Chefs work hard. They pour their hearts and souls into their kitchens, churning out dish after dish, finding new ways to reimagine old favorites, and honing their craft to create new flavor combinations that an ever-sophisticated public demands. Just running a restaurant and staying open in a crowded market is a minor miracle, but striving day after day to perfect skills and push boundaries -- well, that’s what makes you the best.
In a city that has a dining scene that’s been growing by leaps and bounds, choosing just a handful of chefs to name as our best of the year was a challenge. But these four chefs earn the title of Thrillist Pittsburgh Chefs of the Year because they have delighted us all year long with their culinary pursuits, putting their own stamp on their respective cuisines.
CureAddress and Info
In the last five years, Justin Severino has made an indelible mark on Pittsburgh’s culinary community. Since opening Cure in 2011, the accolades, including a James Beard Award nomination, have steadily rolled in -- and Severino has kept his head down and worked through it all.
That no-nonsense ethic drove Severino to launch his second Lawrenceville restaurant late last year. Morcilla opened to rave reviews, cementing his reputation as one of the city’s brightest stars. Not only has the Spanish restaurant been on just about every Best New Restaurant list in town (including ours), but it’s packed every night, with locals and visitors alike.
Though the menus and cuisines at Severino’s restaurants differ, they’re both uniquely and unmistakably his. Both restaurants have insanely good charcuterie selections, with primarily house-cured meats from black strap ham to Negroni-spiked salami. Severino excels in creating refined, interesting dishes that still feel incredibly accessible to a more traditional meat-and-potatoes crowd.
Severino has gone full circle on his journey to become one of Pittsburgh’s most beloved stars. After graduating from the Pennsylvania Culinary Institute, Severino spent a few years bouncing around California, working in kitchens and running a butcher shop. When he moved back to Pittsburgh, he did stints in various restaurants before venturing out on his own. Back when he first opened Cure, Severino was far from a recognizable name. Five years later, he’s leading the charge to make Pittsburgh a world-class culinary destination
LegumeAddress and Info
In a world that centers around what’s new and what’s next, Trevett Hooper is happy to stay his course.
“The thing that we excel at is something that has kind of come out of fashion,” Hooper said. “Farm to table food is not as fashionable now as it was ten years ago, and while it’s not the most trendy thing, we’re really trying to be a genuine farm to table restaurant.”
That restaurant, Legume, is on the cusp of celebrating its 10th year in business, and the adjoining bar, Butterjoint, has been around for four. And Hooper is ready to expand his Oakland footprint with the soon-to-open Pie for Breakfast, an all-day, everything-from-scratch café, right next door.
“We just want to be working on interesting and fun things,” he said. “And we want to work with really interesting people.”
Over the last decade, Hooper has earned a reputation for being fanatical about local sourcing. He’s developed close relationships with a number of local farms and farmers, sitting down with his favorites each year to request certain plantings of unusual vegetables, plotting menu ideas a year in the future. His storage room is legendary, loaded with dozens of jars of house-made pickles, jams, and preserved vegetables, which give bright bursts of summer tastes even in the dead of winter.
Though Hooper is known for the traditional cooking methods and techniques that have become central to his approach to food, everything in his New American restaurant still feels fresh, even after all this time.
“In some ways, I feel like we’re mastering the lute,” he said. “We’re mastering this thing that is kind of archaic, but incredibly important.”
Kate Lasky & Tomasz Skowronski
AptekaAddress and Info
Since opening earlier this year, Kate Lasky and Tomasz Skowronski’s Apteka has become one of Pittsburgh’s most exciting new restaurants, and Lasky and Skowronski have become two of Pittsburgh’s most exciting new chefs.
The duo first made their name in Pittsburgh with their monthly Pierogi Night pop-ups, where hordes of people would line up to get a taste of their homemade pierogies at various spots around town. That led to a successful Kickstarter campaign that helped them launch their Bloomfield restaurant -- an open, modern space that doubles as a community hub.
With a small menu that focuses on the complex flavors of Eastern European, Lasky and Skowronski are bridging the gap between old-world tastes and modern techniques. Think: Lots of fermenting, preserves, and house-made pickles, all inspired by their European travels and Skowronski’s childhood visits to family in Warsaw. But don’t expect many dishes that your Polish babcia would recognize. Apteka’s menu is refined, with dishes that have smoked onion remoulade sharing a plate with traditional pickled beets and house-made seed bread.
The restaurant is completely vegan, though carnivores won’t miss meat or dairy. Roasted vegetables bulk up many dishes, and the seasonal menu (and pierogi selection) changes with such frequency that no two visits will ever be exactly the same.
Skowronski and Lasky have paid special attention to Apteka’s bar program, infusing cordials and liqueurs, and crafting hearty, savory cocktails, like a gin and Chartreuse drink spiked with celery seed. This is a place purveying traditional flavors brought decidedly up to date. It’s enough to make even the most hard-to-please babcia happy.
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Chef Justin Severino presents a cure to your food ethics concerns at his hyper-local Mediterranean-leaning restaurant in Lawrenceville, where all of the meats come from ethically raised and butchered animals. True to the name, charcuterie is king here, and the epic salumi platter is reason enough to eat here. The rest of the menu is both meaty and thoughtful: beef tartare is spiked with pickled chili, oyster aioli, and black garlic; smoked lamb is tossed with ricotta cavatelli; and steak au poivre can be topped with foie gras. The stuffed boar heads overlooking Cure's country-casual dining room are almost as much of a red flag as the menu to any vegetarians who wander in.
Morcilla, Justin Severino's second restaurant in Lawrenceville, is an ode to Spain's Basque Country and its pintxo style of dining. A close relative of tapas, pinxtos are small plates that -- as reimagined by Severino -- emphasize house-made charcuterie, croquetas (fried balls filled with the likes of jamon, chestnut, and bacalao), and egg tortillas. A meal at Morcilla isn't complete without a gin and tonic made with the restaurant's house-made tonics, or a Spanish cider. The design, too, is inspired by Basque culture, with wooden ceilings and a storefront that looks like many a tapas bar in San Sebastian.
What was once a tiny BYOB in Regent Square went big-league when Legume reopened in Oakland, bigger and better. The 90-seat space (roughly three times larger than the original) has a New American menu with French and European influences that changes daily, in true bistro fashion. Diners can expect meals that traditionally blend seasonal vegetables with meat and fish: slow-cooked veal shoulder is rosemary sprinkled with red Russian kale and roasted potatoes while braised monkfish gets served with cranberry beans and pea shoots. Sharing plates can serve as appetizers, or accompany your bar fix, with a country-style pate made with duck, prosciutto, and pistachio as a must-order.
Polish cuisine and veganism are two concepts that don't normally jibe, but Bloomfield's Apteka makes it work. The plant-based Eastern European restaurant ditches the traditional meat stuffings of pierogi and cabbage for animal-friendly ingredients like sauerkraut, mushroom, buckwheat, and roasted vegetables. Expect a charmingly hippie feel in the dining room, where the staff are known to wave burning sage over the display of pickling jars.