This Restless Pair are Pittsburgh Restaurateurs of the Year
Together, Richard DeShantz and Tolga Sevdik of the Richard DeShantz Restaurant Group form the Pittsburgh restaurant world's most dynamic duo.
Tolga Sevdik spends at least 70 hours a week rotating through the six restaurants that make up the Richard DeShantz Restaurant Group. He’s the co-owner and chief operating officer of a growing company that employs more than 300 people at four Downtown establishments — Meat & Potatoes, Butcher and the Rye, täkō and Pork & Beans — as well as two East End spaces, Poulet Bleu in Lawrenceville and Fish nor Fowl in Garfield. So Sevdik likes to sleep whenever he gets the chance. Problem is, his business partner will sometimes call in the dim hours when toll booth workers, bread bakers and fisherfolk are the only ones really awake.
“There are times I get texts from him at 5 a.m. that say, ‘What do you think of this chair?’ and I’m just like, ‘Why is he awake thinking about chairs right now?’” Sevdik says.
Richard DeShantz is the design-obsessed chef of the duo. Sometimes, he gets so caught up in his projects that he forgets to sleep. “My mind starts racing, and then I can’t stop racing. A couple of weeks ago I didn’t sleep four or five days in a row. I also didn’t sleep for a couple of days when I was in Japan [in March]. I pulled a Jerry Maguire. I wrote a manifesto,” he says.
Sevdik was the first person to read it.
The restless duo are Pittsburgh Magazine’s 2019 Restaurateurs of the Year.
Pre-dawn conversations and revelations are nothing new. It was in the madrugada that the partnership that would eventually become the nexus of the Richard DeShantz Restaurant Group was formed. Sevdik finished work as general manager of a Strip District nightclub called DejaVu around 4 a.m., right about the time DeShantz started his day across the street at his first restaurant, Cafe Richard. Sevdik would bring a six-pack, DeShantz would make sandwiches, and they’d spend a few hours chatting. One day, Sevdik says, “Rick told me he needed help organizing all his bills.” And just like that, Sevdik became a bookkeeper.
Sevdik, originally from Turkey, moved to Pittsburgh in 1995. He’s the “behind-the-scenes, let’s make sure the nuts and bolts are tightened and shiny” manager. DeShantz, a Pittsburgh-area native, is the always-on-the-move, culinary and creative visionary of the restaurant group that has his name on it. Together, they form the Pittsburgh restaurant world’s most dynamic duo.
Over the past eight years, they’ve made their spaces the go-to spots for eating and drinking Downtown. They’ve provided a training ground for the next generation of the city’s chefs, bartenders and servers — many of whom have remained loyal to the restaurant group since it opened Meat & Potatoes in 2011, which is no small feat in a profession where changing jobs is a common practice.
Last year’s expansion to the East End was an evolution for DeShantz and Sevdik. Their Downtown establishments — celebratory spaces with good things to eat — are booming. Moving forward, they were looking to step up their culinary focus.
Poulet Bleu’s February 2018 opening was the first salvo; they moved into a building that previously housed a couple of pan-Asian restaurants. “We gutted the whole space. We wanted to transport you somewhere else. You feel like you should be eating French food when you walk in there,” DeShantz says.
In the dining room, soft patterns of blue and white are punctuated with zinc, brass and pewter. Gilded-era tunes from the United States, France and England play at just the right volume. Servers attired in uniforms that play into the theme without hammering it too hard are among the city’s most attentive — formal without losing the fun. The menu is spot-on bistro classic, with indulgent dishes such as French onion soup, mushrooms vol-au-vent and trout almondine setting the stage for a stunning finale of chocolate souffle.
Fish nor Fowl, where the game-changing Salt of the Earth restaurant once stood, is a sharp counterpoint. It’s a contemporary-as-can-be restaurant with a minimalist, Scandinavian-inspired lower floor punctuated with a verdant living wall and an upstairs dining space that’s a hygge wonderland complete with fur blankets. Here, the menu is modern American; think delicate slices of cured foie gras garnished with miso, vanilla oil and long pepper and lemonfish tartare with wild onions, sorrel and pickled and fried sunchokes. At the same time, there’s comfort to be found in the house-made pasta and braised chicken. The bar program is one of the best in town, with food-friendly cocktails and a strong beer list.
