Dine: Chef Chris O'Brien has shaped Pittsburgh dining by training a new generation

Now at Restaurant Echo, he mentored many future Pittsburgh chefs during his years at Hyeholde

An orange utility cord snakes down a hallway across the concrete floor at Restaurant Echo in Cranberry. Past a wide delivery door, it leads to a smoker, in which rows of bone display marrow as it takes on the flavor of apple wood.

"We smoke eggs, bacon, all sorts of things," said executive chef Brian Hammond. Just a few years ago, bone marrow was a novel addition to a menu at a suburban restaurant. At Restaurant Echo, it's now a mainstay.

The kitchen here is huge. It includes a bakery for pastry chef Erin Ribo and her staff. There's a meat locker and a curing room in which tied salumi and prosciutto hang in rows.

A native Pittsburgher, Mr. Hammond opened this 220-seat restaurant in 2011, drafting as chef de cuisine his former boss, Chris O'Brien.

Mr. Hammond had worked as Mr. O'Brien's sous chef at Hyeholde in Moon, a restaurant that has been the stalwart of the area's fine dining.

The role reversal is fitting. Known for his exacting detail in the kitchen, Mr. O'Brien was the obvious choice to be his partner at Restaurant Echo. But it wasn't just Mr. O'Brien's sharp eye and expectations that appealed to Mr. Hammond.

"He was the strongest force in mentoring me," he said.

As a presence in Hyeholde's kitchen for 17 years, Mr. O'Brien has helped shape many careers. In addition to mentoring Mr. Hammond, he worked with Jim Brinkman, now the executive chef of Hyeholde, as well as Richard DeShantz, chef-owner of Meat & Potatoes, Downtown.

When he started at Hyeholde years ago, Mr. O'Brien also worked alongside Derek Stevens. After Mr. Stevens left for Eleven in the Strip, Mr. O'Brien took over as sous chef and went on to become executive chef in 1997.

In addition to mentoring a handful of the area's chefs, Mr. O'Brien leads them to local sources for fish, meat, produce and artisan products.

At Restaurant Echo on a recent Wednesday, line cook Adam Stone expertly fileted trout next to a stainless steel bin filled with beautiful fish. The fish came from Laurel Hill Trout Farm in Somerset County, a place Mr. O'Brien has been working with for years.

When Mr. Stevens was still at Hyeholde, they'd drive the 80 miles from the restaurant to pick up fish for the week.

Although he has spent his career working outside Pittsburgh's city limits, Mr. O'Brien tends to relationships in ways that have influenced how Pittsburghers dine.

Laurel Hill Trout has at one time or another made its way onto menus across town because Mr. O'Brien also directed to the farm Cavan Patterson, the proprietor of Wild Purveyors, a wholesaler of locally produced wild edibles and organic produce.

Since 2009, Wild Purveyors has sold trout, cured or unadorned, to Meat & Potatoes and Bigelow Grille, Downtown, The Porch at Schenley in Oakland, Salt of the Earth in Garfield, Spoon in East Liberty and Cure in Lawrenceville.

The fish has recently become available to home cooks. Walk into Wild Purveyor's Lawrenceville shop, which opened this past fall, to find cured Laurel Hill trout among jars of roe, and quarts of quail stock, sheep's yogurt and slabs of bacon for sale.

And it is delicious. On a piece of brown bread with pickled red onion garnish, cured Laurel Hill trout offers a hint of earthiness, the result of curing salt laced with dried red sumac flowers that bloomed in August.

Of the quest to find such beautiful local ingredients, Mr. O'Brien observed a commonality among chefs. "We are all in the same struggle."

Ingredients and expertise beyond what's displayed in mom-and-pop restaurants is something relatively new to Pittsburgh, Mr. Hammond said.

"There is value in sharing experience," he said. "I saw this in Chicago [when he worked at Rick Bayless' Topolobampo and Grant Achatz's Alinea]. And when I came back to Pittsburgh nine years later, it was here."

It's no surprise that Pittsburgh chefs became more conscientious about taking advantage of regional products.

"Agriculture is such a huge thing in this area," Mr. Hammond said. "And in our restaurants now, we all want to push that aspect forward."

Although he had not worked on the line with Mr. O'Brien, Mr. Patterson said the chef helped him craft his business plan years ago when he and his brother Tom got serious about foraging.

"I had been thinking about creating Wild Purveyors for a while so I ran it by Chris O'Brien and Doug Dick of Bona Terra," the Sharpsburg restaurant that closed last year. "Chris in particular had encouraged me to go for it. He let me bounce ideas off him and made suggestions."

Mr. O'Brien said Hyeholde's "fundamentals about where food comes from" helped shape his expectations about quality, a demand he has instilled in those he mentored.

He said he looks for discipline, respect and efficiency from his cooks. "Very few chefs have gotten these traits on their own. You have to refine through patience."

As he reflected on his time at Hyeholde, Mr. O'Brien reminisced over his early career, comparing a young cook he hired at Restaurant Echo six months ago to colleagues who have since advanced. Mr. O'Brien is pleased with the young man's attitude and progress.

"We raked him over the coals," he joked. "He is very positive. He has taken on responsibility quickly."

He also recalled his time with Mr. DeShantz, who moved up the line at Hyeholde, earning the sous chef position, moving to pastry -- "a very different discipline" -- then to helm Nine on Nine, Downtown, before opening Meat & Potatoes in 2011.

"He's a super talented guy," Mr. O'Brien said.

Mr. DeShantz is among those Mr. O'Brien cited as building Pittsburgh's burgeoning restaurant community that was not nearly as cohesive even five years ago.

"You've got Root 174, Cure, Spoon, Legume, Eleven, Avenue B and Notion," said Mr. O'Brien. "It's really something that we have this community now."

He noted how often these chefs touch base, follow up and include Restaurant Echo in gatherings or events, despite its location in Butler County. Mr. O'Brien's contributions are most certainly a reason.

"Kitchen life is tough," he said. "But it's fair if you buy into it and put your time in."

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


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