On the Table: Chefs go beyond their neighborhoods to share their specialties

NEW YORK -- "There's a plethora of lardo going on in here," said Justin Severino, chef of Lawrenceville's Cure, to a kitchen staff.

It was the start of the cocktail hour on Monday night, where servers waited for cooks to hand over plates of toast slathered with fat whipped to the consistency of butter.

Mr. Severino and chef David Santos surveyed the kitchen of Louro, the restaurant Mr. Santos opened in Manhattan's West Village six weeks ago.

Mr. Severino was here for the first of a series of collaborative dinners at the new restaurant, during which he would give a butchering demonstration followed by a multi-course menu from Cure of salumi, smoked trout and choucroute comprising pork belly, cheek and offal.

Joining Mr. Severino on the line was Kevin Hermann from The Porch at Schenley in Oakland and cooks from the team at Cure.

"I feel like I'm in the way," joked Mr. Severino as Mr. Santos placed hamachi crudo on a serving platter. "I feel like we're ready."

Out in the dining room, a 100-pound pig was on a farmhouse table wrapped in plastic. The head faced the dining room, like a macabre greeter. A cleaver and a boning knife lay parallel to the carcass.

Women in black dresses and men in dark jeans and loafers sipped wine or drank craft beer, occasionally taking a server up on an offer for crudite as they waited for the demonstration to begin.

These collaborative dinners -- during which chefs and or bartenders pair up for tasting menus or family-style dinners -- have not only been popular in New York, but they're becoming commonplace in Pittsburgh, too.

And they're not just relegated to food pairings with one chef. Tamari in Lawrenceville recently hosted a 20-seat cocktail pairing dinner with Spencer Warren of the newly opened Acacia on the South Side. A six-course dinner cost $80. At the end of January a group of chefs, which will include those from Legume in Oakland, Stagioni on the South Side, Spoon and the soon-to-open Notion, both in East Liberty, will host a dinner called The Last Supper. Details are in the works.

These team dinners are becoming more ambitious, as chefs pull in more collaborators or, in the case of Mr. Severino and Mr. Hermann, set sights on working with chefs from bigger markets.

"I've got nerves," said Martina DiBattista, Cure's head server, who was here to work with the group. She had never worked with a staff from another market besides Pittsburgh.

Ms. DiBattista has been working in restaurants since she was 12, helping her father, Sam DiBattista, at Vivo Kitchen in Sewickley.

Overall, collaborative dinners can inspire and enlighten staff in ways that can translate to a stronger experience for local diners.

Take front-of-the-house service. While dining around New York and preparing for the night's collaborative dinner at Louro, Ms. DiBattista was amazed at the levels of service at bars and restaurants they witnessed. She cited the staffs' encyclopedic knowledge of cocktails, beers and ingredients.

"I feel like that's a pretty big difference," she said of the service she experienced in New York compared to that in Pittsburgh. "They are just so knowledgeable."

After seeing top-notch service in practice, she said she better understands what to do. "While getting so much information can be overwhelming, we just have to sort through it and figure out what it all means so we can help educate diners," she said.

Back in the Louro dining room, the crowd hushed as Mr. Severino began his demonstration. He noted how he trained himself to butcher while he was a chef at Manresa, a restaurant south of San Francisco. "I cut based on meat I want to cure," he said.

While spending time in others' kitchens, chefs learn their techniques, recipes and passions. Mr. Santos, too, is familiar with whole animal butchery. "My uncle was a pig farmer in Portugal," he said. His parents emigrated from Portugal so many of his influences come from the region.

Mr. Santos landed at Louro -- opened with the help of a $10,000 Kickstarter campaign -- after honing his reputation through Um Segredo, his well-regarded supper club on Roosevelt Island, as well as stints at restaurants such as Thomas Keller's Per Se in the Time Warner Center. Louro means bay leaf in Portuguese.

What Pittsburgh diners hope does not translate from bigger markets is the price. While a four-course dinner at Cure or a butchering demonstration may cost somewhere between $45 and $60, the event in New York with pairings costs more than $160 to cover transportation, labor, ingredients and high overhead costs.

So far, prices for Pittsburgh collaborations are holding at somewhere between $50 and $100, the most expensive of which was a Crux Restaurant dinner in October hosted by visiting Chicago chef Brandon Baltzley and chef Keith Fuller of Root 174 in Regent Square. A tasting menu timed with scenes with the 2001 movie "Amelie" offered wildly inventive cuisine in a thoughtful presentation. This included wine and cocktail pairings for a hefty price: $190.

Regardless of, or perhaps because of the experimental nature of collaborative dinners, they're growing in popularity -- for both customers and staff.

"It's a small industry and we're all friends," said Allen Chen, proprietor of Tamari. "These dinners are an extension of all that and gives us a chance to do something different."

Melissa McCart: 412-263-1198 or on Twitter @melissamccart.


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