On a Saturday night in January at Salt of the Earth, a brigade of cooks hold down their stations. Dressed in black shirts and aprons in an open kitchen, each chef works with quiet focus, seemingly oblivious to the curious gazes of guests observing the activities of the open kitchen.
Both the kitchen and the colossal chalkboard menu that dominates the wall opposite the kitchen are streamlined. Yet dishes are minimalist only in name, as "Duck," Tofu" and "Pork" deliver contemporary, complex flavors.
Take the preparation of "Egg." First poached in scalding water for less than 90 seconds until the white is barely solid, it's then shocked in cold water to stop the cooking process. Dipped in beaten eggs, rolled in a mixture of panko and finely chopped cauliflower, the egg is deep-fried until the outside is crackling golden. Slice into it and its yolk pools into a pudding made of oats and parsnips. At Salt of the Earth, even the esteemed French bearnaise sauce accompaniment is reimagined, as traditional egg is replaced with luscious bone marrow.
Standing in the center of the kitchen is Chad Townsend, a 30-year-old, classically trained chef. Mr. Townsend is running the line, calling out orders and inspecting finished dishes to make sure they meet the high standards of the award-winning restaurant. Although he's been in charge of the Salt of the Earth kitchen since July, it's not common knowledge that he oversees the restaurant.
"There are still people who come in and say 'Oh, Kevin must be off tonight,' " says Mr. Townsend, referring to Kevin Sousa, the restaurant's much more famous owner and executive chef. Mr. Sousa checks in with the restaurant daily, but he's focused on numerous other projects: Union Pig & Chicken, Harvard & Highland, Station Street Hot Dogs, and his forthcoming Braddock flagship restaurant Magarac.
The day-to-day operations of Salt of the Earth fall to Mr. Townsend. He's just one of a legion of mostly-unheralded helms -- people who are essential to the continued growth of Pittsburgh's booming restaurant scene.
Their names might not be recognizable to those outside the restaurant industry, but it's this crew that maintains continuity at area restaurants while the head honchos are experimenting with new techniques or are off working on other endeavors.
Mr. Townsend is a chef de cuisine. In the lists of restaurant hierarchy, that puts him one step below the executive chef. Unlike the executive, chefs de cuisine almost never have an ownership stake in the restaurant; yet in all practicality these colonels of the kitchen run their respective eateries. They don't need to ask for permission to make any but the most major decisions, and even when they create a new dish for the menu it's generally subject to just a quick check before going into rotation. The trust between an executive chef and a chef de cuisine needs to be near absolute.
"I consider him an absolute equal. I never second guess his management style or execution of a dish," says Mr. Sousa.
During service, a chef de cuisine will stand between the cooks and the servers; he or she is the bridge between the front of the house and the back of the house.
A sous chef, translated as "under chef," is the head of middle management. In restaurants with a chef de cuisine, the sous is third in command, but when the kitchen is run by an executive chef, the sous is the chef's right hand. During service, a sous chef stands on the same side of the pass as the line cooks.
Tom Caldwell, the sous chef at Moon's Hyeholde restaurant, works directly under executive chef Jim Brinkman. Although he doesn't have as much say in the day-to-day operation of Hyeholde as Mr. Townsend does at Salt of the Earth, he still contributes significantly to the coherence of the kitchen. When Mr. Brinkman takes a day off, all eyes are on Mr. Caldwell. It's a significant amount of responsibility for a 24-year-old, but he is confident in his ability to handle any adversity.
"I talk to Chef, and I talk to my line cooks. I make sure everything is running as it should," says Mr. Caldwell.
Although specific responsibilities and creative freedoms vary from restaurant to restaurant, there are universal commonalities: punishingly long hours (60 to 80 per week), a curious culinary mind and an ability to humble, at least for the moment, their own goals and passions in service of their head chef's vision.
At 8:30 on a Friday night, the rhythm of Legume's expansive and sparkling-clean kitchen has slowed a bit from the hectic pace of an earlier dinner rush. Chef de cuisine Jamilka Borges moves from the pass to a massive wooden cutting board. She prepares duck liver tortellini for a special dinner featuring some of Pittsburgh's finest chefs.
As is typical for high-level kitchen staff, it's been a long day for Ms. Borges. Her shift starts around 9 a.m. (she says that she's always the first person in the building) with a walk through the restaurant to assess the needs of the day: food ordering, menu planning, and working with her prep cooks to prepare for a smooth transition into dinner service, as per her boss, owner and executive chef Trevett Hooper.
"I know his style. We get each other. He's my mentor, and I get what he wants to do," she says.
She's continued to base the restaurant's dishes around his pioneering respect for seasonal, farm-to-table cuisine (indeed, one could argue that Mr. Hooper's cuisine is more salt-of-the-earth than Mr. Sousa's Salt of the Earth), but also has had to embrace the fermentation and whole animal butchery projects he's pursued in the past few months.
