Getting Back to Green: The Culinary Creators of Gypsy Kitchen
Ed Diller, his wife Ellen, and Lancaster City are all dressed in gray – gray sweater, gray tunic, gray sky. All three look their most unassuming, but while the sky gears up to drain over Lancaster’s inhabitants, Ed and Ellen gear up for another day at Gypsy Kitchen.
Gypsy Kitchen has not gotten the gray message. Wrapped in browns, tans, and reds, its inner walls flourish in earthy colors, hinting at one of the Dillers’ main tenets: good, healthy, local food should be prepared creatively and with credit to Mother Nature. Ed Diller cares deeply about Mother Nature.
“I’ll try not to curse,” he says, smiling from behind his white beard and lowering himself onto a dark brown bench across from me. “Do you want some coffee?” I decline, though the sky feels like a weighted blanket over the whole day. There is studying to be done and commitments to stick to and classes to attend – it all makes a nap seem in order even though it’s 9:30 in the morning. I consider accepting a mug to stop the clouds from reverting back to pillows. Instead I shake my head and let my voice echo around the dim hall as I ask my first question.
It would probably be more appropriate for Mr. Diller to go by Mr. Lancaster. “I was born in New Holland,” he says. He speaks slowly and with long pauses, giving each sentence time to form before he releases it and can’t grab it back. “My mother’s name was Rank and my father’s name was Diller and there’s a Diller Avenue and a Rank Avenue, so both my families were original settlers in New Holland. So I’m probably more Lancaster County than anybody.” Arguably, he’s also probably more representative of the average Franklin & Marshall student than anybody. While at F&M, Ed originally thought he was en route to becoming a dentist. “But actually I was cured of that when I realized I’d have to pass chemistry.”
“My father was very concerned because he didn’t see me, you know, heading in a direction. There was a pastor at Trinity Lutheran Church who was like my hero at that point – Dr. Fisher. I told him, I said, ‘All my classmates are taking courses and they’re cement blocks that are fitting into a foundation when they graduate. They’re gonna have a house to move into, and I’m gonna have a pile of pretty rocks.’ And he said to me, he said, ‘Well, if I were you I’d start worrying about the people who are building foundations.’”
Ed’s foundation comes from a plethora of restaurant jobs across several states. From busboy to chef, York to New York, Ed’s been and seen it all. He started as a busboy and soon began to wait tables. “When I graduated from F&M I was making more money waiting on tables than my classmates were making at their first jobs at banks. But I realized pretty soon that, even though I enjoyed it, it wasn’t gonna work.”
So Ed went to school in Philadelphia to learn restaurant management and soon enough was back in Lancaster working as a chef at The Rextaurant on King Street. He went on to become a business partner and chef at Jethro’s on the corner of First and Ruby where he ended up hiring French chef Paul Asso. Ed’s next gig was in New York City working for his former instructor at Woods on 37th. Upon returning to Lancaster, he briefly ran The Downtown Soup Kitchen, selling soup for $1.49 a bowl. But financially, Ed was tapped out. He began selling real estate, which he’s still doing. “But suddenly, in 2008,” he says, “selling real estate wasn’t fun anymore.” The gray of his sweater seems to blend into the sky in the window behind him, his shoulders sloping into hills and his beard fading into clouds.
Enter Gypsy Kitchen. The Dillers began leasing the Lancaster Theological Seminary’s space on March 4, 2013 after catering an event there. For Ed, it marked the end of a 25-year hiatus from the restaurant industry. “I tell my wife, it’s like the Rolling Stones: we go out and say ‘Holy crap, we can still do this!’”
And they’re doing it their way. While the lack of advertising and its proximity to F&M add to Gypsy Kitchen’s charm, its reliance on and dedication to using fresh foods remains the restaurant’s most distinct feature. “We don’t have a walk-in here. So I can’t order a case of vegetables.” Instead, Gypsy Kitchen relies on local farms and markets to get the ingredients needed for each week’s meals. “I go to Market every Tuesday, every Friday. My favorite place to get vegetables now is Oregon Dairy. They really care up there. We get beef from them, because it’s grass-fed beef. There’s somebody in Strasburg that grows these greens, they’re just unbelievable.” He turns to Ellen, who’s been setting up for lunch and popping by every few minutes to make sure I wouldn’t like that coffee after all. “Aren’t they sensational, honey?”
“They’re the best,” she returns.
“They’re the best,” he concurs, turning back to me.
But if you really want to light Ed Diller’s fire, get him talking about problems within the food industry. “I use organic chickens now from Costco,” he says proudly. Unfortunately, price has been problematic. “Regular chicken is $1.09 a pound. This is $2.40-something a pound. Which makes a huge difference on the books. And honestly the taste—I don’t believe you can tell the difference between the tastes. But I’ll be damned if I’m gonna sell crap—” He breaks off, agitated, his volume increasing and his words tumbling out of their own accord. “I can do that! I can avoid what they’re doing to these chickens that never get outside and can’t—it’s unbelievable. If we treated dogs like that we’d be arrested! We’d be in jail! It’s unbelievable.”
“How can somebody not believe in global warming? I mean hello! How can they think this stuff is good for you? GMOs! Nobody’s lived a life eatingGMOs! It ain’t gonna work! It can’t be right!” If there’s ever a point when Ed gets close to cursing, it’s now.
“Easy honey, easy,” Ellen comforts from behind the lunch table. He calms down, but the sentiment hangs in the air – Ed is angry, and I can’t blame him. “I think we’re headed in the right direction, as far as eating healthy food. Basically I’m doing just like Dr. Fisher said. I think the message was ‘you gotta be doing something you love to do.’”
No doubt about it: the Dillers are doing something they love to do. “Somehow I think I have the ability to transfer my enthusiasm to other people,” Ed says. Currently he’s been channeling his enthusiasm into a chicken dish that includes a soy sauce marinade with garlic, pepper, and sesame oil. “We served it at one of the restaurants I worked in in New York. Now we’ve added an authentic apple salad to go with it. I usually start it on Wednesday or Thursday for Friday night. When you get it on Friday it’s fresh off the grill.”
Gypsy Kitchen is constantly creating and constantly growing. “We’re doing something different every single day.” And the Dillers themselves, like their restaurant, refuse to stay put. “We’ve got a week off in June and we’re going to New York, aren’t we honey?”
“Yes we are,” says Ellen. “We are gonna eat our way through New York.”
Ed and Ellen may act humble and unimportant – their work is anything but. Gypsy Kitchen’s mission is one of bravery and spirit; though it’s no easy task to run a business with an awareness of care for the environment, it’s not stopping their determination or their energy.
It’s time to leave when the dining room is set up and Ellen starts urging Ed to get to Market for the second half of the week’s groceries. I get one last glimpse of them as the large wooden door swings shut on the scene: Ed, standing as he gets ready to leave; Ellen, gray-haired and thin, making last minute adjustments to the tables and chairs; both fitted perfectly into the space and neither paying much attention to me. Later in the day, students flood the center of F&M’s campus. Customers flood Gypsy Kitchen for the lunch hour. And all across Lancaster County, the sky opens, floods the fields, and paints the ground green.
This post was written by Katie Urbanski, a 2015 graduate of Franklin & Marshall College with a degree in English Literature and Environmental Studies. She has recently moved back home to Baltimore, where she is seeking jobs that combine writing with environmental policy or animal welfare.