The new openings reinforced DeShantz’s belief that restaurants should be escapist fantasies, something that was informed by his formative years growing up in working-class Sheraden.
“Eating in restaurants felt like I was escaping somewhere else. I would save my money, dress up and take a bus Downtown. I could be anyone I wanted to be at a restaurant,” he says.
Pittsburgh restaurants currently are slogging through a shortage of labor in both front and back of house, yet the DeShantz Group keeps expanding. How are they keeping up without diffusing the quality of the experiences at each restaurant? The duo relies on a large bench of longtime employees to keep things sharp. “We have things to do everywhere. We’re all hands in right now,” Sevdik says.
Front of house loyalists such as Maggie Meskey, Kevin Kelley, Michael R. Anderson and Jigmed Latshang, as well as experienced newer hires such as John Wabeck and Casey Henderlong, work as field generals to keep systems in place.
In the kitchen, DeShantz has an eye for working to people’s strengths, and he rewards loyalty. While his name might be the one on the title, he has for the past several years pushed the rest of his culinary team to the forefront. For example, when he opened Fish nor Fowl he named Dan Carlton, chef of Butcher for six years, as executive chef; it is the first time someone other than DeShantz holds that title. And while he worked with opening chef de cuisine Ryan Hart on the Poulet Bleu menu, he mostly let Hart run the show. When Hart left Pittsburgh earlier this year, he moved Colin Whiddon from Meat, recognizing that his skillset worked better at the deliberately paced Poulet than it did at the macho Meat.
But even juggling a loyal lineup isn’t enough — over the last year DeShantz has cut back on the length of the menus at the Downtown restaurants. And he’s spending more time cooking on the line, too.
Sevdik’s day typically starts around 7 a.m., when he reads the daily recaps from each restaurant and answers emails over breakfast and coffee at home. He makes a to-do list for the day and is Downtown by 9 a.m. doing paperwork, paying bills and placing food orders. Management and most of the chefs show up around noon and Sevdik spends the next few hours with them. Once the restaurants open at 5 p.m., he’s wherever he’s needed, hopping on his Vespa if he’s pulled out of Downtown. He tries to show his face at each restaurant every day. He attempts to get home by 9 p.m., but often finds himself working at one of the restaurants until its midnight closing. “It’s a large group, and we need to be there with them in person,” he says.
Every day is a deliberative process. Both men are obsessive note takers. “I write things down every day. What do I want to accomplish today ... tonight?” says DeShantz.
In addition to reading as much as he can and listening to business podcasts, Sevdik is taking classes in human resources and accounting and is working on implementing systems with a more layered structure.
“I don’t have a corporate background, which is one thing I wish I had a little more of. We didn’t expect to have six — soon to have eight — restaurants. It almost becomes corporate, even though it’s still the two of us who are owners,” Sevdik says.
DeShantz is now ping-ponging between two new projects. There’s Gi-Gin, the Japanese-inspired raw bar and gin house that he’s building Downtown next to Butcher & the Rye. “Here, it’s, ‘What rice am I going to use? Where am I getting the fish?’ But it’s not just the food. It’s the ceilings. It’s the walls. It’s the textures that you touch,” he says.
And then, pong, it’s back to the Strip District where he’s opening Coop de Ville, a fun-filled Southern kitchen with a lounge area and arcade games. He’s partnering with James Ciminillo, a chef who has been with him since the start and currently lends a hand wherever he is needed. “My mind goes to the bar, the bowling alley, the chairs, the towels. Everything,” DeShantz says.
Then, maybe, says Sevdik, it’ll be time to slow down a little. After all, he just got married, and he’d like to spend a bit more time with his wife. He looks to DeShantz, who quickly replies, “Maybe. I have a lot of new concept ideas running in my mind.”