A spelt salad is a typical example of how Ms. Borges acts as a translator of Mr. Hooper's vision. Cooking with whole grains is something she's been focused on recently, and the earthy-nutty flavor of spelt is beautifully balanced by the sharp-sweet acidity of Mr. Hooper's pickled beans and peppers.
Yet maintaining continuity doesn't necessarily mean keeping things exactly the same as they were when the executive chef ran the kitchen. "You can see how since I took over the menu is a little less rustic and more composed," she says, adding, "Any fish with fruit on it is definitely my dish."
Maintaining continuity at Salt of the Earth was, at first, a less fluid process; Mr. Townsend's classical training clashed with Mr. Sousa's contemporary, molecular style.
"I gave some push back on adopting some of those techniques right away because I'd never seen them as useful. So sometimes he'd make a suggestion, and I'd say, 'That sounds like a parlor trick.' It gets easier as you see these things have more and more usefulness. It's great once you've had your eyes opened," Mr. Townsend says.
He cites a dessert named "Citrus" as an example of his evolving culinary technique. The dish features a coconut "pudding" that is traditionally set with cornstarch or egg. At Salt he used carrageenan, a flavorless compound extracted from seaweed, that's popular with both molecular gastronomists and processed food producers. The result, he says, is something that's "very purely coconut."
Still, he can't resist occasionally playing up the classics when the mood -- and the food -- speaks too loudly. "At one point last summer I had a BLT on the menu," he says. On a typical Salt menu, "BLT" could mean duck breast cured to taste like bacon, lettuce powder and tomato gelee, served on an air bread.
But just this once ...
"This sandwich was simply bacon, lettuce, and tomato on beautiful bread," he says. "The tomatoes were just so perfect, and I didn't want to mess with them."
Aside from the occasional cheeky substitution, the collaboration between the two chefs is now a generally seamless affair. Says Mr. Sousa, "People don't know the difference between his dishes, my dishes and collaboration. It's unfortunate sometimes because he doesn't always get the credit for what he does."
At East Liberty's Spoon/BRGR, executive chef Brian Pekarcik has a team of Three Musketeers -- chef de cuisine Dave Anoia, and sous chefs Jamie Sola and Jeff Miller -- helming the dual-concept kitchen.
It's an evolving experiment in shared energy. Mr. Anoia began his partnership with Mr. Pekarcik nearly 10 years ago in San Diego. When Mr. Pekarcik decided to move back to Pittsburgh, Mr. Anoia, a native of central Pennsylvania, chose to follow him to his new endeavor.
"We feed off one another," says Mr. Pekarcik. "He knows the style and direction I want to take a dish. We don't need to go over the finer details of the execution because he knows my food so well."
In turn, the even-tempered Mr. Anoia passes on a lot of credit to Mr. Sola and Mr. Miller. "Everyone in the kitchen has a say in the dish. It's not my dish or Brian's dish. It's collaboration. We don't dictate the menu," he says.
Mr. Sola, who's been at Spoon for three months, likens the creation of a dish to "writing a song. Someone comes up with an idea -- a beat -- and it trickles down from there."
Still, Mr. Miller says, "Ultimately it's always up to Chef. He's the final word."
Collaboration and mentorship
Although Mr. Anoia insists that he and his two sous chefs run the kitchen collaboratively ("the only difference is my title"), it's clear on a bustling Friday night that he is responsible for making sure the East Liberty restaurants maintain Mr. Pekarcik's vision while he is at the Cranberry BRGR.
That's when Mr. Sola controls the hectic hustle of the BRGR kitchen while Mr. Anoia oversees Spoon (all three rotate between the two concepts, which are housed in the same space and separated by a slim aisle in the center of the room; Mr. Pekarcik will bounce between the two when he's in the kitchen).
Orders ring in, first with a drip, and then at a steadily increasing pace. The movement in the kitchen is non-stop and focused, but calm. This is a reflection of Mr. Anoia's demeanor.
When he is handed a imperfectly prepared plate of scallops -- a dish just added to the menu the previous night -- he hustles behind the line to instruct one of the four cooks on how to plate the dish properly. There's no Gordon Ramsay-style shouting; just a straightforward series of instruction: "You need to make this cleaner," "This should have more caramelization," and "There should be about half as much as you have here."
Minutes later, the garde manger chef (responsible for cold food such as salad) gets confused while plating a cold trout appetizer. She asks, "Chef, is this the way you want it?"
Mr. Anoia seizes the opportunity to mentor the budding chef. He says, "Show me how you think you should plate it."
She prepares the plate incorrectly. He then shows her a photo on his iPhone of a properly plated dish, and gently encourages her to prepare it as designed.
