Pizza Provisions at The Provender
Chef Chris Grebner’s 1941 Dodge brings classic wood-fired pizza and craft beer right to your own back yard.
It’s dusk on one of those summer evenings that remind you of why you live in Iowa. The host has arranged chairs around makeshift tables where groups sit eating roasted beet salad with goat cheese and candied pecans. There is music in the background and the sounds of people enjoying themselves. Friends stand around the fire pit with drinks and appetizers in their hands, laughing.
A group has wandered to edge of the lawn where the 1941 Dodge pickup, custom fabricated to house a Mugnaini wood-fired oven, is parked. The first pizza has just come out of the oven. The edges are slightly charred, it’s topped with thin slices of potato, fontina cheese and rosemary. Chef Chris Grebner shaves parmesan cheese over the top and sprinkles it with salt and handful of arugula. He smiles, slices the pizza and invites guests to dig in.
The oven is hot, close to 900 degrees, so it only takes a few minutes for each pizza to cook. Now there are three pizzas, then four. Guests sample each as they come out and then walk around the truck to refill their drinks with the local craft beer on tap. Before the evening comes to an end, guests will be treated to warm cast iron cookies fresh out of the oven and peach fruit crumble with homemade vanilla bean ice cream.
This is Provender. It’s pizza. It’s an experience. It is a truck but it is not a food truck. Traditional food trucks confine preparation and cooking to inside the walls of a vehicle. But with Provender, everything is done in the open air, on hand-made wooden tables, and on the space provided along the truck’s perimeter. The truck itself is sleek yet highly functional. Updated in a manner that has preserved the classic truck body, it now houses a mobile kitchen discreetly containing everything needed to carter an event; its own water source, power, trash, recycling, and prep space. Provender fosters an interactive dining experience where guests can talk with the chef while he prepares their food; openly, honestly.
And Grebner is the kind of guy you want to interact with. He’s approachable, humble and kind. He’s a Midwesterner by birth and by choice, choosing to come back to Iowa after completing culinary school at Le Cordon Bleu in Portland, Oregon. Upon returning to his Iowa roots, Grebner and his wife DeeAnn started The Farmer’s Table in an attempt to bring together local food producers and the people who enjoy their product. Served on location at farms, in lodges and in private homes and businesses such as Fuel in Mount Vernon and DeLuxe Cakes and Pastries in Iowa City, Grebner Prepares four to seven course pre-fixe meals where producers and growers are invited to dine alongside their guests, bringing people one step closer to their food source.
Provender shares the vision Grebner has for The Farmer’s Table. “With The Farmer’s Table we work to create a space for people to enjoy themselves,” Grebner says. “Of course we take great pride in the food being amazing, but it’s also about allowing people to experience places in a new way.” While Grebner will continue to offer The Farmer’s Table events throughout the year, he sees Provender as a more sustainable and accessible way of carrying forth the mission of The Farmer’s Table. The mobility of the truck allows Grebner to arrive at most any location, start the fire in the wood oven, and begin preparing for the event. This freedom allows Grebner to cater events such as weddings or parties that otherwise prove difficult due to remote locations or lack of access to a kitchen.
Provender can serve parties up to 150 people. Hosts meet with Grebner to preselect menu items consisting of appetizers, salads, pizzas and desserts. Drinks, such as locally crafted beers, are served directly from draught lines on the truck. Wines and non-alcoholic drinks are also available. “As for our pizzas, I am firm believer that less is more,” Grebner says. “I really enjoy putting together different combinations, playing with sweet and savory toppings. Our onions agrodolce with smoked pork belly and blue cheese is a great example of that. But then there are the simple pies, such as our pork meatballs with béchamel and fresh oregano. I also think that a few of the classics just aren’t meant to be messed with, such as the pizza margherita.”
For small groups of 30 or fewer, Grebner offers hosts selections from an expanded menu. “Pizzas cook at 800 or 900 degrees, but we can lower the temperature of the oven and use it to sauté, roast or bake. Basically we can do everything short of deep frying.” These more intimate gatherings operate along the lines of The Farmer’s Table, allowing Grebner to work one-on-one with clients to develop a personalized menu. Grebner uses these opportunities to showcase local produce while finding ways to be creative with Iowa’s abundant summer fruits and vegetables.
In addition to catering private events, Provender can be seen around Iowa City at the Farmer’s Market and at the local summer festivals. Grebner has also agreed to work with Edible Outdoors, a local community group dedicated to foraging, hunting and fishing in respectable and sustainable ways. Once a month the group gathers to explore outdoor spaces. Provender will be on hand to communicate foraged items into meals while at the same time offering members of the group new culinary skills. “There is a lot of great community potential with this truck,” Grebner admits. “I would love to see us pull up to a school and do a cooking class with kids. That’s what I love about the mobility of this truck; it’s going to allow us to interact with so many different people.”
Grebner introduced Provender to the community in October of 2014 when he initiated a crowdsourcing campaign through Indiegogo. “It was overwhelming and incredibly humbling to have such strong and quick support,” Grebner says. The campaign, which surpassed its initial goal of $5,000 in 2 days, not only secured necessary additional funding, it helped gauge the local interest in a new kind of mobile pizza oven. Contributors were offered perks for participating in the campaign; everything from free pizzas at the Farmer’s Market to t-shirts to private parties for a group of close friends. “People gave quickly and they gave a lot,” he says with a look of quiet and genuine gratitude.
Grebner worked closely with Gorilla Fabrication, a manufacturing company based in Charleston, South Carolina, to translate his vision into a reality. The company assisted Grebner in finding and shipping the antique 1941 Dodge pickup from its home in California to their facility on the East Coast. Over the course of 5 months, countless phone calls, texts and two in-person visits, Grebner oversaw the transformation of the former fruit delivery truck into a hand-crafted kitchen.
“The amount of care that went into building this truck is incredible,” says Grebner. “The welders are true artists. Not only are they really good at their work, they care about the end product and it shows.”
Grebner admits he too likes things to be aesthetically correct. It is this combination of function and art that have earned Grebner his place in the local food community. He is a chef who has worked in commercial kitchens (some may have seen him making pizzas behind the counter at the Lincoln Wine Bar) and has catered events from weddings to small private dinners. In each endeavor, his attention to detail is evident in the food he creates and the spaces he curates.
Provender is an old Latin word for provisions. It is an aptly chosen name that captures the essence of Grebner’s business. Simply put, Provender offers food that is unique to our culinary landscape. Grebner puts forth combinations that are as unexpected as they are delicious. Think pizza topped with peaches, truffle honey, caramelized onion and smoked pork belly. Or butternut squash, fontina, arugula and gremolata. Think lavender shortbread and berry tarts with rose cream.
Provender also means to look out for. For Grebner, it’s about the food; but it is also about more than just the food. What matters is caring for people in simple yet meaningful ways. With Provender, as with The Farmer’s Table before it, the quality of the food matches the quality of the dining experience. To leave an evening with Provender is to leave cared for, with a full belly.