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Brian Pekarcik: From Ballfield to Brigade

The S + P Restaurant Group corporate chef and co-owner found a home in the kitchen after a sports injury.




photo by laura petrilla
 

An ankle injury first pushed Brian Pekarcik, corporate chef and partner of S + P Restaurant Group, into a restaurant kitchen. 

Pekarcik never recovered his mojo on the baseball field after twisting his ankle the summer between his sophomore and junior years at John Carroll University in Cleveland. With no competitive athletics to fill his extracurricular time, his parents made him get a job. 

A friend helped him to get hired as a prep cook at a casual Italian restaurant. “The dynamics of a locker room are very similar to the dynamics of a kitchen. Having the camaraderie and the focus on being a team and working together filled a void in my life,” he says.

Pekarcik moved to California after he graduated and landed a job in San Diego working under Wolfgang Puck protegee Martin Woesle. Pekarcik learned California cuisine, micro-seasonal menus and direct-to-farmer relationships from the master chef. “This was my culinary school,” he says. 

Pekarcik spent the next decade in California, moving up the ranks under iconic West Coast chefs Gary Danko and Bradley Ogden. He hit the big-time as opening executive chef of Ogden’s Arterra Restaurant and Lounge in San Diego, but that left little time to spend with his family. When his wife became pregnant with the couple’s second child, they decided to move back east. Ogden’s connection through the Marriott hotel chain helped Pekarcik to win the job as head chef of Pittsburgh Marriott, City Center, Downtown, which included the Steelhead Grill Restaurant. 

Working as a hotel chef, particularly for banquets and room service, wasn’t for Pekarcik. He applied for a job at Willow in Ohio Township, now one of S + P’s restaurants. After cooking a few meals for owner Rick Stern, however, the two formed a grander plan: Approximately a year later, they opened Spoon, a critically acclaimed restaurant in East Liberty that helped to spur Pittsburgh’s current dining boom.

Fast-forward seven years: Pekarcik and Stern now oversee the operations of Spoon, Willow and five BRGR restaurants under S + P. Pekarcik still spends time on the line, particularly when he’s visiting Spoon, but not nearly as much as he used to do. “I learned I needed to let go of the power and control and trust the chefs I have,” he says.

He hit a speed bump last year when declining sales forced S + P to close Grit & Grace, its Downtown pan-Asian concept. “I was the hardest thing, professionally, that I’d ever gone through,” he says. “Each month was getting worse. You could see the writing on the wall.”

That means his next step, whatever it is, will be a considered one. “I’m much more cautious today. You learn from closing a restaurant, and you grow from that. It would have to be the right opportunity, concept and location,” he says. 



 

Cease and Desist

I wanted to put a burger on the menu that paid tribute to In and Out Burger. So I named the burger the “Double Double Animal Style” (still my favorite burger to eat there). A few weeks after opening, I received a “Cease and Desist” letter from a law firm in California. I changed the name to just that, circled it on the menu, sent it back to them and I haven’t heard from them since.

BRGR Thousand Island Aioli

  • 1 c blended oil
  • 1 egg yolk
  • 1 garlic clove, finely minced
  • 1 tsp lemon juice
  • 2 Tbsps ketchup 
  • ½ tsp Worcestershire sauce
  • 3 Tbsps minced cornichon 

Directions: Combine egg yolk, garlic and lemon juice. Slowly emulsify oil into the mixture until a mayonnaise is formed. Fold rest of ingredients into aioli. Season with salt and pepper.

Caramelized Onions

  • 1 Maui Sweet onion (OK to substitute Spanish or red onion), julienned
  • 1 Tbsp unsalted butter

Directions: Sweat onion in butter over high heat. Once onion starts to brown, lower heat to medium, being careful not to burn. Continue cooking for approximately 20 to 30 minutes on medium heat until dark golden-brown.

Assembly: Cook 4-6 fresh-ground, premium burgers until desired doneness. Top burgers with caramelized onions and American cheese. Melt cheese under a broiler. Top with 2 Tbsps of the BRGR Thousand Island Aioli.

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