Duquesne Club leader influenced Pittsburgh restaurant scene
As a child, Keith Coughenour sat transfixed in front of his family's television when it was time for Graham Kerr's “The Galloping Gourmet” show.
“For me, it felt like watching a magic show,” says the Elizabeth native and Franklin Park resident. “The transformation of ingredients fascinated me. It was magical.”
The many diners who have since sampled the considerable talents of Coughenour, 57, award-winning executive chef of Pittsburgh's iconic Duquesne Club, might be inclined to observe that he weaves his own magic in the kitchen.
Many of the area's celebrated chefs whom Coughenour has trained and mentored — which he estimates at well over 150 — will honor him June 7 at “Chefs Celebrating Chefs: A Tradition of Excellence.”
The event has grown into a culinary reunion of Duquesne Club alumni who have impacted the region's dining scene: Derek Stevens of Eleven, Greg Alauzen of Cioppino Restaurant & Cigar Bar, Tom Lonardo of Legume, April Simpson of Vanilla Pastry Studio, Kevin Sousa of Superior Motors — the list goes on.
“He was an inspiration just to be in a kitchen with,” says Lonardo, chef de cuisine at Legume Bistro, Oakland. “The experience I've taken from the Duquesne Club's kitchen is priceless and of great value to my career.”
Coughenour, completing his 23rd year at the club, has brought food quality to an unrivaled level, says Irma Thornton, director of human resources, who participated in hiring him in 1992.
That's no surprise, says Mary Zappone, professor and coordinator of Westmoreland County Community College's Center for Culinary Arts and Hospitality, where Coughenour graduated and later was inducted into its Hall of Fame.
He was captain of the 1992 and 1996 U.S. National Culinary Olympic Teams, winning three gold and three silver medallions in Germany. He was part of the 1991 and 1994 world championship U.S. teams competing in Luxembourg for the World Cup. Coughenour served as coach for Team USA until 2003 and was involved in selecting the 2000 and 2004 Culinary Olympic teams.
He has cooked for presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, Gene Simmons of Kiss, the late Johnny Carson, along with many senators, governors, sports broadcasters, actors and musicians.
“His excellence in the field has had a strong influence on elevating the level of dining in Pittsburgh and the surrounding areas,” Zappone says. “He exhibits the highest professional standards and is regarded locally, nationally and internationally as an expert and authority on foods and culinary systems of operation.”
At “Chefs Celebrating Chefs,” his alumni will prepare small plates, sweets and libations for the event hosted by the American Culinary Federation Laurel Highlands Chapter. Proceeds will benefit scholarships and support education and development of aspiring culinarians.
“I almost said ‘No,' but a small posse of former employees invaded my office and would not take ‘no' for an answer,” Coughenour says. “I always wanted it to be about all of their successes while here at the club and after. We were fortunate to have them in our kitchens.”
He remembers once being told that a chef's true measure of success is the number of chefs and cooks he has positively influenced.
“I am pleased that many left with a professional maturity that is still with them today,” he says. “I think the honor goes to the Duquesne Club, not necessarily me.”
Coughenour remains a humble man with an intense approach to food, says Thornton.
“The staff who has left our kitchen to achieve great personal goals tells me that our kitchen was the hardest thing they have ever done, but they would never trade the experience, and the methods they learned from him are what have helped make them successful,” she says.
Just seeing names of some of the people he has mentored is an accomplishment on its own, says Tim Fetter, vice president of the Laurel Highlands Chapter of the ACF. “And almost every one of those chefs shares the same respect for him.”
Fetter spent the first four years (2001 to 2005) of his professional career at the Duquesne Club and now is executive chef at Duquesne University.
“I rarely heard him raise his voice,” Fetter says. “Because of the way he carries himself, it wasn't necessary. When he talks, everyone listens. They know he means what he says.”
He gives Coughenour a lot of the credit for the city's ”great restaurant scene.”
“Look how many of our city's top chefs came through the club,” Fetter says. “You can learn catering and banquets, fine dining, bar dining, off-site catering and just about everything in between there.”
Coughenour is proud to be employed by the Duquesne Club and fully appreciates the sense of being a link in a chain of a storied tradition.
“Our brigade gets to carry on excellent culinary traditions established many years ago and introduce new concepts that, hopefully, will be traditions of the future,” says Coughenour, who is energized by accepting the challenge of very high demands for quality at the club.
“I like the action, heavy a la carte numbers, high-end banquets and the large off-site catering events, and being able to make it all happen at a very high level of quality and consistency,” he says. “The teamwork it requires!”
His hope is that when chefs leave the Duquesne Club kitchen, they have developed solid cooking fundamentals, strong organization skills and a sense of their leadership style.
Amanda Flesch, culinary instructor at the American Academy of Culinary Arts, Oakdale, says Coughenour “helped me discover ‘me,' and from there, I discovered my own style, technique and philosophy on food.”
Private chef Ben Chilenski of Bethel Park, who works exclusively Downtown and in Palm Beach, Fla., praises Coughenour as one of the best chefs in the country.
“I would not be half the chef that I am today if it were not for (Coughenour) and my time at the club. I learned so much by just observing,” he says.
Sousa, chef and owner of the soon-to-open Superior Motors Restaurant, Braddock, is grateful for the high expectations that Coughenour taught him to have for himself.
”He's a brilliant chef, but he knows how to handle people. He's a remarkable leader,“ says Mario Porreca of Belle Vernon, entrepreneur and founder-owner of Cleanse Pittsburgh. “The most important thing was that he gave me a shot in the kitchen and he never gave up on me. He is by far the best chef I have ever worked with.”
If his students learn but one lesson from him, says Coughenour, he hopes it will be that “cooking takes a lifetime to master.”
That's conveniently followed by this piece of culinary optimism from him: “The secret is out: Cooking is fun!”
Rex Rutkoski is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-226-4664 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Keith Coughenour file
• Graduated Elizabeth-Forward High School, 1975; Penn State University, bachelor of science, business administration, 1979; Westmoreland County Community College, Youngwood, American Culinary Federation Apprenticeship Program, 1987
• Sous chef at Greenbrier Resort, White Sulphur Springs, W.Va., 1987 to 1992. Served as food stylist for the “Greenbrier Cookbook”
• Chef of the Year, Laurel Highlands Chapter, American Culinary Federation, 1996; recipient of four presidential medallions, 1991 to present
• Executive chef at Duquesne Club, 1992 to present. Wrote and co-managed “The Duquesne Club Cookbook,” highlighting 125 years of culinary heritage and the contemporary cuisine of the club
• Oversaw complete renovation of the Duquesne Club kitchens, a $5 million project positioning the club with state-of-the-art technology
• American Culinary Federation's Northeast Regional Chef of the Year, 2003; recipient of Nicholas Colletti Professionalism award from Pittsburgh Chefs and Cooks Association, 2005, and Educator of the Year, 2008