Six Pittsburgh Chefs Who Are Outstanding in Their Field
In addition to awarding Best Restaurant honors this year, our Independent Restaurant Review Panel also voted to recognize six chefs for their contributions to Pittsburgh’s culinary community in 2015.
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Wei Zhu, chef and owner of Chengdu Gourmet in Squirrel Hill, crafts an authentic taste of his homeland with his well-executed menu of classic dishes, but while adhering to tradition he’s forging his own style by looking to contemporary Chinese dining trends and international flavors.
“The food here is my style, Wei Zhu’s style,” says Zhu, 49, a native of the city of Chengdu in China’s Sichuan province.
A recently added beef soup dish combines traditional Sichuan elements such as garlic, ginger, pea shoots and Sichuan peppercorns, but it also is served with Japanese ramen noodles and dressed with fresh and pickled jalapeño peppers. Or there’s Zhu’s addictive Chinese winter sausage, an item on the menu for only a few months of the year. The rich, fatty links are enhanced with organ meat and ferment into funky, delicious bites as they age.
“At other Chinese restaurants, they just make the same dishes. I am always trying to keep updated on what chefs are doing in China,” he says.
For example, raw fish is becoming increasingly popular in China. Although diners in the United States might wonder why something that feels more at home in a sushi joint is on a Sichuan menu, Zhu says this is right on trend with what’s happening in China.
He says it can take a couple of months of working on a dish before he’s satisfied that it’s ready for his menu. He’ll research dishes popular with contemporary Chinese chefs and then try to make adjustments, testing the dishes on his staff as he goes.
Zhu moved to Pittsburgh seven years ago to work as the chef at Szechuan Gourmet on Murray Avenue in Squirrel Hill and China Star in McCandless Township. Before that, he cooked at restaurants in New York and New Jersey. Zhu grew up as the son of a baker, and according to cultural tradition he was expected to do the same work when he graduated from middle school at age 16. But his discovery of savory cooking opened up a whole new world for him, and after baking for two and a half years, he petitioned Chinese government leaders for permission to change careers; they allowed him to do so.
It was a challenge, he says, to cook for American diners. Their palates weren’t accustomed to many of the flavors of Sichuan province. Sichuan peppercorn, one of the primary components of the region’s cuisine, was banned in the United States until 2008. The dried berries of the prickly ash tree are an essential balancing element of the cuisine, as its numbing effect counters the fiery heat of peppers.
“Chinese food in America usually has too much sugar, and I’m not going to do that,” says Zhu, who prefers dishes that are pungent or sour.
There also were self-imposed limitations, with Zhu believing most American diners might not be open enough to experiment with the cuisine. He still offers an extensive “American” Chinese menu at his restaurant, but thanks to an expanding customer base eager for adventure and a growing population of Chinese students in Pittsburgh, he says he finally feels more comfortable pushing the boundaries of his cuisine.
Zhu still hopes to overcome some hurdles as he ascends Pittsburgh’s culinary Pantheon. He’s taking English-language classes Downtown so he can communicate more effectively with his customers and with local chefs. The downside of the classes: They keep Zhu out of the kitchen for a few hours a week. That forces him to confront the biggest challenge he’s faced so far: hiring a top-notch kitchen staff that can consistently prepare food to his standard.
His other challenge he has is logistical. “It is hard to find all the ingredients I want here,” he says. “I have to go to New York to get some of the vegetables and the spices, but some of the dishes are still different than in China because it’s too hard to get all of the ingredients here.”
Later this year, Zhu says he hopes to build a small dining room downstairs at Chengdu Gourmet where he can experiment more deeply with his dishes.
Ryan Lee translated for Wei Zhu for this article.
Bread and Salt (no longer in operation)
(photo by Hal B. Klein)
Although Rick Easton’s Bread and Salt Bakery now is no longer in operation, Pittsburgh Magazine’s independent Restaurant Review Panel still voted to recognize Easton for his contribution to Pittsburgh’s gastronomic rise in 2015.
