Crew will film at Bigham Tavern in Mount Washington Wednesday.
The restaurant business is a revolving door where employees come and go. So it’s rare to find a nonfamily member working at the same place for a decade, and it is rarer to come across an employee who has stuck it out for 30 years and continues to be proud and passionate about the job.
Courtney McFarlane, the grill master at Tessaro’s in Bloomfield, is in that distinctive league.
“He is an employee that any employer would love to have,” says Moira Harrington, who co-owns the restaurant hailed for its award-winning burgers with her sister, Mike. “He has tremendous stamina, never complains about the workload, tirelessly makes things the best he can and loves a challenge.”
Mr. McFarlane was born in Jamaica and raised by his grandmother during his teenage years when his mother left for the U.S. along with his stepbrother and stepsister. He joined his mother in Pittsburgh in 1986 and was looking to take a vocational class in electronics at the Connelley Technical Institute and Adult Education Center when finding a job became a necessity. Space was tight in his mother’s house and so he decided to get his own apartment. “That meant I had to find a job,” he says.
His mother was babysitting for a person who knew the Harringtons and found out that they were looking for help in their restaurant. He put in this application, and interviewed with the late Kelly Harrington, Moira and Mike’s brother who used to own Tessaro’s, and their mother Tee.
They were impressed, and he started as a dishwasher making $3.25 an hour. The restaurant did not have a dishwasher then but that did not faze him.
“Growing up in Jamaica, I was not afraid of hard work. Tee was impressed with my work ethics,” he says.
A year later, he entered the kitchen as an assistant plate setter (gets the order and calls it to the cook), moved up to be a plate setter (assembles the coleslaw, potato salad, etc.) before becoming an assistant to four cooks.
When he entered the kitchen, he was not familiar with many of the cooking techniques at Tessaro’s. Even though grilling is part of Jamaican cuisine, Mr. McFarlane had never grilled foods while living in the island country. He had only used skillets and pots to cook. He had never flipped burgers either nor did he know how to make ribs.
Soon he picked up how to form a burger patty and flip it, and build a fire and maintain it on a woodfire grill. “I learned everything here on the spot,” he says. “It was from a lot of practice and a lot of mistakes.”
He worked with his mentors for about a dozen years. But when the other cooks started leaving one by one, as the last one standing, Mr. McFarlane had to pick up their share of work. Although new hires were made, they never seemed to last. “Every time I thought we had someone, the person would last a year or less. So I had to pick up those hours,” he recalls.
Through the years, he has been on a roller coaster ride of good and bad times but he has sought “to look on the brighter side of life and not focus on the negative.” That, he says, helped him to accomplish his goals of being able to buy a car and house.
“No matter where you go and what you do, there are going to be downfalls. Although sometimes it got to me, I realized I could not let it as it would just make my life miserable,” he says. “And it’s not good for the other people I’m working with to see that.”
All that hard work and positive attitude earned Mr. McFarlane the head grill cook position. He embraced it by pushing himself to do better. “Failure was not an option for me and I did not want to let down my boss,” he says.
Now 30 years into the business, he says he would rate his burgers, made with ground beef and trimmings from the sirloins and tenderloins, as A-plus. Mr. McFarlane says he has the process down pat, from understanding the feel of a 10-ounce patty to forming a perfectly shaped one to cooking it at the correct temperature and time.
When he first started, he used to touch the patty to check for doneness but not anymore. Nor does he use a thermometer. Instead he goes by sight and instinct. “It can get very busy and so to poke a thermometer in every burger can be very frustrating,” he says.
The toughest part of the job, however, is the long hours. He had put in 16-hour days for two years. These days, there are times when he pulls in 14-hour shifts.
Mr. McFarlane makes 400 burgers on a regular day when he works two shifts. On a double-shift Saturday, he has set a record of making 565 and is shooting for 600. When “The Dark Knight Rises” was filmed in Pittsburgh in 2011, Tessaro’s got a takeout order for 80 burgers on a Thursday night when the restaurant was already busy. “People thought I was crazy for taking it on but I wanted to push myself to see if I could do it,” he says. “And we did it.”
Although the high stress and low pay are often the reasons for the constant turnover in restaurants, Tessaro’s seems to have a system that works. Of its 40 employees today, in addition to Mr. McFarlane there are three others in the 30-year club and four who have worked there between 15 and 20 years, Ms. Harrington says. She pins their loyalty to her brother, Kelly, “who always wanted to give back to the employees.” The restaurant offers 401(k) plans, paid vacation, disability insurance and regular raises.
On the dining room walls, employees who have worked at the restaurant over the years and Harrington family members are part of the large murals painted by Hathaway Morton. Mr. McFarlane is among them standing tall in his signature blue apron, white shirt and blue jeans. He was 19 when he joined and now he is a few months shy of his 51st birthday.
Moira Harrington says he is a rare individual, adding, “He can do anything, and there’s no limit to his abilities.”
In fact, the Harringtons value him so much that they closed the restaurant earlier this month for half a day because he was getting married. In addition to national holidays and Sundays, they have shut Tessaro’s doors only on one other occasion — when Kelly Harrington died unexpectedly in 2009.
“Kelly was the cornerstone, our rock of Gibraltar. He was everything. So when he passed, we closed for that,” Ms. Harrington says. “But we have never closed for a wedding before.”
Mr. McFarlane says he felt honored that the owners were going the distance to do that for him, adding that it would not have bothered him if they did not because he understands the practical nature of the business. “But for them to shut the restaurant for part of the day, it’s saying a lot,” he says. “It makes me know that they feel good about me for all the work I have done over the years.”
Arthi Subramaniam: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1494 or on Twitter @arthisub.