Food pros look at Pittsburgh dining as Eleven turns 10
“If you would have told me 10 years ago that I would still be plugging away at Eleven today, I would not have believed it,” says Derek Stevens, executive chef of Eleven Contemporary Kitchen. “In chef years, 10 is a lifetime…”
Actually, in this most precarious of businesses, 10 is an admirable milestone for a restaurant, especially one of Eleven's ambition.
In 2004, when Big Burrito Restaurant Group opened this elegant, stylishly casual space, it dramatically raised the bar on Pittsburgh dining. Now, 10 years along, it continues as a pace-setter in standards of excellence — an amazing feat in an exploding field of restaurant competition, where newness is the magical attraction.
A thoughtful, steady chef, Stevens undoubtedly is key to this Strip District restaurant's longevity. So, too, is the support Big Burrito provides its flagship, allowing quality products and a talented team to flourish here.
And, about that talent: Eleven has served as a training ground/launching pad for a massive chunk of the city's culinary successes — something Stevens says gives him a great sense of satisfaction.
Of course, staying on top requires not stasis, but moving forward.
“Change is an important part of the business,” Steven admits. “We've made many adjustments as the restaurant has evolved. I've been around for a lot of trends, even some weird stuff. You definitely have to stay tuned in. But I've never just jumped on any bandwagon”
Perhaps his right-on perception of just what's important to shift explains how he's managed to keep Eleven fresh while steering it to an iconic status in Pittsburgh dining.
Stevens talks excitedly about the city's current cadre of chefs and the camaraderie among them: “It's a more competitive market, but having more quality restaurants actually benefits everyone,” he says. “Chefs cook together, share dishes and product information and help each other to grow.”
Social media promotes food-world interaction, he notes, not only with local peers, but with chefs everywhere, as well as suppliers, media and customers.
He points to expanded access to quality products as another major advance. Certainly, the world is available on the Internet. But also the best of the best might be just down the road.
As early as 1997, Big Burrito corporate chef Bill Fuller began facilitating Penn's Corner Farm Alliance, a cooperative of farmers in southwestern Pennsylvania, to provide a large variety of fresh, healthful food products directly to local restaurants. After early hitches and starts, that effort is now fully blossomed and expanded to many one-on-one chef-farmer relationships, including Eleven's.
Stevens notes, reflecting a national trend, today's dining, overall, is more relaxed, casual but with the highest quality and attention to detail. A decade ago, he says, Eleven's smart bar had a negligible menu: “Now, it's grown to be a huge part of what we do. Also, both service and how people dress are more relaxed. You can still have a fine-dining experience wearing jeans.”
Another trend championed by Eleven and increasingly adopted by today's kitchens: Giving greater prominence to vegetables. “We've always had a serious vegetarian tasting menu,” he says. “But now, not only are chefs driven to seek out the very finest vegetables, they're also passionate about giving the best attention to their preparation.”
Of course, it's one thing to have freedom and innovation in the kitchen and a savvy front-of-the-house operation. But the other part of the equation is an enthusiastic, accepting dining public. And it seems Pittsburgh has that, too.
As Stevens explains: “People are well-educated about food, today. Tastes are edgier, more open to new possibilities. And with that comes higher and higher expectations. Our chef's table and tasting menus do very well — busier than ever. It's a very exciting time to be in this business.”
Most of Pittsburgh's high-profile chefs concur with Stevens' observations on a decade's changes to the local dining scene — most especially that there is a notable scene here, more relaxed and fun, and that a collaborative chefs community replaces the older, secrets-laden one. But they also add interesting individual perspectives.
Matt Porco, executive chef-partner at Sienna Mercato, says when he returned to Pittsburgh from New York City in 2007, chef-owned restaurants were a rarity. Browse today's hottest restaurants to see how much that's changed and what a game-changer chef-ownership begets. Porco also embraces a revitalized Downtown, where the streets aren't rolled up and darkened at 9 p.m. His just-opened Il Tetto, roof in Italian, with its retractable glass-dome vista, heralds the city's fresh, buzz-worthy nightlife vibe.
Sonja Finn, chef-owner at Dinette, returned from San Francisco five years ago, looking for opportunities for the collaborative dinners she was used to on the West Coast. She sees improvement in that direction and also notes more open kitchens, chef-grown gardens and excitement about dining out among a younger clientele. She remains hopeful that more women chefs will arrive on the scene.
Chad Townsend, executive chef at Salt of the Earth, thinks the influx of new companies, such as Google, as well as an increase in business travelers, have generated a younger dining demographic and a more educated, responsive clientele. Add to this a generation of more-traveled chefs and diners clamoring for what they've experienced elsewhere, and the scene is set for pushing past the dusty old standards. Salt was an early proponent of late-night dining and an inventive craft-cocktail culture.
