Kitchen Roots: Ruta, Solomonov and Ehland
Chefs who grew up in Pittsburgh are shaping the culinary scene in other cities across the country — and gaining national recognition in the process.
The national influence of people who came of age in the Pittsburgh area is celebrated across many fields. Michael Keaton, Shirley Jones and many other homegrown actors are longtime, popular fixtures on big and small screens. Billy Porter, one of Pittsburgh Magazine’s three 2015 Pittsburghers of the Year, is the toast of Broadway. Joe Montana, Dan Marino and others forged Hall of Fame careers and became icons of the NFL. Pulitzer Prize-winning authors Annie Dillard and David McCullough both grew up in Point Breeze. Pop star Christina Aguilera spent some of her formative years here.
Less talked about — surprisingly, perhaps, considering Pittsburgh continues to rise to a prominent place in the culinary spotlight — are the Pittsburgh-bred chefs who influence what we eat in restaurants throughout the United States. Steeltown chefs are winning James Beard recognition and piling up Michelin stars in locations as far afield as Portland, Maine and San Francisco.
“Pittsburgh hasn’t been appropriately recognized as a food town. There are so many folks that have ties to Pittsburgh that have influenced the food scene,” says Dr. Tim Ryan, the Pittsburgh-born and -raised president of the Culinary Institute of America.
While the wider world is just beginning to give Pittsburgh the credit it’s due, “Pittsburghers who have moved elsewhere remain fiercely loyal to Pittsburgh,” Ryan says.
Three chefs are emblematic of Pittsburgh’s roots rising. One is, quietly, a legend. One is having his moment among the most influential chefs of the culinary world. And one is on the precipice of becoming a pastry powerhouse.
photo courtesy frank ruta
“Looks like they fired [former Pittsburgh Penguins coach] Mike Johnston today,” Frank Ruta says as he steps out of the kitchen at The Grill Room, his fine-dining restaurant in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, D.C. The 58-year-old chef — he looks a decade younger — left Pittsburgh when he was 22 but says he still reads the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette nearly every day.
“Pittsburgh has always been near and dear to me. I still have a lot of friends up there. New friends, old friends,” he says.
Consommé is one of Ruta’s signature dishes and is emblematic of his cuisine. In its most current iteration at The Grill Room, it’s a refined oxtail broth spiked with sherry and vinegar and filled with delicate butternut-squash raviolini, foraged mushrooms and slivers of foie gras. Eating it is a journey. Rich slivers of foie buoy off the perfect balance of sourness and acidity. Tiny, soft ravioli pack a luxurious flavor punch, while other bites are offset by slightly crunchy greens.
Ruta cooks with the precision and technique of a French chef but the soul of an Italian.
Photos courtesy of frank ruta
He grew up in McKeesport. His paternal grandfather emigrated from Italy in the 1920s (“It didn’t really take, so he went back.”) and later settled in McKeesport in the 1930s. His father followed from Molise (once part of Abruzzo, where Ruta’s mother was born) after graduating from college. Both Rutas worked in a steel mill.
“Everyone [on our block] knew each other,” Ruta says, the inflection in his dialect still resonant of the mill town.
His family grew much of what they ate, cured their own charcuterie and even made wine. Family meals were a priority, and Sunday meals were a big deal. That tradition carries on — albeit in a smaller way — in McKeesport today. “My dad is 89. He still makes wine and still does his garden,” Ruta says.
Ruta moved well beyond the humble world of the basement charcuteria.
When he was 17, Ruta enrolled in the American Culinary Federation apprentice program, which requires the apprentice to work in a single kitchen under the training of a certified chef for 6,000 hours before he or she can graduate; Ruta trained at the now-closed Lemon Tree in McKeesport. He next worked at what is now the Omni William Penn Hotel, Downtown. At 21, he was running the kitchen of a country club in Irwin.
“That’s when the White House called,” he says.
Ruta spent more than 11 years working in the White House, preparing private and public meals for Presidents Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush and their families. He was the executive sous chef by the time he left in 1991, but he’s circumspect about glamorizing the experience. “It was nice to be witness to the President and the first lady and all of their guests, but the focus was all about work when you were in the kitchen,” he says.
