Pittsburgh chef hits the pedal in California to help feed hungry children

The cooking life isn’t an easy one, and more than a few chefs have turned to drugs or alcohol to chase away the pressures of running a busy kitchen.

Justin Severino has always found solace in his mountain bike.

As a young chef building his career in Northern California, the only thing the Ohio native did outside of work was ride the trails. Cycling, he says, helped to balance the long hours and stress of restaurant life, keeping him physically and mentally in check. Without this outlet, “I could have very easily slipped down the other side of a slippery slope,” he says. “If you’re a chef and don’t have that release, it’s not healthy.”

He continued biking when he and his wife, Hilary, moved back to Pittsburgh in 2005, pedaling away his worries on trails in Frick and North parks and Bavington-Hillman State Park.

On Tuesday, he’ll push his bike-riding skills to the limit while raising money for a good cause when he saddles up for Chefs Cycle to raise funds and awareness to end childhood hunger.

The three-day 300-mile ride takes place through May 18 in Santa Rosa, Calif. Some 250 chefs and other culinary professionals from across the U.S. hope to raise $2 million in donations for the event, which was established in 2014 with assistance from the nonprofit organization Share Our Strength. It benefits The No Kid Hungry campaign that connects kids in need with nutritious food and teaches their families how to cook healthy, affordable meals.

Riders need to raise a minimum of $2,000 to participate, but many exceed that goal, says director Adele Nelson. Last year’s ride from Carmel to Santa Barbara, with 124 cyclists, averaged $7,000 per participant for a total of $1 million raised.

“Training is tough because of their schedules,” she says, “but we have some dedicated riders.”

No Kid Hungry is able to provide 10 meals for every $1 raised, so if Mr. Severino meets his personal goal of $7,500, it will translate into 52,000 meals for kids who go to bed hungry.

Mr. Severino learned about the race last year from friend and fellow James Beard award nominee Bryan Voltaggio, executive chef and owner of six restaurants in the Washington, D.C., area. It was only after he signed up that he realized how many days and how far he’d have to ride.

It’s not that he’s not ready for it. In April, he and three friends took their annual mountain bike and culinary road trip in a RV from Pittsburgh to Asheville, N.C, through the Appalachian Mountains. After hitting rural trails in West Virginia’s Kanawha State Park and Pisgah National Forest and Oskar Blues Reeb Ranch in North Carolina, the men feasted on Mr. Severino’s famed cured meats and sauces and locally sourced vegetables. “And plenty of good beer on ice,” he adds.

A friend of a friend who works for Red Bull happened to hear about the mancation and asked if a production company could follow along. Mr. Severino said yes, and the resulting video is going to be released publicly May 17, following a private screening on Thursday at Row House Cinema in Lawrenceville. A story also will appear in The Red Bulletin, a monthly men’s magazine devoted to sports, culture and lifestyle.

The trip West, which will include a side trip to San Francisco, will allow him to revisit some old haunts from his past and catch up with old Pittsburgh friends such as Sean Ehland, who now heads the bread program for Marla Bakery in the Outer Richmond District.

“It’ll be fun,” Mr. Severino says of the ride, “and we’re all doing it for the same reason.”

Gretchen McKay: gmckay@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1419 or on Twitter @gtmckay.


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