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.

 

  
Photos by laura petrilla

 

Pittsburgh Magazine recognizes five outstanding chefs for their extraordinary work in their specific fields: Kristin Butterworth, the chef de cuisine at Lautrec, takes fine dining to soaring heights while developing a network of until-now undiscovered farmers in southwestern Pennsylvania to help supply her restaurant; Justin Severino opened Morcilla, our 2016 Best New Restaurant, while also upping his game at his first restaurant, Cure; Casey Renee, the pastry chef of Whitfield at Ace Hotel, marries Michelin-star training with a down-home approach to creating delectable desserts; 
 

  

Wei Zhu, the Sichuan superstar, brings authentic Chinese cuisine to Pittsburgh while crafting a style all his own; and Rick Easton, the world-class baker who drew crowds from in and out of the city to Bread and Salt Bakery, for his famed Roman-style pizza before it closed in February.

We also honor Nate Hobart, chef de cuisine of Morcilla, as Pittsburgh Magazine’s 2016 Rising Star Chef.  
 

Kristin A. Butterworth
Lautrec

Kristin A. Butterworth, chef de cuisine of Lautrec at the Nemacolin Woodlands Resort in Farmington, isn’t your typical producer-to-table chef. She doesn’t need to worry much about the day-to-day buzz of Pittsburgh or the nation’s growing casual-food culture. 

Butterworth, who follows some notable Pittsburgh chefs on Instagram and sometimes comes into the city to dine, certainly is aware of the latest food trends. A meal at Lautrec is formal, but the refined cuisine is anything but stuffy. That’s deliberate. 

Her restaurant, located about 60 miles from Downtown Pittsburgh, caters largely to an affluent, vacation-traveller crowd. 

To that end, Butterworth has more in common with modern fine-dining pioneers such as Pittsburgh native Frank Ruta, the executive chef of The Grill Room in Washington, D.C., than she does with contemporary trendsetters such as Jessica Koslow of Sqirl in Los Angeles. 

“Years ago you could only get higher-end ingredients like foie gras and truffles in restaurants like this. Now you can find them in any number of places. And I think that’s great because more people get to experience it. But at the same time there’s an art — especially on the service end of things — that you only find at a fine-dining restaurant like this one,” she says. 

Menus designed by Butterworth start with her deep relationships with farmers in southwestern Pennsylvania, including Ellen and Jeremy Swartzfager of Footprints Farm in Gibbon Glade. “Shortly after I started here, they told me they had eggs and chickens and wanted to know what they could do to get their foot in the door,” she says.

Footprints Farm now is the restaurant’s primary supplier of chickens and eggs; the Swartzfagers also raise pork and duck for the restaurant. They’re about to expand into microgreens, lettuce and specialty flowers, too. Then there is Judy Sanders of Smithfield, who Butterworth says raises “every bird imaginable. She doesn’t even have a name for her farm, but what she’s doing is so beautiful and perfect.”

Butterworth’s from-scratch focus harkens back to one of her first jobs. She worked for two years at Luigi’s, a small Italian restaurant in Clymer, Indiana County. “It’s a tiny little place, but they’re famous in that area. Everything was made from scratch,” she says.

She left southwestern Pennsylvania in 2002 to attend the Italian Culinary Institute for Foreigners in Costigliole d’Asti. “That’s when I really started to embrace cookery,” she says.

Later, she came to work at Nemacolin for her first stint at the resort. She spent a year and a half there, first at what was then the Golden Trout and then at Lautrec under then-chef-de-cuisine Brad Kelly. “Nemacolin was a springboard for my career,” she says.

From there, Butterworth took a position in the kitchen on the opening team of the New Cloister Hotel and The Georgian Room Restaurant at the Cloister at Sea Island in Georgia. Fourteen months after opening, they were awarded the prestigious five-star (AAA), five-diamond (Forbes) rating. Butterworth stayed there for more than four years before moving to the Inn at Little Washington in Washington, Va., where she was Chef Patrick O’Connell’s sous chef.