In an age before celebrity-chef culture was common, cooking for the President and his family was a pretty straightforward proposition. “You’re not cooking for your ego or for a photograph. You’re cooking for what they are having for dinner, just like in anyone’s home. We were domestics, really,” he says.
“I’ve never had that star in my eye about the White House.”
While the cachet of working as a White House chef doesn’t appear to faze Ruta, his experience cooking there under chefs Henry Haller, Hans Reffert and Roland Mesnier was fundamental to the rest of his career. “Those three people I worked with in the kitchen, they were like walking encyclopedias,” he says.
From them, Ruta says he learned a lifetime’s worth of classical technique. He learned precision and patience. He learned observation. They were the foundation of his career and the fundamentals of some of the dishes for which he is best known today.
He wasn’t allowed to make consommé — a dish for which he’s now so celebrated — during his first three years at the White House. Instead, he watched as the chef prepared it and then was allowed to strain the broth. One day — with no additional instruction — he was told he’d now be in charge of the soup.
If he was doing something repetitious, Reffert would tap his back in rhythm and whisper in his ear, “One just like the other, one just like the other.”
"That sort of thing never leaves you once you’re trained to do it,” Ruta says.
When Ruta struck out on his own and opened Palena in 2000 in the Cleveland Park neighborhood of Washington, he was a trailblazer of the resurgence of the modern produce-to-table movement. Over the years, Ruta established deep relationships with farmers and ranchers who work with him to ensure his restaurants have the finest ingredients. In this sense he is perhaps one of the most influential chefs on the East Coast, even if he doesn’t appear on TV shows or often in newspapers and magazines.
Ruta ran Palena until 2014, when the restaurant closed in the wake of a financial dispute following an expansion in 2010. While there, he won praise from the press and public, including Food and Wine Magazine’s “Best New Chef” in 2001 and the 2007 James Beard award for Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic (he shared the honor with R.J. Cooper) for the food at Palena.
He landed at his current home, The Grill Room at the Capella Hotel in Georgetown, in January 2015. It took time for Ruta to shape its menu into something that felt like his own, but now it’s starting to hum. Ruta says he approaches menu design at The Grill Room in the way he did at Palena. Always, it begins with the seasons. “If it’s not growing in my garden, it doesn’t belong on my menu,” he says, though he adds that supply infrastructure has developed enough that seasons now are extended.
“It used to be that you’d make a menu knowing that something would last just a few weeks. It used to be one harvest and then it was done. Now the seasons are extended because you can get [produce] from farms in different microclimates,” he says.
Next, he says, “Everything needs to have precedents. It has to be rooted somewhere. You can’t just pull it out of the air.”
Finally, there’s Ruta’s Italian heritage and McKeesport upbringing. “Those flavors never leave you. If I’m making something that was from my childhood, I’m not trying to make it the way I think I would make it now. I’m trying to recreate the flavors of my childhood,” he says.
Ruta sings his philosophy on his plates. There is the wickedly wonderful Harvest “Carpaccio,” which was on the late autumn/early winter menu at The Grill Room. He started the dish with Fairy Tale pumpkin obtained from one of his farmers. Around the same time, his forager delivered Lagatto truffles, a newly discovered variety from West Virginia. Ruta likely is the first chef to feature these truffles on his menu. The same forager also delivered Chiodini mushrooms, which Ruta pickled. He added farro, greens, Parmigiano-Reggiano, a quail egg, balsamic and olive oil to create a dish evocative of eating a hunter’s lunch in cold, foggy mountain mornings in the woods of northern Italy.
Ruta’s dishes demonstrate how mastering the marriage of technique, choice ingredients and a deep-rooted sense of place can affect diners in a way that’s far deeper than simply “fill up and shut up.” This is why classic dining still has a place in the American culinary landscape.
Ruta says he’s planted in D.C. now. While a permanent return to Pittsburgh doesn’t seem likely, his roots remain here. “Pittsburgh is always going to be home,” he says. “Any time I see someone with a Steelers bumper sticker or a Penguins logo on the car, I feel completely comfortable starting a conversation with them.”
Mike Solomonov (left) and Steven Cook in Israel /photo by michael regan/
It’s 8 p.m. and Zahav — the flagship restaurant of Michael Solomonov and Steven Cook, in the Society Hill neighborhood of Philadelphia — is booming.
