Chef Robert Sayre left the fine-dining scene so he could wear his dad cap more often
June 17, 2012 4:00 AM
John Heller / Post-Gazette
Robert Sayre cooking for a Conflict Kitchen fundraiser in February in the kitchen it shares with the Waffle Shop in East Liberty.
Robert Sayre with Abel, 2, and Margo, 4.
Courtney Ehrlichman and Robert Sayre arrange the stools at the Waffle Shop in East Liberty, next to Conflcit Kitchen.
Robert Sayre and his wife, Jessica Strong, both 32, with their children, Abel, 2, and Margo, 4.
By China Millman Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
For much of his adult life Robert Sayre followed a traditional path for an up-and-coming restaurant professional. After attending the Pennsylvania Culinary Institute Downtown, he secured an externship at Soba in Shadyside, where he worked under executive chef Kevin Sousa, just beginning his own culinary rise. When Mr. Sousa left Soba to take over the kitchen at Bigelow Grille in the Downtown DoubleTree hotel, Mr. Sayre went with him as his sous-chef.
Working at Bigelow Grille was exciting. Mr. Sousa was developing his Alchemy menu, a restaurant within a restaurant that served a 25-course modernist menu to just 12 people a night. It was stressful but engaging.
"There would be days when you'd get there at 7 a.m. for these morning meeting banquets," Mr. Sayre recalls, "then 300-person luncheons, then a hockey game at night, and we'd also be doing Alchemy."
He was an ambitious cook, working his way up the ladder toward executive chef and someday owner. But as his professional life developed, so did his personal life. He'd moved to Pittsburgh from Columbus, Ohio, with his wife, Jessica Strong.
"During the middle of all this, we had a daughter, Margo, and I realized I didn't want to be working 8 a.m. to midnight every day."
It's past time to shake off the tired stereotypes about kitchen staff, who are rarely the macho, hard-living, borderline criminals made famous in Anthony Bourdain's memoir "Kitchen Confidential." But while the profession's reputation has begun to change, the logistics of balancing a successful restaurant career with a stable home life haven't gotten much easier. Restaurant work is not a 40-hour-a-week job, and the hours are difficult to align with bedtimes and school holidays.
Faced with this dilemma, Mr. Sayre chose a path that is still relatively unusual for fathers, particularly in the culinary world. Over several years, he tried out several jobs, looking for creative solutions that would satisfy his ambition while still allowing him more time with his family.
First, there was a cooking job at Remedy, a bar in Lawrenceville. "I took it sort of sight unseen," said Mr. Sayre. "That was great, schedule-wise. I was able to spend the days with Margo and just go in at 3 or 4 p.m. It was a one-man show there."
Mr. Sayre did everything from prepping the ingredients to washing the dishes. His high-quality creative bar food began to get some buzz, but the position had its problems as well. When the owner decided that he wanted to continue to allow smoking at the bar, it meant that food could never be a top priority. In 2010, Mr. Sayre and Ms. Strong had a son, Abel, and Mr. Sayre began to feel more pressure to find a different job.
Meanwhile, Mr. Sousa, his former boss, was entering the final stages before the opening of his long-anticipated first restaurant, Salt of the Earth, in Garfield. He approached Mr. Sayre about coming back to work for him, this time as general manager.
It's rare for people to switch between kitchen jobs and front-of-house jobs. But Mr. Sayre's goals and priorities differed from many career cooks. He comes from a family of academics -- "I'm the only one in my family without a Ph.D.," he once commented -- and he was open to the idea that working in the front of house could be an interesting experience.
During Salt of the Earth's first year he studied wine, learned how to manage a restaurant's books and got a new window into running a successful restaurant. "There were rewarding aspects," he said, "but I'd never worked a job before when I wasn't actually creating something. I also started missing my family again."
Early in the winter of 2011, he saw an ad posted by Conflict Kitchen. Jon Rubin, who teaches art at Carnegie Mellon University, and CMU graduate Dawn Weleski had opened Conflict Kitchen in 2010, a takeout restaurant that would inspire dialogue about international issues and cultural differences by serving food from countries that the United States has been in conflict with. Ms. Weleski had left for California, where she's completing an MFA at Stanford University, so they were looking for a programming and site manager, a "creative food person, culturally and politically engaged," to help run the project.
"I'd been thinking of different ways of doing something on my own," Mr. Sayre said, but he was immediately intrigued by the posting. "I'd always been kind of fascinated by it. Its presence was more known in the art scene and intellectual scene than in the restaurant scene. I thought I could bring some of that [restaurant] experience to bear there and hopefully increase the audience for the restaurant."
Mr. Sayre was exactly the kind of person Mr. Rubin and Ms. Weleski had hoped would respond. "Food is so integral to the project," said Mr. Rubin. They needed someone who knew about food and about running a restaurant, but it had to be someone who could also help run Conflict Kitchen's programs and special events. They were also hoping to move the project Downtown when their East Liberty lease ran out this summer.
"When Robert applied, we were really excited," said Mr. Rubin. Hiring Mr. Sayre, who was "whip smart and got the politics" and also had the food and restaurant knowledge they could hope for, "expanded our possibilities," said Mr. Rubin.
"The pay is less," said Mr. Sayre, "but I'm able to be flexible with my career because I'm not the major breadwinner in the family. My wife's job has the benefits."
And the job has provided some opportunities that restaurant work rarely offers. "It's research, travel, programming, grant writing," he said, "that appeals to me, too. I like having different challenges."
Already, Mr. Sayre has traveled to Cuba with Mr. Rubin to research the menu and programming for the Cuban iteration of Conflict Kitchen, which opened early this month, still in East Liberty. And along with hiring staff, planning menus and everything else, Mr. Sayre also gets to cook professionally again, sometimes for the lunch counter, sometimes for more elaborate special events. The current menu includes black beans and rice, a vegetable salad and either roast pork in Mojo marinade or boiled yucca in garlic sauce, all for just $5.
Mr. Sayre sometimes misses the pulse of a busy, high-end restaurant. He thinks about what kind of projects he might take on in the future. But for now, he's happy to let fatherhood trump professional ambition.
"My wife and I have come to the realization that what I want to do will have to fit around how I want our kids to be raised," said Mr. Sayre. "At some point in time I could go back into fine dining, but it will have to wait."