By Olivia Miller
One of the first things that Chef Peter Henry said to me while showing me Cafe Momentum’s indoor edible flower garden, a baseball cap reading “create change” perched upon his head, was “I don’t like to waste.” As we got to talking, it became apparent that this was true for not only the liver and kidneys he uses to craft some of the restaurant’s most unique dishes, but also for the second chance at life he was given after being in a 3-month coma over 10 years ago.
Originally from California, Chef Henry got his start cooking with his mother and grandmother, whose family owned the fruit company Driscoll Berries. He says he has “grown up in the garden since [he] was a teeny teeny kid.” His culinary talent blossomed in high school while working in a friend’s restaurant which influenced him to attend UCLA for Food Chemistry and later attend the prestigious Le Cordon Bleu for hospitality and tourism management.
His culinary philosophy is one that has consistently been about impact and sustainability. After school, he started working with an organization that educates the unhoused community about sustainable farming. He later went on to run the first restaurant in California to hold a 100% organic certification for 3 years.
He made his way over to the East Coast during the pandemic to assist a local restaurant group in the operation of their restaurants before stumbling upon a job opening for a general manager at Cafe Momentum. Though he had no experience in management, when Chef Henry learned about the restaurant’s impactful mission of teaching and employing youth in the criminal justice system, he “[needed] to do this program and make sure it is successful.” Since then, he has been working to not only create unique dishes but to show the restaurant’s employees that they are “not defined by their past.”
“Watching the youth transform” has proven to be the most rewarding part of being a chef for him. An avid jokester himself, Chef Henry fondly talks about a once quiet employee whose newfound “goal is to hit me with as many puns as he can.” He also talks about his pride in one of his employees who went from being closed off and shy to being able to proudly speak about her work at Cafe Momentum on Pittsburgh Today Live.
He also finds satisfaction in “watching people enjoy [his] food.” He says that this is especially true at Cafe Momentum because the food was prepared by youth that might go overlooked in other settings.
From coast to coast, Chef Henry’s interest in cooking is due to his infatuation with food anthropology. Whether it is learning about the spices of the Chengdu providence, Afro-Caribbean techniques from his sister in law, or going through old family recipes with his mother in law, he finds it “interesting to learn how a culture learns food.”
This is a concept that he tries to showcase in his own cooking. For instance, he channels ancient Italian practices when creating Cafe Momentum’s meat and cheese boards with cured unique cuts of meat like duck speck. He says that charcuterie boards are “not about luxury… It’s about resourcefulness.” He continues, “these are the things that allowed humanity to prosper, most of the world has forgotten about it, let’s focus on it.”
Along with food anthropology, Chef Henry is inspired by his mother, who he says “showed him there is not a problem you can’t fix if you think about it.” He also finds inspiration in culinary icons, like Andrew Zimmern who “taught him not to be afraid of anything in the culinary world” and Anthony Bourdain “just because he is amazing.” He also credits his culinary legacy to Ferran Adria, a food scientist and chef who is known for inventing molecular gastronomy.
To try his creations like his “showpiece” Tomahawk steak, locally sourced mushrooms, or lush desserts featuring the aforementioned edible flowers, you can find a list of Cafe Momentum’s hours on their website as well as a menu and more about their youth support programs.
His culinary talents are also on display at Twins Kitchen, a business he owns with his partner and mother in law. With a tagline of “fun stuff for your mouth”, the business sells uniquely flavored jams and mustards.