"I used to have an iron fist. I don't anymore," echoes Mr. Sola from the BRGR side of the kitchen.
Back at Legume, sous chef Brian "Trout" Wiltrout mentors his line cooks, too.
"We're supposed to be there for support. We try to set them up for success," he says, noting that his background in sports journalism sometimes comes in handy in the kitchen, both in recipe development and in working with his line cooks. "I'm an editor."
On that Friday night everybody is smiling, nearly beaming, something that's not typical in a restaurant kitchen. This is largely due to the relatively mellow pace of the evening, but it's also a reflection of the greater sense of the spirit of the establishment.
"As hippie-ish as this sounds," says Mr. Wiltrout, "if you're creating an end product because you want to be the best chef you can be because you love it, it's going to be better than if you're doing it because you're afraid of what happens if you don't."
Maintaining someone else's vision while suppressing one's own culinary desires can only last for so long. All the chefs de cuisine and sous chefs interviewed for this article expressed interest in one day opening up their own restaurant to pursue the cuisines they dream of cooking.
Says Mr. Sousa, "You know it won't last forever because eventually someone as talented as Chad will move on [from Salt of the Earth]. The only thing I can do is give him more and more freedom."
For Mr. Caldwell at Hyeholde, that dream is still years away. "I still learn new stuff everyday," he says. He adds that the restaurant is an encouraging place for the young sous chef to find his culinary voice.
"I have a lot of freedom when it comes to the menu, but Chef will reign it in if it gets too crazy," he says. Diners at Hyeholde expect classic American cuisine with bold flavors such as elk and lamb shank, and he knows he can't stray too far from these expectations without push-back from his customers. But he says that a special chef's table set in the back of the brightly-lit kitchen is designed to encourage creative freedom.
As an added bonus, the proceeds from the chef's table are dedicated to travel expenses for the chefs to go out of town and learn new techniques. Mr. Caldwell is planning a trip to either New York or Las Vegas for Memorial Day weekend.
At Legume, the transition came sooner than anticipated.
Last month, Ms. Borges tendered her notice of resignation in order to become chef de cuisine at Bar Marco in the Strip District. Through a straightforward lens, this could be viewed as a step sideways at best. Legume's Mr. Hooper was nominated this year as a semifinalist for a prestigious James Beard award, and Ms. Borges' work undoubtedly is an essential, if uncredited, part of his success.
"It's bittersweet. I've been here for such a long time, and I love love love Legume; I want to try something new and see what happens," she says.
In the end, her decision came down to a simple desire. "I'll have more freedom," she says.
At Bar Marco, her position will be more fluid. In addition to partnering with executive chef Brandon Baltzley on the restaurant's forward-thinking main menu, she'll be in charge of developing distinctive tasting menus for an anticipated downstairs wine bar.
Ms. Borges' last hurrah at Legume took place on March 24 at Slow Food Pittsburgh's second annual "Sous Chefs Cook for a Cause," a fundraiser to provide scholarships to aspiring local cheesemakers.
Her exit, fittingly, was the one event of the year where the un-credited glue of the area's kitchens have a very fleeting moment in the spotlight.
She organized the dinner, during which seven Pittsburgh sous chefs -- Brian Little, Salt of the Earth; Bob Broskey, Notion; Nate Hobart, Cure; Tim Eelman, Kaya; Dustin Gardner, Casbah; Gary Borrow, Nine on Nine; Andrew Hill, Stagioni-- had a chance to display their creativity and technique.
Mr. Townsend spent the evening working as a line cook, there to support his sous chef, Mr. Little, as well as the other chefs.
"These are guys who do everything every day, and this is the one event of the year where they don't have to pick up all the pieces," he said from the kitchen.
Then, taking a moment to observe the seven sous chefs work collaboratively to put the finishing touches on Mr. Hobart's dish, he said, "This is the future."
As each dish was served, the chef who created it strode to center stage in the white-tableclothed dining room to describe their work, and their efforts were rewarded with warm recognition from the diners.
The largest applause was saved for the end of the dinner, when a Slow Food organizer gave a speech thanking Ms. Borges for her work. Ever humble, Ms. Borges responded with a quick thank you to all the participating sous chefs and returned to the kitchen.
As per usual, her evening was spent organizing the servers, making sure the dishes were sent out just as they'd been envisioned by her fellow chefs, and even, as clean silverware began to run short, scrubbing dishes.
In the middle of all the hubbub she'd also managed, without ceremony, to pin a note to the kitchen corkboard. It read, "Legume: I love you and will always ..."
Hal B. Klein holds a master's in food studies from Chatham University and writes for The Allegheny Front, Pittsburgh City Paper and other outlets: firstname.lastname@example.org. First Published April 4, 2013 4:00 AM