She worked with O’Connell for a year and then was offered the job of chef de cuisine at Lautrec in 2010. She’s continued to buoy the reputation of the restaurant, which along with The Georgian Room is one of only 27 five-star, five-diamond restaurants in the world. Even with that distinction, she’s not resting on any laurels. “We’re still evolving. You have to keep doing that. You can keep up with what’s happening in the world without losing the classic style,” she says.

To that end, she’s taken the mantle and now is inspiring a team of young, hungry chefs who otherwise might not have gotten a chance to cook in a kitchen like this. “A lot of them are right out of culinary school or apprentice programs. They’ve never worked in a five-star restaurant before. I get to teach them classic techniques and how to perfect a dish,” she says. 

Still, it all comes down the basics, to the same things she was feeling when she worked at Luigi’s.

“I just love to cook. People ask me what’s my five-year plan, and I just want to cook. I don’t want to be in an office. I want to work with my chefs on the line. That’s the best part of the job for me.”
 

Justin Severino
Cure / Morcilla

If you pay attention to what’s happening in Pittsburgh restaurants, then you likely already know Justin Severino’s name. When national media talk about Pittsburgh’s restaurant resurgence, Severino, 38, always is one of the first chefs to be mentioned. Cure, the eatery in Upper Lawrenceville where he is executive chef and co-owner, consistently is packed. In December, he opened a second restaurant, Morcilla, in Lower Lawrenceville. 

Yet just a few years ago all of that success seemed to be a faraway dream.

“Cure is the biggest risk I’ve ever taken in my life. Nobody here knew who I was, and there was nothing going on in that part of town. But I had to do it,” Severino says.

His bet paid off, as did doubling down with a second restaurant: Morcilla is Pittsburgh Magazine’s Best New Restaurant of 2016. 

Severino started cooking while working for an Ashtabula, Ohio-based construction business owned by his father. While working on weeks-long projects in other cities, he and his co-workers stayed in hotels and ate in budget-conscious chain restaurants. After growing up in a home in which his mom cooked three meals a day, Severino says his body wasn’t accustomed to eating so much cheap, processed food. The active, athletic chef hated how that food made him feel. 

He learned some recipes — “typical Italian-American stuff” — from his mother and grandmother and convinced his dad to rent a group apartment instead of a hotel room for his crew. “I’d leave work an hour early to get dinner ready for everybody,” he says.

It wasn’t long before hobby cooking turned into a passion project and then something even bigger. The kitchen provided an escape from his otherwise humdrum life. “My friends were having parties and meeting girls, and I’m standing in hip-waders diverting a river in Columbus [Ohio] with a bunch of 50-year-old men. That didn’t make sense,” he says. 

​Severino enrolled full-time at the Pennsylvania Culinary Institute, and after graduation he left Pittsburgh for the central California coast. There, he worked at some of California’s most storied restaurants, including Manresa, chef David Kinch’s three-star restaurant in Los Gatos. After running his own butcher shop in Santa Cruz, he moved back to Pittsburgh. 

​Severino took jobs in a couple of well-known kitchens, including Eleven Contemporary Kitchen, Casbah and finally as the opening executive chef of the now-closed Elements Contemporary Cuisine, Downtown. He felt as if he’d paid his dues, and he grew increasingly frustrated that he couldn’t express his own culinary vision in any of those kitchens. So he took his big risk. He refinanced his house and asked his friends for loans and gifts. 

He leased the old Sunrise Cafe on the corner of 54th and Butler streets. The building, neglected for years, was a horror show of grease and vermin. He and a couple of pals gutted the space and rebuilt it from scratch.

“I started cooking out of desperation because I hated construction, and now one of the most powerful tools that I have as a restaurateur is that I know construction,” he says.

He’s continued to renovate Cure every year, and he devoted time off from his first restaurant’s kitchen to hand-building his second space, Morcilla. Sometimes between Cure and Morcilla he’d work 18-hour days. 

Now, both kitchens are humming, recognized not just by Pittsburgh Magazine but also by organizations such as the James Beard Foundation, which earlier this year named Morcilla as a semifinalist for Best New Restaurant. For the third consecutive year, Severino also made the organization’s long list for Best Chef, Mid-Atlantic region. 

