At the end of Fourth St reet in Ithaca, a few short steps from the barbed wire fence of a NYSEG substation, in the back of a low brick building largely occupied by a stone and tile workshop is an unmarked door. Inside sits the unlikely home of an Ithaca culinary institution.
“Beware,” owner Thom Trause greets me, “this is hot, wet and messy.” Packed into the 1,200 square foot facility are refrigerators, grinders, pressing stations, a steam injection cooking system, a massive stove, and several overflowing cooling tubs. There is no air conditioning. For five days a week since the early 1970s, Ithaca Soy has made tofu right on this spot. As Thom and I talk, Brandon Schmitt moves around 100 pound buckets of soaked soybeans and 100 pound bags of soybean slurry. It’s easily 100 degrees and he’s wearing rubber waders and a plastic apron. “Hot, wet and messy,” Thom repeats. “That’s how it is when you’re making it by hand.” Thom is at the facility 12 hours day, overseeing the tofu making process from soaking the dry beans to vacuum-packing the final product. Originally from New Jersey, he bought Ithaca Soy with a partner in 2002, bought her out in 2005 and has been running it ever since from a small, windowless office of exposed drywall. Before that he learned his cooking chops at organic cafes around town.