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Story by Hal B. Klein | Photos by Laura Petrilla
Bill Fuller last was Pittsburgh Magazine’s Chef of the Year in 1998. An accompanying photograph depicts the chef, then 30, as Don Juan of the kitchen, his eyes staring into the soul of the camera as he peers through the window of a stucco building. Dressed in whites, he sports a handlebar mustache sturdy enough to drive a Harley, accented by a thick, racing-stripe goatee. Hooped earrings dangle from both ears. The caption: “Bill Fuller looks for future challenges.”
“High-energy, short fuse and very comfortable with being in charge. I like busy and crazy and being at the center to hold it all together,” he described himself at the time.
Nearly 20 years later, Fuller’s fuse is longer, though it sometimes hits the crackling point. High-energy and happy to be at the center of it all remain ingrained in his character.
He’s corporate chef and partner of big Burrito Restaurant Group, the most influential restaurant company in the city and one that’s built itself as a training ground for cooks, bartenders and front-of-house managers. Through Fuller’s consistently growing commitment to local food systems, big Burrito has helped to develop and cultivate the local farm-to-restaurant economy — and to shape the way Pittsburgh dines.
“There’s no job like mine. Very few people get to do this,” Fuller says.
Fuller’s portfolio includes overseeing five specialty restaurants — Eleven Contemporary Kitchen, Casbah Mediterranean Kitchen and Wine Bar, Soba, umi and Kaya — as well as 14 fast-casual Mad Mex restaurants and a full-service catering operation. Even in an increasingly competitive environment, his restaurants remain in-demand and relevant.
Fuller grew up in Falls Creek, a small borough that spans the boundary of rural Jefferson and Clearfield counties. He was, by his account, “dirt poor.” Hunting, gardening, canning and freezing food was a means of survival. His family relied on hunger-assistance programs, particularly after his father left the family. Even then, there often wasn’t food on the table at the end of the week. “We got free lunches. I was so ashamed,” Fuller says.
He left home immediately after graduating from high school and spent four months hitchhiking to Seattle. “I wanted to be Jack Kerouac.”
Fuller didn’t stay on the road for long, returning to Falls Creek shortly before Christmas of that year. A few months later, he moved to Washington, D.C. to follow a woman he met at a Grateful Dead show, and he got a job cooking at Krammerbooks & Afterwords Cafe. The relationship didn’t last, but Fuller’s relationship with restaurant kitchens did. He soon was working in the kitchen at The Occidental, a restaurant in Downtown Washington, under the wing of Chef Jeffrey Buben, one of the biggest names in town.
“It was about organization, structure, speed and efficiency,” Fuller says. “If you could survive in that kitchen, you could do anything.”
Fuller worked for Buben for seven years.
“He was willing to listen. He was willing to absorb. Talk about high-energy. He was willing to do whatever it took to get the job done,” says Buben, now chef/owner of Woodward Table and Bistro Bis in Washington.
Although Fuller was rough around the edges, even then the hungry young chef displayed leadership qualities, Buben says. “Some people have talent, the intuitive sense of cooking. Some people have drive. The people that have both are the ones that go head and shoulders above everyone else. When you have someone like that you push them forward.”
Fuller’s connection to growing up in poverty in western Pennsylvania still nagged him, so he put himself through college, earning a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from George Mason University. “I’m living in D.C. and meeting all these diplomat kids and intellectuals, and I realized I was just some hick line cook,” he says.
His next stop was California to pursue a doctorate in chemistry at the University of California Berkeley. He stayed for three years, earning a master’s degree before dropping out of the program. “I wanted to get back into the restaurant business,” he says.