Savoring the Savoy in the Strip District

| Sunday, June 5, 2011

The best part of being a chef for Savoy Restaurant's Kevin Watson is teaching new cooks the skills needed to succeed.

With 27 years in the culinary field under his belt, including 11 years teaching at Pennsylvania Culinary Institute, Watson is the kind of chef who inspires confidence in his staff. He's not one to scream or yell obscenities to get employees to work, like some of those well-known television chefs. No, Watson simply shows those starting out how to be the best at what they do, and never loses his cool.

Savoy's owner, Charles Sanders, likens Watson to being a fighter pilot.

"Nothing fazes him -- bullets will be whizzing past, and he's always steady and calm," says Sanders, a former Pittsburgh Steelers running back (1986-87) who owns Urban Settlement Services. "I found out about Kevin through Jerome Bettis. Kevin had been Jerome's personal chef, and it was important for me to find an African-American chef.

"Jerome told me to check him out, and when it was time for Kevin to cook for me and my wife, we knew he was the one," Sanders says. "He's beyond what I ever could have imagined."

Watson, 45, is used to being in the limelight. An Erie native, Watson has been the personal chef not only for Bettis, but for Alan Faneca and many other Steelers. He recently catered a dinner for former President George W. Bush, and owns Pittsburgh Premiere Catering.

But he's most proud of Savoy, and for helping Sanders achieve his dream of opening a high-end restaurant where not one detail has been overlooked.

Pittsburgh designer Luca Paganico transformed an old, three-story building on Penn Avenue in the Strip District into a posh, swanky, 74-seat establishment with imported Italian leather couches and chairs, fiber-optic bar tops, walls with lighting that changes color as customers dine, and different music playing in each room and hallway.

The floor is partially made out of plastic bottles, and Watson points out that Savoy is the only LEEDS-certified restaurant in Pittsburgh.

"Our menu is American eclectic -- old favorites with a twist," says Watson, who lives in Bellevue with his wife, Tonya, and their four children. "If you have premium ingredients and premium equipment, it's hard to miss on the food."

Recipes are tweaked from Watson's past, while watching his grandmother cook at the community center and showcase the present. Diners will find fried chicken wings, with six different sauces; white-cheddar burger sliders; pork or chicken quesadillas with poblanto cream and pico de gallo; a Mediterranean plate with grilled vegetables and chickpea hummus; and crab-stuffed salmon with lemon-dill beurre blanc among the appetizers.

There's crab and chicken andouille gumbo, vegetarian chili and tomato soup with grilled-cheese croutons. Entrees include barbecued shrimp over white-cheddar grits; tilapia piccata with pappardelle pasta; butter-poached lobster; fried chick and waffles with corn pudding; pork tenderloin with pickled apples and sweet potato puree; beef brisket, filet mignon, and roasted chicken and vegetable cassoulet.

Everything is made to order, Watson says, and the pastries and sorbets are made in-house.

"We get much of our produce and specialty items from the Strip District," he says. "We use several different suppliers for meat, seafood and chicken -- it keeps them honest. We go a long way to get good food."

Although Savoy just opened May 5, business has been excellent each of the three nights per week the restaurant is open. For now, it's open Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights, and for brunch on Sundays.

"We've been very busy, and I couldn't be happier," Watson says. "Reservations are recommended because we want to make sure we can take care of you. We don't want to rush anybody."

When Watson is hiring chefs, he looks for those with a desire to be taught and a willingness to follow.

"Nobody wants to work with some hot shot who thinks they know everything," he says. "I tell my cooks if they stay with me for two years, they'll be ready to take on a restaurant of their own."

Watson credits his strong Christian faith with keeping himself grounded, and says that the best advice he received came from a pastry chef he worked under when he was 28 and employed at the Ritz Carlton in Florida.

"There was a pastry chef job at a Ritz Carlton in California that I wanted, and I told my chef that," he says. "He told me I wasn't ready because he hadn't shown me everything, yet. He told me to spend another year with him, and then, I'd be ready.

"My heart sank, but he was right, and I use that advice all the time -- be patient. When I left, I didn't know how to thank him, but he told me to do for someone else what he did for me. That's my motto, and that's kept me level-headed."

Shrimp Feta Pasta

Chef Kevin Watson is sharing his wonderful Shrimp Feta Pasta recipe. This is a quick and simple dish that is perfect for early summer entertaining, especially if you don't have a grill. Watson likes to use fresh plum tomatoes in the recipe, and shows how to boil them and then, shock them in ice water for easier peeling and seeding.

"The great thing about this recipe is the ingredients are not hard to find," he says. "I think the simple dishes are the best ones."

Note: Pasta dish can be made with grilled chicken breast, or without any protein at all.

  • 1 pound of dry pasta (preferably cappellini)
  • Water
  • Salt
  • 5 tablespoons olive oil, divided
  • 7 to 8 ripe plum tomatoes
  • 20 shrimp (16/20 count) peeled and deveined
  • 2 large garlic cloves, minced
  • 2 cups arugula
  • 4 tablespoons of basil cut into very small strips
  • 1 12 cups of feta cheese, crumbled
  • Sea salt and fresh cracked black pepper, to taste

Cook pasta in 1 gallon of boiling salted water for 2 to 3 minutes. Strain and cool under cool running water and toss with 2 tablespoons of olive oil.

Remove core from the top of the tomatoes and cut an X on the bottom, just enough to break skin. Drop the tomatoes into boiling water for 1 to 2 minutes. The length of time is determined by the ripeness of the tomatoes. Remove the tomatoes and place them into an ice-water bath, just long enough to cool them. You should not allow them to sit in the ice water longer than 4 or 5 minutes.

Then, with a paring knife, place your thumb against the paring knife and grab the skin of the tomato. Peel the skin from the tomatoes starting from where you cut the X. Cut the tomatoes length wise and gently squeeze to remove seeds. Chop tomatoes into 12-inch pieces.

Heat a large non-stick saute pan over medium high heat. Add 3 tablespoons of pure olive oil and heat . Add the shrimp; saute until the shrimp turns pink on the bottom side. Flip the shrimp and add the garlic; cook for 20 seconds.

Add the tomatoes, arugula and basil, cook until heated through for 5 minutes.

Add the feta cheese, pasta and season with salt and pepper.

Transfer to a bowl and sprinkle with remaining basil.

Makes 4 servings.

Additional Information:

Savoy Restaurant

Cuisine: American eclectic

Hours: 5-10 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 11 a.m.-5 p.m. for Sunday brunch

Entree price range: $15-$38

Notes: Major credit cards accepted. Handicapped accessible. Upstairs lounge, with outside patio and bar. Reservations recommended.

Address: 2623 Penn Ave., Strip District

Details: 412-281-0660 or

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