Still, Severino takes it all with a grain of salt. “You think you know exactly what you’re doing. You think you know what your style of cooking is. And then you open a restaurant and you realize you don’t know anything."
 

Casey Renee
Whitfield At the Ace Hotel

At age 25, Casey Renee was living in New York City and spending her days, as she puts it, “as a professional liar.”

At the time, she was working as a corporate advertising buyer, putting together campaigns for television and radio and feeling pretty lousy about the work she was doing. Thrown into a quarter-life crisis, she quit her job and decided to attend culinary school full-time at the Natural Gourmet Institute, where she’d previously taken a few just-for-fun classes. “I just dove head-first into it,” says Renee, 31, now the pastry chef of Whitfield at the Ace Hotel in East Liberty.

After she graduated from culinary school, Renee worked at a couple of restaurants and for a catering company until, she says, “I fell into momofuku,” chef/restaurateur David Chang’s celebrated East Village noodle bar that’s impossible to just fall into. “OK, I pushed in.”

She nearly pushed too hard. On one of her first days of work she slipped and fell while holding a pair of very expensive egg cups. Although she managed to land the fall without breaking any bones or shattering the cups, she felt certain she wouldn’t be asked back for another day of the stage (a short test period when potential job candidates in higher-end restaurants work for free). Not only was she asked back, but Chang hired her to the full-time staff.

Renee worked her way up through positions in the kitchen at momofuku and at the same time worked for Brent Young, the Pittsburgh native who owns The Meat Hook in Brooklyn. She received a scholarship from Chang to intern at Thornhill Farms, a farm in South Carolina that is a feeder for forward-thinking Chef Sean Brock’s restaurants McCrady’s and Husk in Charleston, S.C. 

She returned to New York with a deeper appreciation for high-quality, flavorful produce, and she soon joined the culinary team at ko, Chang’s two-Michelin-star, tasting-menu-only restaurant. There are only four line cooks at ko, and they are responsible for creating both savory and sweet items. 

Her first dish on ko’s menu was a sweet one, barley sorbet with granola, grapefruit puree and grapefruit foam. “Once I started making dishes for the menu, they were always pastry dishes. I kept gravitating toward them,” Renee says. 

“I don’t know what it is about making desserts that I love. Well, I do have a ridiculous sweet tooth, so maybe it has something to do with that,” she adds.

Diving in head-first again, she went to work as a line cook and then sous chef to Brooks Headley, then the renowned pastry chef at Del Posto (he now runs Superiority Burgers), a rare recipient of four stars from the New York Times. “It was such a great time to be there working with Brooks. I got to do everything. I learned 10 years of pastry crammed into one year,” she says.

As high as Renee was flying in New York, she felt as though it was time to leave the metropolis and return to her native Pittsburgh. “I wanted to be back in a city that was more community-focused, where everyone looked out for each other instead of fighting for positions,” she says.

She’d kept in touch with Young, who was getting set to open Whitfield (Young still lives in Brooklyn but oversees the overall vision for the restaurant). Renee now brings her Michelin-starred, New York Times-lauded training to Whitfield, but she’s approaching her craft with a much more down-home approach. 

Take her olive oil-chocolate cake, for example. The cake itself is classically composed; moist and tender, the chocolate cut through with enough salt (a backbone of salinity is one of her signatures) to soften the sweetness. A layer of nutella mousse adds richness to the dish. The kicker is the blood-orange creamsicle, which enlivens the dish with brightness in flavor and in color; it resembles a Willy Wonka fantasy. 

It’s all part of the process for Renee, who consistently tries to push herself forward.

“I’ll make progress, then fail, keep trying and finally I’ll become sick of the dish. Sometimes I need to walk away to get it right. There’s always a moment when I think that I won’t get there. But I’ll hit a breakthrough, and I will,” she says.

She sure does.
 

Next: Three More Outstanding Pittsburgh Chefs
 

 

Wei Zhu
Chengdu Gourmet

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.
 

Rick Easton
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
Nate Hobart
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. 
 

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