Salt of the Earth transports guests (literally) at Best Restaurants party

In 'Willy Wonka' style, Salt had 10 golden tickets for guests at Pittsburgh Magazine's Monday event. The winners got one memorable meal.

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It makes for a memorable night when being ordered to wear a blindfold while packed into an unmarked van with 10 strangers is one of the less perverse things that happens.

On Monday, 60 restaurants at Pittsburgh Magazine's 24th annual Best Restaurants party at Heinz Field set up tables with high and low fare, from oyster ramp kimchi to pizza. One other -- the acclaimed Salt of the Earth -- laid out a wall of 3-square-inch white boxes containing only a roll and butter. Most of the early visitors, who had paid $250 each for V.I.P. tickets, either threw the boxes in the trash or wholly ignored them.

For days Salt owner-chef Kevin Sousa had been tweeting cryptic messages about something called "staygold412," and that afternoon he announced 10 "golden tickets" would be distributed at the party at 6:10 p.m. A staffer wearing a T-shirt saying "Au" (gold's chemical symbol) then carried out a tray of more boxes, and slowly, people came forward to pluck them.

Some had more rolls. Ten had waiver forms indemnifying Salt against legal claims -- telling participants they would be transported off-site for food and drink without account for dietary restrictions -- as well as a black handkerchief. An accordion player led the winners down an elevator where a marching band played by a waiting van with black windows.

"I think we just joined a cult," said one of the winners, New Castle pastor Shawn Galla.

In only a little more than an hour the group would be finishing an extravagant seven-course meal -- with paired alcohol and a discordant soundtrack -- served by silent attendants in the lobby of The Andy Warhol Museum. All the while, back at Heinz Field, a TV monitor at the Salt table showed a video stream of the curious dinner.

"It was one of the coolest things I've ever encountered," said Dan Crytzer, an auto mechanic who had to leave his girlfriend at the party.

Mr. Sousa began planning his surprise a year ago, feeling frustrated and bored after the last Best Restaurants party. Why not take the roughly $5,000 it takes each high-end restaurant to cook and plate 2,000 portions for the event, and do something special?

"You have all the best restaurants in the city, why waste it?" he said at his Garfield headquarters Monday morning.

Mr. Sousa is one of a handful of Pittsburgh chefs most responsible for building the city's growing reputation for good food. First getting notice for an experimental restaurant in a Downtown hotel eight years ago, he earned wide praise after opening Salt of the Earth in the city's Garfield neighborhood in 2010. In a four-star review that year, the Post-Gazette called it a "casually elegant restaurant with a modern approach and refined sensibility," and Pittsburgh Magazine named him the city's best chef in 2011.

He has gone on to open a barbecue restaurant and a hot dog/street food outlet in neighboring East Liberty and plans another high-end restaurant in Braddock. The chaos of starting a restaurant -- such as when Salt held early secret dinners among construction debris -- energizes Mr. Sousa and his tight-knit staff, and they sought to bottle that for the party Monday.

"We started doing guerrilla dinners," said Mr. Sousa, while carving a $1,000 Wagyu beef steak. "We have more resources now, so we can do what we want to do."

It had the spirit of a bank heist. For the past few weeks Mr. Sousa, chef de cuisine Chad Townsend and the Salt crew had secretly plotted and rehearsed the night. (Party organizers were not notified.) Among others, they brought in artist Thommy Conroy to oversee and decorate the event; Justin Crimone of Zeno Films to film it; and musician Tony Paterra (of experimental acts Zombi and Majeure) to compose mini-soundtracks, some of them brutally loud, for the entrance to the dinner and all seven courses.

"Did you hear the 'Willy Wonka' soundclips?" Mr. Paterra would ask afterward.

Mr. Sousa's "golden ticket" was an obvious "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" reference, and the wide-eyed dinner winners were thrilled at their unexpected roles. The Rev. Galla, 28, traveled with his wife, Carlie, a family-based therapist, from New Castle for the party. Mr. Crytzer, 32, of Freeport, is a BMW mechanic trying to resuscitate his family's farm in Slate Lick. Richard Hutto was back home in Cranberry while convalescing from getting hit on his bike by a drunken driver in San Francisco.

He initially threw his ticket into the trash before retrieving it. "That was the best free meal of my life," Mr. Hutto would say. "It was one of the best meals in general."

After taking off their blindfolds at the Warhol, diners entered to blaring music and a long table so overdecorated with flowers that they could see only those directly next and opposite them. Each course and wine pairing was delivered -- silently, without explanation -- by a team of female Salt staffers turning military style on marks taped to the museum floor, led by Mr. Conroy in black tails.

There were seven courses including: caviar on chicken skin; slow-cooked egg yolk with summer truffle and savory isomalt; langoustine with peas and brunoised pickles; foie gras with coconut, banana, coffee and ramps; squab with Ovali mushrooms and sorrel; Wagyu slices with oyster-cream filled potato cups and oyster leaf; and a rhubarb gel dome atop white chocolate and strawberries.

At no time did the cooks show themselves. At the end Mr. Conroy wordlessly delivered the menus to the diners and opened the museum door for them to climb back in the van.

On Tuesday, secretaries at the First Assembly of God saw photos that Pastor Galla had posted online. "They were asking, 'What in the world did you do last night?' Where do I even start, really?" he replied.

Back at Heinz Field those viewing the dinner largely broke down into two camps -- finding it either eye-rollingly pretentious or amazing -- which is what Mr. Sousa and his staff expected. That reception continued at the Best Restaurants after-party, where he stood largely by himself, sipping an apple juice, while a few chef friends came over to congratulate him.

"It's the most punk rock thing I've ever done," he said. "It's like an adult Mohawk."

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Tim McNulty: or 412-263-1581.


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