Cibo chef makes successful return to the kitchen after five-year hiatus

Among the classic social pursuits in American life is to catch a “dinner and a show,” but to enter a restaurant kitchen during Saturday night dinner service is to get both in spades.

There’s a symphony from the percussive din of pots and silverware colliding, doors slamming, sizzling pans hissing, dishwashers whirring and phones ringing. There’s a touch of danger with knives being wielded and flame bursts on open grills. The constant motion is athletic yet tense with orders coming and dishes going out. And there’s comic relief, like the deadpan quip from the chef after a customer’s complaint is relayed regarding the size of the mussels: “I didn’t grow them. I’m not the ocean.”

And if things go right, dozens of times an hour the players — in this case the staff — create something both beautiful and edible for their mostly unseen audience.

It is the kind of sensory stimulus that might light up a PET scan like the Steelers offense or Penguins power play might to a scoreboard. And it is the kind of stimulus that brought chef Jennifer Burfield back into the kitchen at Cibo in Regent Square — where the aforementioned scene played out last week — after a five-year hiatus.

“I missed all of it. I missed making food. And I missed feeling like a badass. Even on those nights where you’re getting your [butt] absolutely handed to you, but you feel good when you’re done,” Ms. Burfield said. “I kind of see it as getting back to my roots — going home.”

It’s an unsurprising sentiment from a woman with “Feed Your Soul” tattooed in script on her left forearm, although it was a circuitous route that brought her here to resurrect a small, 38-seat restaurant in Pittsburgh’s East End, with a rustic Italian menu of seasonal dishes, quite literally peppered with pan-Mediterranean — Spanish, Portugese and Middle Eastern — influences.

Her start in the service industry was slightly less sophisticated: at age 16, as a hostess at the Red Lobster in her hometown of Independence, Mo., birthplace of Harry S. Truman.

“I’m from a Midwestern town, and we made Betty Crocker recipes at home,” she said.

After high school, she studied at the Western Culinary Institute in Portland, Ore., and spent years working in that city before admittedly getting burned out. She moved to work with a close industry friend in Johnson, Tenn., for a year, but the South was a bad fit — “not my cup of tea,” she said.

She came to Pittsburgh essentially sight unseen — “My husband’s favorite teams are all here,” she laughed — and put her two decades of experience to work managing the front of the house at Cure in Lawrenceville.

Despite being part of the team at the nationally acclaimed restaurant, she had a yen for getting back into the kitchen and leading the line.

“I was turning 40 and wanted to give myself the opportunity to try to do something for myself,” she explained.

She approached Cibo owners Cindy and Dino DeFlavio about reopening the space on South Braddock Avenue. The restaurant originally opened in 2011, but closed in late 2014 for about a year.

“I basically stalked them,” she said. “We went through a lot of different ideas but ultimately came full circle to do Cibo No. 2. I’m fortunate to have this opportunity.”

Between delivering orders to her staff in kitchen code (“We 86’d the flank steak!” — “There’s a six-top rolling in!” — “306’s first course is gone!”) tossing house-made pasta and tending to a half-dozen saute pans at once, she said getting back in the kitchen was second nature even after a long break.

“It was automatic — it felt good,” she said, despite the fact that the stress can be unrelenting.

“You commit your time. You commit to keeping your standards high, and to learning from your mistakes. The worst thing that could happen is that it doesn’t work out.”

Despite that, the personal risk-reward algorithm was an easy one for her to calculate.

“Absolutely if I hadn’t done it, I would’ve regretted it much more.”

She said the response to Cibo 2.0 has been overwhelmingly positive from diners, but that doesn’t mean she intends on opening more restaurants.

“I have no desire to have an empire. I just want to keep feeding people in intimate settings,” she said.

“I do this for my customers. If they’re happy, I’m happy.”

Dan Gigler:; Twitter @gigs412


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