and prejudice.”

Basic decency, for one, and good management, would help labor issues.

“If you have a solid manager who understands complex social issues, that makes the workplace immediately better,” says Bernabo.

The problems facing restaurants are going to be deep and structural, however. The days of squeezing as many people into restaurants in as short a period of time as possible are over, for now.

“I think it’s going to be really hard for restaurants to come back until there’s a vaccine,” says Bernabo. “The volume-based business (model) is going to be a hard sell.”

If people take away anything from the film, Bernabo hopes it’s to understand what restaurant workers are dealing with and to give them greater respect.

“That includes people working in kitchens and washing dishes,” he says. “While people are interested in the restaurant and cooking scene, there’s been little movement in pay increases or major overhauls in the work environment.”

“I’d like people to have greater patience,” he notes. “If someone’s having a bad day and waiting on you, give them the benefit of the doubt.”

Michael Machosky

Michael Machosky is a writer and journalist with 18 years of experience writing about everything from development news, food and film to art, travel, books and music. He lives in Greenfield with his wife, Shaunna, and 10-year old son.