Trevett Hooper, chef-owner at Legume Bistro and Butterjoint, hailing from Maine with extensive California exposure, thinks Pittsburgh restaurants today have a better sense of their own identity and place. He says support for health and environmental issues, pride in local produce and customer loyalty are embedded into the city's fabric. He credits the success of Butterjoint, his adjacent bar, with the city's long-standing affection for drinking establishments serving good food. He's also the go-to person for issues of fermentation, and, in terms of current concerns of conscience, he strongly promotes good husbandry.
Kevin Sousa, chef-owner of Union Pig & Chicken, Station Street and coming-soon Superior Motors, finds the conservative scene of yesterday “cracked wide open.” Ten years ago, he notes, a chef still had to put a crab cake, a beef fillet and asparagus (all year-round) on the menu to draw diners. Today, independent chefs are doing their own cool stuff, in their own way, he says, giving people diverse options. And chefs are stretching geographically, as he has — in Garfield, East Liberty and now Braddock — using their restaurants as community redevelopment tools. He is one of the chefs attracting national media attention, which, in turn, further energizes the local scene.
Keith Fuller, chef-owner at Root 174, found the Pittsburgh dining scene unimpressive and “old school,” when he arrived here from Philadelphia in 2005. So he set out to shake things up a bit and have some fun, he says. And, yes, diners today are more adventurous: “People want to eat bizarre foods. They're excited about duck testicles, the spinal cord of swordfish, tuna bloodline sausage and offal loaf.
Brian Pekarcik, chef-partner, at S&P Restaurant Group (Spoon, BRGR, Grit & Grace and, soon, Willow), grew up in Pittsburgh but also worked in San Diego and San Francisco, absorbing the California sensibility. He sees a major demographic change drawn from people — both chefs and diners — either moving back from larger markets or arriving new here from larger entities. “It's still a small town, but it's a different city, with a fresh mind-set.”
Rick DeShantz of Meat & Potatoes and Butcher and the Rye believes in a vibrant Downtown and even lives there. His first restaurant, Nine-on-Nine, with which he's no longer associated, brought classy fine dining here. His next two, with partner Tolga Sevdik, are wildly successful gastropubs, adding urbanity to the city's image. The duo believes that what works elsewhere can work in Pittsburgh, if done right. And, they say, their meticulous approach to concept, fleshed out in every detail of decor, menu, beverage and ambiance, is a successful model. Butcher's bar program, featuring super-star mixologists and nearly 400 whiskey labels, won a James Beard nomination.
Dave Racicot of Notion believes Pittsburgh is way behind even middle-market cities, but says the city is slowly changing its culture as technology and healthcare workers replace the old blue-collar segment. ”Pittsburgh is becoming more future-forward,” he says. “It's getting better — slowly, but it is getting better. Three years ago, chefs were looking to leave ASAP. Today, with more of a food scene, more opt to stay.”
Justin Severino of Cure recognized nationally for his whole-animal ethos, his butchering classes and his superb charcuterie, agrees in essence that the city's restaurants are evolving in a positive and dynamic way. But, he sees one aspect that needs immediate attention. “The restaurant scene is growing faster than the talent available to support that growth,” he says. “We need to cultivate a culture of skilled employees — especially cooks. Food cities and top chefs attract cooks willing to work to learn. That's seriously lacking here, where the shortage of help leads to unskilled cooks being hired and paid skilled cook wages. Chefs need to get on the same page to collectively elevate labor-pool standards.”
Mark Broadhurst, vice-president of corporate dining and retail development for Eat'n Park, understands more than a little about local tastes and national trends. Having lived and worked all over the United States, he moved back to Pittsburgh to join a family business with more than six decades of food-industry experience. He diplomatically describes the food scene he found here then as “sparse,” but recalls the excitement created by the 2004 opening of Eleven: “Its ambitious direction planted a flag in the ground and people enthusiastically accepted it.”
In 2005, Broadhurst opened Six Penn Kitchen, Downtown, with a roof garden, a house-made mojo, Eat'n Park's first liquor license and many of the other trends he'd witnessed in large markets. He followed up with The Porch at Schenley Plaza in 2009 and has watched the restaurant scene here grow in sophistication ever since.
“We're slowly chipping away at that old provincial image,” he says. “We've got great artisan producers, chef talent, a collaborative spirit in the food community and an appreciative dining public that thinks it's cool to try new things. Pittsburgh's got a lot of good things going.”
Ann Haigh is co-host, with husband Peter, of www.onthemenuradio.com.