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He moved to Pittsburgh — the city nearest to his hometown — and worked at a restaurant on Mount Washington for a few months. He then met big Burrito founders Tom Baron and Juno Yoon. The duo (Yoon since has sold his stake in the company) had no previous restaurant ownership experience but now were operating their first Mad Mex restaurant in Oakland. In 1995, they opened Kaya — a Caribbean-themed eatery — in the Strip District. They hired Fuller as Kaya’s sous chef, but Baron says, “He immediately took charge and took control. He took ownership of what we were doing.”
In October 1995, big Burrito Group opened its second specialty restaurant, Casbah, in Shadyside. “As soon as they got that place, I knew I wanted it,” Fuller says.
Fuller nearly worked himself to death. In February 1996, he was hospitalized for exhaustion, unable to walk due to a leg infection. He spent three days in a hospital. He went straight from the hospital to work at Casbah.
“Yelling, screaming, working long hours, discipline above all. Structure above all. I was awful,” he says.
Fuller now says that behavior reflected the general tilt of chef culture at the time — the harder you pushed yourself, the more hours you worked, the more you proved you were a real chef.
Changing kitchen culture is something that’s now at the forefront of Fuller’s agenda — but, in addition to the machismo of that moment, he faced another challenge in the mid-1990s. “That high level of demand for excellence, discipline and quality wasn’t happening in Pittsburgh. We had to make cooks. There was very little going on here.”
Says Buben: “He helped start the Renaissance there. The company he went to work for was very aggressive with putting their personal stamp on restaurants. It was ahead of its time.”
Fuller with Justin Severino, executive chef/co-owner of Cure and Morcilla
As big Burrito Restaurant Group opened more restaurants, Fuller built more cooks. A lot of them:
- Justin Severino, executive chef and co-owner of Cure and Morcilla, first worked for Fuller as a culinary intern in 1998.
- Derek Stevens first worked for Fuller in 1999 and ran the kitchen at Eleven for 10 years before opening Union Standard in early 2017.
- Stevens’ longtime sous chef Bethany Zozula now is executive chef of Whitfield at Ace Hotel.
- Kevin Sousa, who plans to open Superior Motors in Braddock, was an executive chef at Kaya and Soba.
- Chad Townsend worked for Fuller and Stevens at Eleven and later for Sousa at Salt of the Earth; Townsend took over that restaurant after Sousa’s departure and now operates Millie’s Homemade Ice Cream.
The list goes on and on (click here to see the full Fuller family tree).
“He took me under his wing. He saw I was hungry and that I wanted something,” Severino says.
Early in his career, Severino was offered the sous chef position at Casbah, but he wanted to leave Pittsburgh. Severino told Fuller he was planning to move to Florida, but Fuller talked him out of it and hooked him up with a job on the California coast.
“Bill is the reason I moved to California. And California was absolutely the biggest influence on me as a chef,” says Severino.
Fuller hired Severino as sous chef of Eleven when he returned from California in 2007.
For other Fuller protégés, the biggest takeaways took place outside the kitchen.