Chef appeal: Pittsburgh's growing restaurant scene attracts staff from bigger cities

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Pittsburgh's up-and-coming dining scene not only is starting to generate buzz among locals, it's also becoming known as a good place to build a career.

Indeed, the city's new outcrop of restaurants is one of the industries -- in addition to technology, health care, engineering and education -- that's drawing young people to Pittsburgh.

"The chef who wants to make a break for it has a paved path in Pittsburgh," said Brandon Baltzley, 28, the Chicago-based firebrand chef who has spent the past year here working as a cook in restaurants and staging pop-up dinners.

"Easy living, affordable everything and a burgeoning food scene: This is an area that will soon get attention on a national level."

Native Pittsburghers returning from the diaspora are part, but not all, of the city's newest influx of 20- to 34-year-olds. The number of young people has risen 7 percent over the past five years and will grow another 8 percent by 2020, according to trends in the Young Adults Report 2012, prepared by PittsburghTODAY with research by the University of Pittsburgh's University Center for Social & Urban Research and other contributors.

It's only recently that Pittsburgh has burnished its reputation among restaurant staff.

Transplants to Pittsburgh include Notion sous chef Bob Broskey, 28, who moved here from Chicago after working at L20 and the now-closed Ria, which earned two Michelin stars, and Evan Wood, 29, formerly at the acclaimed Roberta's in Brooklyn, who bakes for Bluebird Kitchen, Downtown, and will bake for Cure in Lawrenceville beginning in June.

There are many, many more.

"The food scene was not strong when I first moved here," said Keith Fuller, chef and owner of Root 174 in Regent Square. When he arrived from Philadelphia in 2005, he said pub food and "crudites with ranch dressing" were a stand-in for fine dining fare in some restaurants.

Mr. Fuller, 33, was convinced to move by Chris Jackson, with whom he worked at the highly regarded Jake's and Cooper's Wine Bar in Philadelphia. Mr. Jackson and Mr. Fuller opened Six Penn Kitchen, a Downtown restaurant from Eat'n Park Hospitality Group.

"The first time he asked me about coming to Pittsburgh, I hung up on him," said Mr. Fuller, who helmed Six Penn until 2011. Several visits convinced him to leave his Philadelphia post, though he knew it would take awhile to kick-start Pittsburgh's restaurant scene.

The restaurant community coalesced, he said, beginning in 2007 or 2008. The opening of his own restaurant serves as an example of the budding camaraderie among chefs. Before changing locations, Legume chef-owner Trevett Hooper called Mr. Fuller to ask if he was interested in the space before Legume relocated to Oakland. Mr. Fuller took him up on it and opened Root 174 in the fall of 2011.

Hoon Kim, owner of Fukuda in Bloomfield, also cited strong relationships among restaurant folks as a reason to open his first place last fall.

Mr. Kim, 38, moved to Pittsburgh from New York seven years ago with his wife, a Pittsburgh native, to start Pittsburgh Prep, an East Liberty-based tutoring company.

This past year, with a little extra money and an entrepreneurial spirit, Mr. Kim decided to pursue a lifelong ambition to open a restaurant inspired by his Japanese upbringing. Before opening, Mr. Kim said he "did a hearty bit of research," and was pleased to find the restaurant community "warm and inviting."

Boomerang Bob Broskey, sous chef at the recently reopened Notion in East Liberty, said he knew few people in the restaurant community, but gained footing after staging in restaurants for two months. Mr. Broskey returned from Chicago because "it was the right move at the right time," he said.

Working under Dave Racicot at Notion appealed to him because he is passionate about fine dining and hopes to see more of it in the area.

It's the city's inexpensive real estate that attracted Tim Tobitsch, 31, co-owner of Franktuary Downtown and in Lawrenceville. Mr. Tobitsch opened the restaurant with Megan Lindsey, a former college classmate, in 2004.

"I had no real chance of opening a restaurant near home, where the start-up costs would be triple what they are here," said Mr. Tobitsch, who moved from Summit, N.J., a commuter suburb of New York City.

He cites open spaces, urban gardens, access to farms and short commute times as benefits of starting a restaurant in Pittsburgh. He also praised the people.

"They're less pretentious," he said. "And it's easy to make friends."

In a city cited for a high percentage of older residents, it's ironic that Micah Maughan, sous chef at Root 174, noted the youth of the city's restaurant scene.

He moved here from New York two years ago, after working for chef luminaries Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Gray Kunz at Spice Market when it opened in 2004. He also worked at Lutece, one of Manhattan's landmark French restaurants, which closed in 2004.

Mr. Maughan, 36, said he looks forward to Pittsburgh's restaurant culture's maturing. "You don't have the icons, the support from people whose names are nationally known," he said.

The support comes from peers. He said he appreciates meeting up with restaurant staff at late-night dining spots such as Salt of the Earth in Garfield or Spoon in East Liberty. These are the few times he can meet industry folks since he works so often.

He sees some challenges, however. "When farmers don't have stuff, it's more of a struggle to find something interesting," Mr. Maughan said, "because you don't have the volume of restaurants as an incentive to offer something here as opposed to Philadelphia or New York."

Mr. Broskey said in season, "local stuff is actually nicer," than what he found in Chicago. "Farms are more accessible. People are really conscious here of where their food comes from."

Andrew Hill, a Pittsburgh native who returned from Boston to work as sous chef at Stagioni on the South Side, said purveyors are more streamlined here than in Boston, where he lived until this past September. Mr. Hill, 31, was a cook at Ten Tables and Craigie on Main.

He appreciates that chefs can rely on delivery days, during which one or two purveyors deliver goods from several farms.

"In Boston, you had to pick and choose your battles, and worry whether each of these small outfits would come through with deliveries, and when," he said.

It's this sharing -- of information, purveyors, ingredients, techniques and tribulations -- that's nurturing the growth of Pittsburgh's restaurant industry.

And of course, the patrons.

"Whether or not they're knowledgeable, the people who live here enjoy restaurants," said Mr. Maughan.

"As far as local support, Pittsburghers devote a lot of energy to food."

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


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