Solomonov, the chef, runs his kitchen from the bread oven. With a swish, he slides laffa dough into an inferno heated by compressed bricks of Pennsylvania oak. He turns left to instruct a cook to add more skewers to the line of charcoal grill boxes and looks out at diners feasting in the packed room.
Solomonov, 37, and Cook, 42, both Jewish, opened Zahav in 2008, ahead of the curve of other well-known restaurants such as Fat Pasha in Toronto and Shaya in New Orleans that focus on one of the biggest food trends of the moment — Israeli cuisine. Zahav is considered to be the pinnacle, a destination restaurant. “What is Israeli cuisine?” Eater’s restaurant editor Bill Addison wrote in 2014. “The food at Zahav offers the most thorough and sensuous answer in America.”
Solomonov’s world easily could be about ego right now — he is a James Beard award winner (2011 Best Chef, Mid-Atlantic), Eater’s 2014 Chef of the Year and he just wrapped up a national tour for his first cookbook. Instead, he gets his kicks by watching customers eat his food; the validation is in the satisfaction of feeding people, of making their night special through nourishment.
“To get to a level like the one Zahav has reached, there has to be something deeper than just trying to be a great chef. You have to dig into your background and into who you are as a person, and that’s where Mike’s connection to his roots comes in,” says Cook.
photos by hal b. klein
From his post at the bread oven in Zahav, Solomonov is Dad running the neighborhood barbeque, that one party everyone looks forward to all year. As he pulls the laffa from the oven, he dances like an Olympic athlete seconds before the starting gun, pulsating with energy. Solomonov already is 12 hours into his day, but he seems to get stronger the deeper into service he gets.
“This is the best place in the restaurant to stand. I can see my guests when they come in. I can see them enjoying what they’re eating. I can see everything that’s happening in the kitchen,” says Solomonov.
The laffa, crackling on the ends, soft and puffy in the center, is folded over and plated with hummus, one of the dishes that has made Solomonov famous. Silky and subtly flavored with cumin and lemon, it’s so good that you’ll forever turn your nose to grocery-store hummus.
At Zahav, there’s a parade of mezze that, while not designed to convert anyone to veganism, easily could do so. There are deeply savory eggplants, earthy, candy-like beets mixed with bittersweet tahina (the thread that binds at Zahav), herbal, grassy vegetal cabbage, familiar comfort of green beans and tomatoes, and a bowl of Bulgarian-style peppers spiked with vinegar and gentle heat that’s so flavorful you might beg your server for another.
Vegetable choices begin to feel akin to a sea of endless possibilities. Brussels sprouts tabbouleh — raw, shaved leaves mixed with olive oil, pomegranate and aged cheese — make the “crispy-and-with-bacon” trend feel played out. Just as you’re about to slow down, there’s butternut-squash puree seeping from inside crispy triangles of phyllo and paired with pears.
Above the center of Zahav’s kitchen is a state-of-the-art hood that allows Solomonov’s crew to cook directly over charcoal. Charred squares of haloumi, lamb merguez, duck with pistachios and foie gras, duck hearts and chicken parts all are enriched with the flavor of hot coals. As with the vegetables, each is distinct, every flavor combination meant to stand on its own.
Lamb shoulder is the dish for which Solomonov currently is most celebrated. It’s salted and smoked. It’s then braised in pomegranate molasses, allspice, garlic and fennel. It’s glazed with a reduction of the braising liquid and served with crispy-crust rice pilaf so good it’s worthy of its own celebrity. It’s hard to not get caught up in the hedonism of lamb fat coating your hands and face while you eat it. Your gut might tell you that you should feel a little guilty. Your soul will tell your gut to sod off.
Solomonov’s passion for introducing American diners to Israeli cuisine is a far cry from the indifference of the self-described goalless, disaffected kid who grew up in Squirrel Hill, Pittsburgh’s historically Jewish neighborhood. “The truth is, when I was growing up in Pittsburgh I wasn’t at all into food. People talk about Squirrel Hill as the center of Jewish community in Pittsburgh, and religiously I got that. But as far as eating out and Jewish food, I wasn’t really part of that. There was Jewish food in the home, too, but it wasn’t a deep connection for me when I was a kid,” he says.
