It's a hot, humid June afternoon in Pittsburgh, the kind of day where the last place any soul wants to be is in the kitchen slaving over a hot stove baking confections. But the kitchen is where Jim Belch prefers to be.
Belch (pronounced "Bell-ssh") is the new head chef at AntiquiTea Tearoom in West View, a quaint, Victorian-inspired tearoom that features more than 40 kinds of teas, finger sandwiches and other lunch items. He's been at the Perry Highway location for only about two months, but already he's making his mark on the kitchen and the menu.
On this day, after the lunch rush is over and tearoom is closed, Belch is doing prep work for the next day's afternoon tea, a reservation-only prix-fixe lunch. He stands over a large baking sheet, carefully squeezing out a fluffy, white mixture from a pastry bag.
“Meringue is what this is called,” he says in a French accent. He makes perfect uniform cookies, one after another while teaching a few more French cooking terms to a server waiting nearby. Belch pauses to wipe tiny beads of sweat from his brow before picking up the tray of soon-to-be meringue cookies and lovingly placing them in the oven.
Then he points to his belly, drops the French accent and says, “Don't worry, I'm not pregnant. I just eat a lot. I'm not in my third trimester or anything.”
Around visitors, Belch might come off as a quirky eccentric who speaks bits of languages he claims he really doesn't know and talks to himself while doing prep work. When it comes to food, the conversation turns serious.
“I have a zest for life and cooking,” he says. “I like to think of each day as a blessing. I'm very, very serious about the things that are dear to me, like cooking and faith and family.”
Belch grew up in the North Hills, relatively poor but always eating well. His mother and grandma had a system for making food, cooking a lot on Sundays and prepping things later in the week so all of their time wasn't spent in the kitchen.
“My mom is the best cook in the world because she fed seven kids, three times a day on a custodian's budget,” he says.
Belch started out working in a kitchen at a golf course and later attended the prestigious Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. After more than 20 years of teaching at the Pittsburgh Culinary Institute, now known as the soon-to-be defunct Le Cordon Bleu Institute, Belch walked away from his job in the spring.
Only two days after leaving Le Cordon Bleu, a friend at his church asked if he was looking for a cooking job.
“It was a blessing in disguise, a real ‘God thing,'” Belch says.
So Belch started baking and blending at AntiquiTea, bringing his own je ne sais quoi and knack for all things fresh, refined and simple. He largely prefers to bake yeast doughs, cookies and other confectionery delights, even though he personally enjoys eating simple pastas and Thai foods.
Belch's cooking style is both traditional and contemporary. Like many of the good chefs, his skill set involves all of the senses: pairing flavors and textures, colors and shapes together so that each meal is an experience. He prefers to use a mixture of fresh, seasonal and local ingredients for AntiquiTea's menu, visiting farmers markets for fresh herbs and veggies.
A summer quiche with basil and tomatoes, for example, and a creamed artichoke soup exemplify Belch's cooking philosophy: “Simply done to perfection is elegance. I can brown pearl onions, make you mashed potatoes and a Swiss steak, and you'll cry with ecstasy because it's executed right.”
Belch might joke and laugh and know only the “bad words” in Italian, but when it comes to cooking, he gets down to business. He plans everything out, knows how long to cook anything he makes from scratch and puts much emphasis on getting a dish perfect.
“You want to bring forth the beautify of this earth to please people,” he says. “Most of the time, you can't fool Mother Nature.”
Belch takes the lightly browned meringue cookies out of the oven and sits down to make the daily grocery shopping list for AntiquiTea. For as serious as the man is when he's knee-deep in baking, blanching and brewing, the goofy, quirky side comes back in a second.
“Did you know the only thing I won't eat in the whole world is the inside of a tomato. I think it's the seeds,” he says. “I've eaten rattlesnake. It tastes like chicken. But the inside of a tomato? It's revolting.”
About AntiquiTea Tearoom and Gift Shop
AntiquiTea, at 454 Perry Highway in West View, is open from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday for light lunch and afternoon tea. Two days' notice is required for the reservation-only afternoon tea.
The upper room can accommodate 40 to 50 people for private parties.
An extensive gift shop of teas, crafts and other items is open until 3 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday.
Call 412-301-0283 for more information or to make a reservation.