Like many, Hal B. Klein set out to become an actor. Like fewer, he did. After earning a BA in theatre in California, he headed to New York (to work) and to London (to pursue a post-graduate certificate in classical acting). Roles followed in a few independent films, in commercials, and at Shakespeare festivals around the country (“I usually got comic roles,” he says. “Played a bunch of clowns.”). In 2005, after seven years in New York, he moved to L.A. for a role on a PBS children’s TV show called “Lily’s Lighthouse”.
But the ship did not quite come in. “Lily’s Lighthouse had a message; it was well produced; everything about it was wonderful, and then I learned the hard lesson of L.A., which is that there are a lot of well-intentioned promises, but things fall through for all sorts of reasons,” Klein says. Then the economy crashed, roles dried up, and he started thinking about what else he might like to do, a train of thought remarkably birthed by a piece of fruit he had eaten five years earlier.
While stationed in Santa Cruz for a Shakespeare festival, Klein had stopped by a farmers’ market. “I remember very vividly eating a strawberry and going oh, whoa, that’s why people like strawberries,” he says. “And that ended up forming in a long-term way my path to Chatham, in that it sparked a realization that the stuff we get in the grocery store, in the conventional system, isn’t very tasty.”
Growing up in the 1980’s in New York and California, Klein had been a picky and unadventurous eater, eschewing vegetables in favor of pizza and hamburgers. “The 80’s were the worst time for food in a lot of ways,” he says. “What you found in grocery stores was terrible, in terms of quality and selection.” As an undergraduate in San Diego, Klein was open to the concept of good food—adding his own herbs to Prego spaghetti sauce cooked on his dorm stove, for example—but lack of familiarity (and, one presumes, funds) hampered his ability to really delve into it.
Still, he was getting more and more into it. “I realized that at least part of the reason that I was so picky was that I didn’t understand how flavors were put together, and also that I was relying on the conventional food system,” he says. “So I thought Oh, if I cook, I’ll understand this more, and I started going to farmers’ markets more frequently. In New York, I was buying stuff at the Union Square Green Market, but it was really in California, going to the Hollywood and Santa Monica farmers’ markets that it was like holy cow, there’s all this…”
Thus it was that food made the short list of new career directions for Klein. “At that point,” he says, “I was thinking I would probably do cooking, culinary instruction, maybe cookbook writing, with the idea that there are probably thousands of people like me who grew up in the suburbs and weren’t really in touch with what you might call food systems, how to navigate farmers’ markets, how to go to the grocery stores and find things that are inexpensive but maybe better grown or more delicious–it’s such a vast world. I started thinking about how I could get an education, looking around, and thought: Food studies? What a strange and esoteric thing this is.”
Intrigued, he applied to Boston University, New York University, and when a Google search turned up Chatham’s brand-new Master of Arts in Food Studies program, he figured he might as well apply there, too. Klein came out and met with Alice Julier, Ph.D., MAFS program director. “She was great,” he says. “Very up front about how it was the first year of the program and about the opportunities and risks that went along with that.” It sounded good to Klein: “I knew it was a big risk to jump into the program, but I had a good sense of who I was, what I needed, and what I wanted to do, so I figured why not? Plus, I was sick of living in these big cities and Pittsburgh seemed really interesting.” Klein moved to Pittsburgh in 2010. He says it was the best decision of his life.
Being in that first cohort was “at first really like the Wild West,” Klein laughs. “I talk to people in the program now, and it’s very structured and there are a lot of choices. For us it was a lot more limited, but in a way that gave rise to flexibility. I was like, I want to be a better writer; can I take a nature writing class in the MFA in Creative Writing program? and Alice was like Sure, go for it. I wanted to do an independent study on Italian-American foodways in Pittsburgh, and I got to do that too. My thesis was a short film that I did in conjunction with a student in the film program at Chatham.”
If Klein’s interest in cookbook writing was beginning to drift toward journalism, it was cemented through a Food Writing course he took with Sherrie Flick. “I don’t think it’s possible to give Sherrie enough credit for mentorship and influence. Of all the people that I met at Chatham, she’s the person who I really think helped change my life. You meet people during your career who are so generous with their knowledge and connections and so confident in the work that they do that they can be that generous – to think oh, you’d be great for that and make that connection.”
Which is what happened: Klein was visiting friends in L.A. when he got an e-mail from Flick saying that Pittsburgh City Paper was looking for a new “drinks” writer. “She sent it to three of us and said she thought we’d be a good fit and to let her know if we were interested. And so immediately I was like Sorry friends, I know we were going out but I gotta write this pitch.” He wrote the column for three years.
Klein graduated and started freelancing for local and national media, drawing on what he had learned and researched at Chatham, including stories on whole-animal butchery at restaurants and Italian immigrants who bury their fig trees in the winter for National Public Radio. A story about permaculture that he wrote for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette won a national award from the Association of Food Journalists.
Klein was approached to become the restaurant critic for Pittsburgh Magazine, and was later brought on full-time and took over the food section. He’s currently the associate editor and restaurant critic. “I just wrote a story on people who are in recovery from addiction or were previously incarcerated – it’s hard to find jobs and build a new life when you’re doing that. And the restaurant industry is one of those places that doesn’t really ask a lot of questions, but it’s also fraught with peril, because if you’re working nights, there’s a lot of partying,” he says. “But I also did a big feature on hamburgers last year because I thought it would be fun, which it sort of was, but also it wasn’t after a while,” he laughs. “Writing for a magazine is about finding that balance, between features and hamburgers.”
As a restaurant critic, Klein is more than capable of producing nuanced statements on the fly (they use a little bit of crunchy salt along the outside which pulls out the bitterness of the char but also enhances the creaminess of the cheese is a sentence he uttered in the course of describing Japanese pizza). But he is far from shy about considering food from a systemic perspective.
“I just wrote a review of a restaurant downtown that’s amazing but also really expensive, at least in part because more than any restaurant in Pittsburgh right now, they’re walking the walk with sourcing ingredients. We say all the time that you should pay more for beef and pork when it’s being sourced in a more environmentally friendly, sustainable way, but what does that do as far as price structure; who is this restaurant space for now? Suddenly when you have a $125 steak, you’re excluding a lot of people from the conversation.”