Easton’s bakery in Bloomfield was in many ways the most significant opening of 2015, garnering heaps of attention in Pittsburgh and from national media outlets ranging from The New York Times to Eater. Former Times food writer Mark Bittman wrote his final column about Easton’s world-class pizza al taglio (Roman-style pizza).
Easton, 40, is a native of Washington County and returned to Pittsburgh in 2012 after spending 12 years in Charlottesville, Va. He came back to Pittsburgh with the intention of opening a bread bakery after rising to local prominence for his naturally leavened rustic loaves of bread. He continued to bake those breads in Pittsburgh, and, before opening Bread and Salt, earned a cult following by selling them from The Livermore in East Liberty. By the time he ended Bread and Salt’s year-long run in February, however, his eatery primarily was known for the famous pizza, although his daily soup, sandwich and small-plate specials, and sweet treats such as bombolini and lemon curd, were equally spectacular.
There were issues with Bread and Salt, many of which were discussed by the independent Restaurant Review Panel during its meetings. Easton hadn’t intended for the space to be a restaurant, but once it was evident the location had become a destination-dining spot, he could have pivoted in that direction by adding more places to sit down and eat. The by-the-pound pricing system confused some customers; it wouldn’t have taken much to train the counter staff to walk people through it. Speaking of prices, they were higher at Bread and Salt than at similar establishments because Easton used high-quality ingredients; just because a product is called ‘pizza’ doesn’t inherently mean it needs to be cheap.
Easton raised the standard for sourcing by doing yeoman's work supporting regional farmers, particularly in his connection with grain-grower Nigel Tudor of Weatherbury Farm in Avella. For that and for his extraordinary culinary talent, Pittsburgh Magazine salutes him for his extraordinary work in Pittsburgh in 2015.
He’s now living in New York City and pursuing opportunities there.
Rising Star Chef
Morcilla, chef de cuisine
Nate Hobart is 23 years old. For the last 3.5 years, the lanky, 6 feet, 4 inch-tall chef loomed large as the sous chef of Cure in Upper Lawrenceville, faithfully executing the vision of his boss and mentor, Justin Severino.
Now the chef de cuisine at Morcilla in Lower Lawrenceville, Hobart is a well-known commodity inside Pittsburgh’s restaurant community. We believe his rocksteady demeanor and strong leadership abilities now have earned him acclaim outside that world: Hobart is Pittsburgh Magazine’s 2016 Rising Star Chef.
“I’ve never worked with anyone like him,” says Severino, the executive chef and co-owner of Cure and Morcilla.
Hobart started working with Severino while he was still a student at the Le Cordon Bleu Institute of Culinary Arts. In the past five years, he’s become Severino’s trusted right hand; at one point the chef fired nearly all of Cure’s culinary team, and the two men ran the restaurant as a pair for five months.
“Even though he was super-young, he was always poised, focused and on time. We made the food better because we didn’t have to worry about what was happening with anyone else,” Severino says.
The rapport between the two chefs allowed Severino to promote from within his culinary team in Pittsburgh when he was searching for someone to run the day-to-day operations of the kitchen at Morcilla, Pittsburgh Magazine’s Best New Restaurant for 2016. Severino’s input still is integral to developing and changing the menu at the Spanish restaurant, but Hobart increasingly is taking ownership of both culinary and kitchen-management responsibilities. Severino might get the bulk of the credit for Morcilla’s success, but this is Hobart’s kitchen.
Hobart credits his work ethic and his head-down, focused approach to cooking for his success. Although, he won’t actually admit he is a success — yet.
“I feel like I already am ahead of myself. That’s what pushes me to come in here and give it my best and give it my all. I’ve been given this awesome opportunity at a really young age, so it forces me to do better every day and show everyone around me that I’m going to work harder than you are. I have to do that to prove myself,” Hobart says.
The rise of the celebrity chef and the increased popularity of dining out as a primary means of entertainment have created a culture in which many young chefs decide to strike out on their own once they start to build a bit of buzz for themselves. Hobart isn’t having any of it.
“For right now, I don’t want it to be any other way. I feel like I’m way too young to make those decisions. I just want to continue to learn and grow from these experiences working here,” he says.