When it comes to hiring a chef for her restaurants, Lidia Bastianich looks beyond the resume of the person’s culinary career, prowess in the kitchen and good references.
It is a lot more personal for her.
She considers the person’s potential. Is he creative? Can he execute with precision at the spur of the moment? Will he be able to go the extra mile in preparing for special events? And importantly, can they collaborate together?
“This is not a solitary journey,” the restaurateur/chef/cookbook author says. “It’s a combination of following my philosophy of Italian homecooking that is presented in a seasonal way with locally sourced produce and being creative.”
People who go to her restaurants know Italian food, the straightforwardness of it, and expect it, she says. To deliver it, she says her Batali & Bastianich Hospitality Group has to be able to work with the chef. “We have to be able to dance together, shall we say.”
It has been more than 40 years since she opened her first restaurant, and she now mentors young up-and-coming chefs. She wants to lead them in the right way by getting them to think local and seasonal and at the same time letting them spread their wings and grow. She also likes to build someone with a good base from within. So even if he is a novice or just out of culinary school but has an energy and excitement to contribute, she is prepared to invest in him.
Ms. Bastianich found what she was looking for in Daniel Walker, 32, the new executive chef at Lidia’s Pittsburgh in the Strip District. Born and raised in Kansas City, Mo., he started off as a line cook at Lidia’s Kansas City and in two months moved up to become the sous chef.
Mr. Walker did not take the traditional industry path of going to culinary school. “It was more a vocational training with different chefs and working with really, really good people,” he says.
While he was a sous chef in Kansas City, executive chef Dan Swinney sent him to New York City where he worked with Ms. Bastianich at her flagship restaurant, Felidia, and with its Michelin star executive chef, Fortunato Nicotra. Mr. Walker also specialized in northern Italian fare when he worked at Riverside Hotel in Hot Sulphur Springs, Colo., and at the Kimpton Hotel Monaco in Denver with its award-winning chef, Elise Wiggins.
“If you want to be smart, you hang out with smart people,” he says.
Moving from Kansas City to Pittsburgh didn’t throw him off balance, as he feels the cities share similarities. In addition to the obvious ones such as rivers and bridges, he says both have booming markets and are on the cusp of becoming great culinary cities.
“They have a growing number of conscientious diners who are raising their own expectations and pushing for the same thing with regard to chefs,” he says.
He finds it harder to please a diner today than 10 years ago, and even harder to surprise a diner these days when it comes to showcasing new ingredients. He refers to arugula, which has become part of an everyday salad conversation but was something that not everybody had seen in the early 2000s.
As the executive chef, he faces an increased level of expectation on decisions he makes that he didn’t have to deal with as a sous chef. “Before, it was more about how to chop an onion, but now it is about who I am going to buy the onion or fish from, fixing equipment and dealing with the finances,” he says.
Kitchens are known to have a high level of stress, but it has grown exponentially for him in the new role. Although he’s not complaining because he finds it to be a labor of love. “No sane person will do this if they do not truly love it.”
So how does he de-stress? By going out to eat. He also likes to eat out to get a feel of the city, to see what other chefs have going on and to stay on top of what’s happening on the restaurant scene. One of his favorite places so far has been Morcilla in Lawrenceville. “There’s something very alluring about small plates,” he says. “I don’t know whether it is something to do with my indecisiveness or that I want to try everything.”
Mr. Walker credits his grandmother for teaching him to cook and instilling a love for farming. “My grandma taught me real Americana stuff. We are talking about how to make mashed potatoes or fried chicken or fruit pies,” he says. His favorite is her cherry pie that she makes every year for his birthday. His grandmother has a two-acre farm that she calls a garden, he says, and grows every summer vegetable imaginable that would grow in the Kansas City area.
He finds his grandmother and Ms. Bastianich to be mirror images of each other in what they represent. “They are both matriarchal figures who are really, really savvy,” he says.
Ms. Bastianich has not only taught him about what Italian food really is, he says, but also about finding the best possible locally sourced product and giving it the due respect. One of her tips that he holds dearly is: “Half your cooking is done even before you have turned on the burner if you have the best possible products.”
Mr. Walker plans to stick to principal Italian flavors in Pittsburgh and is adding a few new items that he is rolling out Monday on the summer menu. It includes a salad with fava and lima beans, three kinds of radishes, mint and watercress over a pea puree; arancini made with carnaroli rice, crab and squash blossoms; and a mixed-berry crostata with lemon curd.
He does not intend to just talk the talk but wants to put it on the plate when it comes to sourcing. The ‘Green Meat,’ black and ‘Easter egg’ radishes are from an Amish co-op from Clarion River Organics, and the watercress, which is sourced from a ditch, and squash blossoms are from Miller’s Farm in Mercer. He also has a food recycling program with Serenity Hill Farms in Cheswick, where he buys his lamb, pork loin and beef strip steaks. He gives scraps from the bread service and the prep kitchen’s vegetable organic waste to the farm, and they are in turn used to feed the chickens and pigs.
Mr. Walker is the fourth executive chef at the Strip District restaurant, which is in its 16th year, and succeeds Nicole Neely, who started at Lidia’s Pittsburgh as the sous chef. “We wanted to give her a chance and moved her up to be the executive chef, but she sort of fizzled out,” says Ms. Bastianich, stressing chefs need to have an energy level that is more than just standing in the kitchen for hours together. She wants them to be creative and not just follow handed-out recipes, stay on top of trends and acquire a good knowledge about local products.
She’s not crazy about diva chefs either, who she says are all about themselves, their inventions and personality. “We here are communicating a culture, a country and a people.” She adds that the divas don’t contribute to that when they go off on a tangent.
She feels Mr. Walker is suited for the job at Lidia’s Pittsburgh because he understands her philosophy of food and he has the enthusiasm. “He was growing and wanted more responsibility. We felt it would be a great move for him,” she says.
He in turn is grateful for the opportunity. “I have the utmost respect for Lidia,” Mr. Walker says. “I would jump on a grenade for Lidia Bastianich.”
Arthi Subramaniam: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1494 or on Twitter @arthisub.