When Eleven Contemporary Kitchen celebrated its 10th birthday this past June, executive chef Derek Stevens went all out. The four-course tasting menu he created for the Strip District restaurant awed and amazed: Some 200 guests dined on such gourmet delights as Fede pappardelle tossed with morels, veal sweetbreads served atop lobster risotto, and blueberry tart stuffed with lime curd and cheesecake.
For his own 40th birthday next month, Chef Stevens will again push himself to the limit. Only this time, instead of in the kitchen, it’ll be on a 20-foot-wide crushed-stone trail.
On Sat., Sept. 6, he’ll compete in the Pine Creek Challenge, an ultramarathon that stretches 100 miles through Pennsylvania’s “Grand Canyon,” from Wellsboro to Jersey Shore and back again. He has 24 hours to finish.
No, he’s not trying to stave off a mid-life crisis. (Though by completing the race by noon on Sun., Sept. 7, the veteran runner certainly will prove he’s still got it.) He’s running to raise money and awareness for a charity that’s close to his heart: the 5P- Society, a nonprofit support group for parents and families with a child with cri du chat.
Also known as “cat’s cry” syndrome because of the high-pitched, kitten-like cry of afflicted infants, the rare genetic disorder strikes about one in 50,000 babies, or about 50 to 60 babies a year in the U.S. It causes an array of physical and mental impairments due to a deletion on the short arm (p) of the fifth chromosome (5).
Chef Stevens learned the devastating news his daughter, Helena, had the disease five years ago, a month after her birth. It was through resources such as 5P-, he says, that he and his wife, Marie, have learned to better cope with her developmental delays.
“It just ripped our hearts out,” he says of the diagnosis. But with therapy, and a great pediatrician, “she’s doing amazingly well.” So much so, that she’ll start kindergarten at Crafton Elementary just a few days before he takes to the trail.
For such a public personality -- he’s presided over the high-end, open-air kitchen since October 2006 -- Chef Stevens is famously private about his private life. (“When I’m at work, I talk about work,” he says.) So his call for donations took even those who know him best by surprise.
“He doesn’t even tell me where he’s going on vacation,” says Bill Fuller, corporate chef for Big Burrito Restaurant Group, which oversees Eleven.
Then again, he says, “This is a guy who super loves his family, and has a lot of emotion wrapped around his kids,” which also include sons Desmond, 11, and Gavin, 8. “This is a good way to let some of that emotion out.”
Unlike many ultramarathoners, Chef Stevens isn’t a lifelong runner -- a former smoker, he only started about three years ago, after realizing what terrible shape he was in. He took to it like a duck to water.
His first race two years ago, which he got talked into by his good friend Jim Arthur, whom he’s known since his high school days at North Allegheny, was the 15-mile Spring Thaw at North Park. Next, Mr. Arthur convinced him to do the Rachel Carson Challenge, a 34-mile-long endurance hike/run on the brutal Rachel Carson Trail. “A great adventure,” he says.
Along with other shorter races, he’s also completed the 50-mile North Face Endurance Challenge in Washington, D.C. Twice. Last year, he did Pine Creek’s 100K event (roughly 62 miles) in a respectable 13:53:27.
Not easy for a guy who often has to work in runs after a brutal 10-hour shift at the restaurant. Just a couple Saturdays ago, he notes with a laugh, he and Mr. Arthur ran a full marathon on the Montour Trail after finishing work at 11 p.m. After three hours sleep, he was back in the kitchen. He’ll push his 6-feet 4-inch, 210-pound frame to do it again this week to prepare mentally for Pine Creek.
Chef Stevens readily admits he doesn’t like people to “meddle in his stuff,” but once he got the idea a few weeks ago to marry his birthday event with fundraising for 5P- Society, he couldn’t shake it.
“It’s an opportunity to raise money for an organization that can help other people, to do something for someone else,” he says. So while he’s “just like any other schmuck working in the restaurant industry,” he hopes people consider donating.
Unlike his daughter, who struggles on a daily basis, he says, he gets to choose his challenges.
“It’s a mental thing,” he says. “Your mind will quit a thousand times before your body will.”
When you’re running such long distances, he continues, there are times when you feel like you can’t take another step, and times when you feel like you can cruise all day. Like life itself, he says, “There’s good and there’s bad.”
This is his chance to make good.
You can make a donation to Chef Stevens’ event at www.razoo.com/story/Helena-S-Hundo/mobile.
Gretchen McKay: email@example.com, 412-263-1419 or on Twitter @gtmckay.