Food, Theater, and Community: An interview with Harvey McLain

February 20, 2015

 

In preparation for Girl Friday’s upcoming event, Pizza & Pinot: a Fundraiser for Girl Friday, I was delighted to sit down for a chat with Harvey McLain. Harvey is an acclaimed restaurant owner and advocate for the arts, who has generously donated the Café Levain space and food/wine from Pizza Biga for our event. In the following interview, Harvey’s passion for food, theater, and supporting the arts come to the forefront as he reveals his story.

 

How did you get started in the food industry as a business owner?

My wife died about 22 years ago, and I was looking around because right when she died I had two very young children—a 5 year old and a 15 month old—and I needed not to be travelling as much as I did. I looked around for something closer to home, and I realized that many of the big cities I travelled to for my job {as an attorney} had better bread and we didn’t have it here. I thought it would be fun then to have an artisan bakery.

 

Turtle Bread Company. How did it transform then, into Café Levain and Pizza Biga?

When I opened the bakery up it was only about 320 sq feet of retail space and 1000 sq feet of manufacturing space. So you can image {compared to present facility} it was very small. After a few weeks we had had some good press, a lot of people started to buy bread and I looked at what we had designed—of course I didn’t have any experience in this--but we weren’t big enough in the production area to produce the bread we needed. I just didn’t have enough room.

 

So, I talked to the landlord about the rest of the building—we had about a quarter and looked at getting another two quarters.  And of course then I had more space than I needed. There was a little extra space in the cooking facilities, and so we started to make some soup and some salads. Nothing enormously fancy. But pretty soon I was selling just as much food as bread.

 

So that’s how I got into it. I would say it was going sideways. This isn’t up, this isn’t down; it’s sideways.

 

So clearly you were impressed with a lot of other cities having quality artisan bread, what inspires you in general about food and baked goods, what do you think it brings?

I grew up in a humble background and my mother worked and raised 6 kids, so she didn’t spend much time cooking. She did not have much time, or ingredients or money, and she really didn’t have a whole lot of talent in that area—she did it, she fed us, none of us were stunted, or if we were we don’t know it. 

 

So, I think I got most interested in better food and better cooking when I met my wife. She came from a big family where her parents had written 3 or 4 cookbooks, and one had been on the New York Times Best Seller List. They had a house in Italy, so we travelled to that once in a while. They had five hectors of orchards and gardens, so most of the food we ate was picked off the land. It was interesting to see how the Italians cooked. I certainly learned a lot about cooking from {my father in law} and that time in Italy.

 

The food business is very good {compared to law} because it’s visceral and unique. When I was a general consulate and vice president for a New York Stock Exchange company, we may have worked on some things for 2-4 years. It was heady and intellectual and you learned new things, but it wasn’t something you got immediate gratification from. In here, if we want to try a new recipe, we can do it three, four, five times in a day if we want to. That’s the visceral part of it, that’s the immediacy of it, and that’s nice to experience.

 

How did you become involved with theater, Kirby and Girl Friday Productions?

You know, I’ve been a fan of theater ever since I was in high school. I had a teacher, a guy who wanted to recruit a few of us as ushers to go to Saint Paul, and then get to see the plays they brought to town. And that’s where I saw my first musical, How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying. Hah! I was way up in the nosebleed seats but I was still enwrapped with it all. I could still see and hear the actors and feel their performance reach me. From then on, I was always interested in theater.

 

When I left that bigger law company, I set up the Director’s Theater. For just one season, we produced 5-10 plays. That was fun—that was a different perspective yet again. And I think that’s when I met Kirby.

 

Are you still involved with companies, as an actor or…?

Ha ha, no, no! I never acted, except for high school and I’m not certain that the word ‘acted’ would be a fair description of it. Running on stage, trying not to miss your cue and throwing your line out. I was never really bitten by the thespian bug. I do enjoy theater, and as I got older and better off {financially} I would travel and see plays on Broadway and in London. Great.

 

No, now I only help out Kirby, and other companies, with putting on events like Pizza & Pinot or sending over wine and food for opening nights and stuff, but beyond that, I just go to the theater.

 

That’s important though, to go and support the theater.

Yeah, it is. And particularly support the theater that is, you know, just one step under the Guthrie and the “Big Guys.” Those companies, like Girl Friday, have a lot less funding and institutional, long-term support than them. Those “Big Guy” institutions not only have reserves of money but they’ve got a board that can raise money in the millions. And they need the millions because they’re doing big budget productions. But that’s why I like to support this level of smaller company—like Girl Friday, Torch, Gremlin, the Jungle, Zenon—because they don’t get a lot of support, and I think there’s a lot of real talent in those companies. I think it makes your community richer if you have more art being performed, in particular at a price that the average working person can afford on a Saturday night.

 

What do you hope will be the outcome of our fundraiser, Pizza & Pinot?

From this event, I’d like Girl Friday to be able to expand their horizon for what they can do and what they can spend. Money shouldn’t be the deciding factor in the art Girl Friday decides to do or not do. Kirby {and the company} have plenty of talent and I want to see what they can do with more. 

 

Pizza & Pinot will take place at Café Levain on March 2nd, starting at 6pm. Go to http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/1152454 to reserve tickets today!

 

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