When he lived in Pittsburgh from ages 2-15, he says he was a punk kid looking to have a good time. It took a multiyear return to Israel, where he was born, and a typically Pittsburgh connection to find those roots again.
His business partner, Cook, grew up in a Reform Jewish family in Florida, but Cook’s wife Shira is a native of Pittsburgh. Her dad was Solomonov’s optometrist. Solomonov’s mom was her fifth-grade teacher. “Squirrel Hill is like a shtetl,” Solomonov says, using the Yiddish word for tight-knit villages in Europe from which many Jews emigrated to the United States.
After a chance meeting at a Whole Foods in Philadelphia, Shira Cook reached out to Solomonov about an opening for a chef at her husband’s restaurant, Marigold Kitchen. “Mike and I got into business together with almost zero due diligence. It was like, ‘Oh, his family is from Squirrel Hill, and they know my wife’s family.’ Squirrel Hill carried a lot of weight even though we were outside of there,” says Cook.
The pair now own five different concept restaurants together (they are no longer involved in Marigold Kitchen). Dizengoff expands on Solomonov’s hummus. Here, you’ll find it with chicken skin, beets or less traditional combinations such as avocado and harissa. Next door to Dizengoff is Abe Fisher, a modern twist on a Jewish deli. “Abe Fisher is a collaboration and explosion of the influences that we did have in common,” says Cook.
Percy Street BBQ, a partnership with chef and co-owner Erin O’Shea, represents a departure from Solomonov and Cook’s focus on their Jewish heritage. Finally, there’s Federal Donuts, the gold-star concept with five Philadelphia locations that combines the craveability of fried chicken with the timeless satisfaction of freshly made donuts. People line up for this.
Of late, Cook, the non-native, has had the deeper connection to Pittsburgh. He and his family make the cross-state trip up to six times a year. “We sit on my in-laws’ porch, and people come by all the time to talk,” he says.
Recently, though, Solomonov has started to explore his roots again after coming to town for a few collaboration dinners over the past few years. “When I was a kid, Pittsburgh was such an [uninspiring place] that I was never inspired to come back here. It’s amazing to come back and see the city the way it is now. The front-porch thing and the community is amazing. Plus everyone is now moving back to Pittsburgh. There’s cool restaurants, and there are people like Justin [Severino] who are doing things that just didn’t happen here a few years ago,” he says.
He and Cook now are looking at their first project in Pittsburgh, an outpost of Federal Donuts. “When I was 15, I would [party] in Frick Park. And now I’m there with my son pushing him on the swing set. It’s amazing to be in this place where I’m in now,” he says.
photo courtesy sean ehland
It’s the morning after Thanksgiving. Sean Ehland, 30, sips coffee from a battle-tested big Burrito thermos. “This isn’t a prop. I really use this,” he says.
He’s sitting at a sunny table at Aster, the San Francisco restaurant where he’s the pastry chef. The restaurant, open for less than a year, was awarded a prestigious star by the Michelin Guide in October.
An alarm dings on his phone, and he presses a button to steam the oven where his sourdough bread is baking. It’s a San Francisco sourdough now, but that same starter of wild yeast and bacteria once grew in Pittsburgh, too.
“I obsess over things. It’s a blessing and a curse. That’s how this bread program got started,” he says.
Ehland grew up in Robinson Township, playing in punk rock bands and dreaming of becoming a professional musician one day. Yet even in high school — he attended Parkway West Career and Technology Center, a vocational school where he took cooking classes for two years — he suspected he might end up in a restaurant kitchen. “It was my backup to being a musician. This turned out much better,” he says. “I wasn’t that great at playing the guitar.”
Ehland left Pittsburgh in 2011, but the city — especially the mentorship of big Burrito Restaurant Group corporate chef Bill Fuller — lingers with him. “Sean was a 17-year-old vegan kid with tattoos who didn’t know what he wanted in life when he started with us. Cooking was a good opportunity for him,” says Fuller.
Ehland says working for big Burrito was akin to attending a management university propelled by Fuller’s ability to identify and draw out strengths in members of the group’s kitchen brigade. “When someone comes in with interest and drive and ambition they have an opportunity to develop. There are all these restaurants with different styles, so if you hang around and you’re interested you can really develop yourself,” says Fuller.
