Good Eats and Evangelism: A Whole-Gospel Restaurant Serving Pittsburgh's Soul
On any given day between 11am and 7pm, locals can watch Nikki Heckmann ply her craft at Bistro To Go, the eclectic café the chef launched in 2007 in the North Side neighborhood of Pittsburgh. Just peer over the glass cases into the open kitchen, and you'll find her stirring her famous tomato basil soup or coaching a young employee on how to make salmon croquettes. Both scenes would reflect Heckmann's motivation behind opening the café in 2007: her heart for sharing the gospel with those outside the church, and her desire to bring revitalization to a community she has come to call home. And simply, she says, "I love to cook."
Chef Nikki was loved into the faith by an urban congregation, Allegheny Center Alliance Church (ACAC), which welcomed her probing questions and didn't turn her away for running a bar and living with her boyfriend. Five years at ACAC, including volunteering with the youth group, finally brought the message of Jesus home to her. Having received mercy, Heckmann now has a heart for seekers. At Bistro—which one Pittsburgh food critic described as furnished "by the International House of Whimsy"—Heckmann says she's creating "a missional lab" outside the church walls where everyone from the homeless guy to the downtown businessman can connect. To entice folks in, she deliberately offers pan-global cuisine.
Early on, skeptics warned her that she was "trying to be everything to everybody." But, as Heckmann told a local journalist, "No—I'm trying to get different people in the dining room.'"
People who know they're lost, Heckmann says, might enter a church to find some answers. "But the people outside in the community, they don't know they need a Savior," she says. For her, Bistro is a place where she can rub shoulders "among people who are sinners like me." The open kitchen design was deliberate, she explains. It puts her faith and character "on display" and "promotes accountability, cleanliness, and civility."
A journalist from Pittsburgh's City Paper captured the café's spirit in her December 2007 article announcing its launch. She wrote that Bistro was "supplying the downtrodden street with a haven for comfort and joy." And you will find "comfort food" at Bistro, but Chef Nikki avoids the really unhealthy stuff. By intention, there's no deep fat frying. The menu changes daily and is dotted with "lite" and vegan options, such as sundried tomato feta orzo, cod with brown butter and almonds, plus more traditional options like chicken parmesan and macaroni and cheese. Ingredients are sourced locally whenever possible. Cooking demonstrations on Saturdays and cooking classes two nights a week provide patrons the how-to skills to create nutritional meals at home. But, knowing the stresses of modern life, Heckmann's café specializes in offering time-saving, healthy, culturally diverse take-home dishes.