Pittsburgh Chef of the Year: Bill Fuller
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.
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.
Fuller with former big Burrito Chefs Kevin Sousa and Chad Townsend
“I learned an innumerable amount of cooking and food things, but you can learn those anywhere. But management and consistency, that’s a huge thing. That’s really hard to do and that’s really hard to teach. I’m realizing how hard that is now as we’re trying to create those systems and those routines at Millie’s,” says Townsend.
Fuller hasn’t stopped making chefs. “When free-agent signing time comes, the Steelers never go out and sign big names. They draft well, they develop, they promote from within, and year after year they have a quality organization. They don’t come out with a new offense all the time; they don’t do crazy new stuff. And, look, they keep going at a high level,” he says.
In 2016, he oversaw a seamless shift of executive chefs at three of big Burrito’s specialty restaurants. The movement began when Stevens left his long tenure at Eleven to open his restaurant, Union Standard. His departure set off a chain reaction that ended with new chefs running the kitchens of Eleven, Casbah and Soba.
“It went even better than I hoped it would. I always have a plan for what might come next. I know who works under the executive chefs and what their strengths and weaknesses are,” Fuller says.
Henry B. Dewey, Eric “Spudz” Wallace and Anthoy Falcon all worked for Fuller before running their own kitchens.
For example, Dustin Gardner, executive chef of Casbah since the 2016 transition, has developed a father-son relationship with Fuller. The house in which Gardner was living burned down in 2008, shortly after he started working for big Burrito. Fuller offered the young chef a room in his house. “He didn’t know me from anybody, and he offered this scumbag line cook to come stay in his house with him and his family,” Gardner says. “I’ll never forget that.”
Not everything Fuller touched has been a success.
Four big Burrito restaurants don’t exist anymore: Mr. Jones (a home-cooking restaurant in the North Hills), Vertigo Bar and Grill (in a laundromat across from Soba), and Saybrook Fish House (two of them, part of a franchise). “We survived those mistakes by blasting forward,” he says.
And he admits to arguing against a gourmet hamburger concept. “I thought it was a fad. I was totally wrong. I own that.”
An occasional miss aside, Fuller says a conservative approach to menu-planning is one of the secrets to big Burrito’s longevity: Identify larger trends and develop new menu items from them but stay away from flash-in-the-pan fads.
“One of the biggest things I learned from Bill was how important it was to understand what your customers want and how to give it to them,” says Stevens of Union Standard.
“Chefs tend to get bored and want to jump on any trend that’s new and exciting. But customers aren’t necessarily reading the same blog and cookbooks as we are. So you learn how to try to identify what people want and how to give it to them.”
Memories of Fuller’s food-insecure childhood remind him often that others remain in need of a meal. He serves on the board of the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank and is a leader in its annual “Empty Bowls” fundraiser.
He also took over leadership of the Food Revolution Cooking Club at Pittsburgh Obama 6-12 school in East Liberty when it looked like it was about to dissolve; he teaches 25 students each semester. “There’s freedom in knowing how to cook for yourself,” he says. “These kids are going out in the world with more life skills.”
Fuller’s current focus is improving the quality of life for his chefs. He’s worked to streamline operations and tasks so that sous chefs typically work 45 to 50 hours per week and executive chefs 50 to 55.
Fuller with Derek Stevens and Bethany Zozula
“Now, we ask ‘What went wrong?’ when someone clocks in for more hours a week than they’re supposed to be working,” he says. “It’s not the same outlaw, tough-guy culture that it was. That’s not sustainable. I want stable people.”
Says Gardner: “We wanted to believe him, but we resisted doing it at first. There’s this badge of honor to work 80 hours a week. He set a blueprint for us. If you follow it you can have a life and still be great at your job.”
Fuller, who is married and the father of two children, turns 50 this year. He says that even though he doesn’t spend as much time as he’d like in the kitchen anymore, he still has big culinary and business plans. Expanding the Mad Mex concept is a priority for the company, and he’s also thinking about a sixth specialty restaurant, though he is cagey about specifics.
“The next 20 years are about making it a stronger, more sustainable company that can really grow and develop a lot of people.”
Next: The Fuller Family Tree
Dozens of chefs have worked for Bill Fuller, before going on to running kitchens of their own. The Fuller family tree has many, many branches.
!! Denotes chefs who are important to the development of Pittsburgh restaurants or otherwise notable.
* Denotes significant service at multiple big B restaurants
- Gary Terner
- Marla Beaman
- Tim O’Neil
- Mike Hendricks (GM South Hills Whole Foods)
- * Eric “Spudz” Wallace (Monterey Bay Fish Grotto)
- !!* Kevin Sousa (soon: Superior Motors • past: Salt of the Earth, Union Pig and Chicken Harvard & Highland)
- * Brandy Stewart (private chef)
- * Danielle Cain (big Burrito catering)
- !! Sean Ehland (current: Marla Bakery Restaurant, San Francisco • past: pastry chef at Aster (San Francisco) & McCrady’s (Charleston)
- Jason Watts (Sienna on the Square)
- Ben Sloan
- Jamie Achmoody
- Tim Ehlman (sous chef, Aster, San Francisco)
- Heith Miles
- Matt Millea
- Lon Durbin
- * Eric “Spudz” Wallace
- Vincent Smith
- Alan Peet (Oakmont Country Club)
- !!* Derek Stevens (current: Union Standard)
- *Eli Wahl (now: Eleven)
- *Dustin Gardner
- !! Henry B. Dewey (Penn Avenue Fish Company)
- !! Quintin Wicks (Revival Kitchen, Reedsville)
- !!* Justin Severino (Cure, Morcilla)
- $ Dan Carlton (Butcher and the Rye)
- Valentina Vavasis (former dining critic, Pittsburgh Magazine)
- !! Chris Bonfili (Avenue B)
- Andy Schaumann
- David Thoms
- * Danielle Cain
- Jim Stein (McCrady’s, Charleston)
- Brian Little
- Shelby Ortz (Lux Artisan Chocolate)
- !!* Henry B. Dewey (Penn Avenue Fish Company)
- Michael Kiziak
- Drew Lise (later: Hyeholde)
- Mike Hendricks
- !! Anthony Falcon (Gaucho Parrilla Argentina)
- Jamie Achmoody
- !!* Kevin Sousa (see Kaya)
- *Brandy Stewart
- *Danielle Cain
- *Dustin Gardner
- Lily Tran
- Jeff Iovino (Cafe Io)
- !!* Melanie Krawiec (sous chef Union Standard)
- Mr. Shu
- Matt Glick
- !! Keith Fuller worked one day at Mad Mex Monroeville so that he could say he worked for big Burrito
- Greg Alauzen
- !! Derek Stevens (Union Standard)
- *Eli Wahl
- Len Paisano (NOLA (deceased))
- !! Chad Townsend (current: Millie’s Homemade Ice Cream • past: Salt of the Earth)
- !! Bethany Zozula (Whitfield at Ace Hotel)
- !!* Justin Severino (see: Casbah)
- !! Nate Hobart (current: Morcilla • past: Cure)
- !!* Melanie Krawiec
- Barbara Ferguson
- Tom Lonardo (Legume chef de cuisine)
- Glen Hoover
- Geof Comings (Five Points Artisan Bakeshop)
- !! Fabien Moreau (La Gourmandine)
- Cory Hughes (Google)
Nate Hobart → current chefs at Cure & Morcilla
Chad Townsend → Salt / Millie’s staff Brandon Fisher, Adam To and others; Brian Little
Bethany Zozula → her Whitfield staff; Melanie Krawiec → Union Standard Staff