That’s what Ehland did.
Photos by Hal B. Klein
He started at the bottom at Kaya, big Burrito’s casual, Caribbean-themed restaurant, after graduating from high school in 2004. At the same time, he also completed his studies at the now-closed Pennsylvania Culinary Institute. Eventually Ehland worked his way to become Kaya’s sous chef, a position he then held at Casbah for about a year. He spent a month working in Portland, Maine, before returning to Pittsburgh and big Burrito as the sous chef of Soba. In 2009, his career with the group ran full circle when he became the executive chef of Kaya, a position he held through 2011.
Fuller introduced Ehland to the idea of regional, seasonal cooking, something that eventually would become pivotal to Ehland’s success. “Bill was always really good about finding farmers and working with them to scale up their production to restaurant demands. He was pretty ahead of his time with that stuff,” Ehland says.
After working for one restaurant group for more than seven years, Ehland was ready to move on. What he found was the epicenter of regional cookery in the United States — McCrady’s, Sean Brock’s restaurant in Charleston, S.C. After a two-week tryout, he was hired as a tournade, the all-purpose chef who could fill in for just about everyone. He was exposed to some serious pastry work for the first time, and he says he found the marriage of art and chemistry meshed with his personality. As luck would have it, the pastry chef was planning on leaving. Ehland auditioned for the job. He got it.
“It was an intense learning curve. I didn’t have any technical training. I found what worked and what didn’t. It was intense, but it was fun, too,” he says.
Building on what he learned in Pittsburgh, he embraced Brock’s emphasis on forging a connection with the people who bring ingredients to the back door of the restaurant. “You start to think about these products as the extension of the people who grew them. This is their life, their livelihood. Respect the product. Cherish it,” he says.
In Charleston, he also began baking bread. Most pastry chefs aren’t bread bakers, and most bread bakers aren’t pastry chefs, but after experimenting with baking loaves at home using the Tartine cast-iron pot technique, Ehland says, “I caught the bug. I became obsessed with it. Completely.”
That combination of intensity and obsession is helping to mold Ehland into one of the most notable members of a new generation of pastry chefs in the United States. In the basement of Aster, where he does most of his prep work in a corner nook shared with the dish pit, two drawers are labeled ‘notebooks.’ “I take notes on everything. There are notebooks everywhere,” he says.
Once service begins at night, Ehland moves upstairs to his station in the small open kitchen. He puts a block of stainless steel over a sink so that he can have more room to work. He’s in constant communication with the other chefs. In the dining room, overhead lights seem to spiral into infinity. Arcade Fire and other similar jams play low on the radio as San Francisco’s cool crowd dines.
Ehland’s desserts are totally of-the-moment. One end-of-October offering was a frozen block of goat’s milk yogurt that tastes like cheesecake. It’s paired with grapes fractured into parts to make the whole better: jelly that’s a pure extraction of the fruit, evocative of the best childhood memories of Welch’s; tartness from skin and seed counterbalance the sweetness; a deeply satisfying verjus. It’s garnished with a piece of mint so vibrant it tastes like a distillation of mint oil.
An apple dessert suggests breakfast on a chilly San Francisco morning: It’s spice, seeds, nuts and pure apple goodness that speaks deeply of the season.
Ehland pays respect to classics while riding an edge of danger. A rich chocolate dessert is rooted in traditional technique and garnished with red, yellow, orange and blue edible flowers. Yet the accompanying black caramel sorbet is a reminder of how boundary-pushing Ehland can be. The sorbet takes saltiness and bitterness as far as possible while still being tasty. In fact, it’s hard to stop eating it. “You have to listen to Slayer, and it should smell like chemicals while you’re making it,” he says.
Ehland represents the next evolution of the farm-to-table movement. Everything he makes is connected in some way to the farmers and producers with whom he works, but there’s no element of pretense or preciousness. It’s all to serve the dish.
“You can’t conceptualize things just because you want to do them. You’ve got to cook with what you have. It sounds trite, but it’s true,” he says as his phone buzzes again. He pulls the finished loaves from the oven, dusts them off and lets them cool for service.
There might not be traces of Pittsburgh in that starter anymore, but there is plenty inside him. “Pittsburgh is always going to be home. You never forget where you come from,” he says.