Pittsburgh-area chefs extend artistry to restaurant walls, floors, fixtures
It is no secret that chefs are artists in the kitchen. But some are using their artistic skills beyond the stove.
Whether it’s laying drywall, drafting floor plans, painting or constructing their own furniture, “chefs are not just chefs,” says Sam DiBattista of Sewickley’s Vivo.
Here’s a look at local chefs who have had a heavy hand in constructing their own restaurants.
From an early age, Richard DeShantz knew he wanted to be an artist. At first, he thought that would land him in the field of painting and drawing. But the idea of being a starving artist wasn’t appealing, so he decided to follow his other passion, cooking. He figured if he was going to be a starving chef, he could at least feed himself well.
When he landed his first job in a kitchen at age 14, he began to save his money, take the bus Downtown, and dine at top-notch restaurants like the Grand Concourse and the Top of the Triangle. For him, these dinners were an escape from the reality of growing up poor. Today, he wants you to escape reality in one of his three restaurants — Meat & Potatoes, Butcher and the Rye, and Tako, all Downtown — and enjoy the atmosphere, the company and, of course, the food.
He designs the restaurants himself; oftentimes lying on the floor of a raw space, envisioning its potential. “Hiring someone is like having someone paint your painting for you,” DeShantz says. “When I get a vision, I want to be a part of it, and it’s hard to get my vision into someone else’s head. They wouldn’t want to be in there anyway.”
All of his restaurants tell a story, and the menu is created to match the decor. At Meat & Potatoes, you feel as if you should be eating a steak and bone marrow, and it’s the same with eating tacos at Tako or charcuterie at Butcher and the Rye. At Butcher, he did 100 percent of the design work, from painting the walls to making the tap system, plus handling the plumbing and searching for antique lightbulbs for the second floor.
“Designing is like cooking, choosing ingredients and layering colors and textures on a plate,” DeShantz says. “With my restaurants, I layer intricate pieces on top of each other, like textured walls, animal heads and antique lighting.”
That attention to detail comes through in the decor, as well as the food.
Growing up, Justin Severino and his brother were “forced” into working for their dad pouring concrete. After graduating from high school, he found himself working construction jobs instead of going to college. While in “the middle of nowhere Ohio,” building a gas station, Severino missed his grandparents’ home cooking. He also hated construction work. So he turned to cooking.
“Reading a blueprint for a space is like reading a recipe,” he says.
Severino’s first restaurant, Cure in Lawrenceville, was built by him and his two friends, and has been a constant project since its opening in 2011. Profits go back into the space for improvements. One of his favorite elements of the space is the new, larger kitchen that can accommodate two additional cooks and allow him to do more, like shuck oysters to order. He is proud of the fact that even with such a small space, he has been able to fit everything he has wanted into the restaurant and still have it be functional.
Now constructing his second restaurant, Morcilla, set to open later this fall, Severino says his brain thinks more like a contractor than a chef. He has the help of his friends again, along with Sam DiBattista, owner-chef of Vivo in Sewickley, who is helping him design metal light fixtures and pour concrete countertops. Although Severino is heavily involved with the construction and design of the new space, you can catch him at 5 p.m. at Cure for every dinner service.
At Vivo, in Sewickley, everything is custom-designed … except for the off-the-shelf chairs. But, Sam DiBattista is working on customizing those as well.
He says it’s important to add personality to a restaurant, and his design imprint is on everything from the bar made of marble tabletops from his old restaurant, to the mailbox, signage and lighting. His work has become so popular that others, in addition to Severino, are asking him to do custom design work for them, including Sewickley’s home decor shop House 15143 and the new Cocothé cafe.
“I don’t have a design background,” DiBattista says. “It comes easy to me, and I don’t know why.”
He likes to sit in an empty space with a bourbon in hand and get a feel of the room before designing it. “It will tell you what should be happening,” he says.
DiBattista has had his feet in the kitchen for more than 40 years, and now he’s becoming more of a designer. He has plans to open a studio and design space in Sewickley that will be complete with 3-D printers, allowing him to print carbon-fiber furniture, which he will use at Vivo and sell to the public, along with some cool-looking micarta and phenolic furniture.
Gaucho Parrilla Argentina, Strip District, was a tiny, six-stool restaurant thought up, built and designed by its chef, Anthony Falcon, when it opened in 2013. Once he nailed down the concept and secured the space, he figured out how to build a restaurant practically by himself after the contractor failed to show up for the job.
“I just went out and bought wood and nails,” Falcon says. “It was a challenging process learning what needed to be done to turn a space into a functioning restaurant.”
But he did it, little by little, and Gaucho has had a constant line out of its doors since. Gaucho closed this past April and reopened in June as a new and improved “grande” Gaucho with 65 seats on the inside, an additional 35 seats outside and a private dining room, the Bodega, which can seat up to 30 people.
Again, he put in a lot of the work himself. Falcon says he’s a chef at heart and will make you a cheeseburger if you want one, but he always has had a passion for interior design and architecture.
“I love sweating and the sensation of working hard,” he says. “If I’m not exhausted by the end of the day, it wasn’t worth it.”
Matt Porco says designing a restaurant is similar to butchering: Take a whole animal and strip it down to its individual pieces, doing what you have to do to create something beautiful that will ultimately appeal to customers.
“The environment that you create sets the tone,” Porco says. “Putting customers in a positive mind is our goal. They spend more, stay longer and enjoy where they are.”
When Porco began working on the design of Sienna Mercato’s farm-inspired second floor, Mezzo, he would stay up late into the night with his architect’s renderings of the floor and use drafting paper to draw in the bar, kitchen, walls, booths and tables, erasing and starting over and over until he got it right. One of his favorite design elements is the custom farm table that seats 10 to 12 people, twice a night, for a five-course Italian meal of the chef’s choice.
An important element when designing all floors of Sienna Mercato, Downtown, was showcasing the history of the building, as well as bringing in elements of the earth. Both the first and second floors have garage doors that let outside air in, and the third floor has a retractable roof. Though Porco can’t take credit for coming up with the retractable roof idea, he gives a nod to one of his business partners.
Porco’s role these days is less in the kitchen and more in the design aspect of Sienna’s family of restaurants. He says he misses the simplicity and organized chaos of the kitchen and working the line but is having a blast designing restaurants. He says his current project is his best design work yet: an Emporio that is set to open in Wexford early this fall.
Kevin Sousa isn’t a construction guy, although he’s down with finishing floors and hanging drywall to offset construction costs. He’s a design guy, an idea person. And helping him execute his creative vision for Superior Motors is the design firm Studio for Spatial Practice and Absolute WIN contractors.
Superior Motors, Braddock, will have a minimalist design of sleek lines, letting the building’s architecture and design palette of concrete, wood, steel and glass speak for themselves. When designing this restaurant, Sousa tried to keep as much of the almost 100-year-old building intact, although re-purposing a former car dealership with a slanted floor hasn’t been easy. But it has been fun.
Besides being able to design his own kitchen, Sousa is the most excited about the dining room made with built-in concrete.
“The dining room is prime real estate,” he says. “It should tell the story of the restaurant before you even taste the food,” which will draw heavily from seasonal, locally procured produce, wild edibles and animals. Like the design, it will reflect Sousa’s cooking style of using modern and classic techniques in harmony.
His second favorite part of constructing a new restaurant is shopping. His most prized purchase is a customized open fire grill, a piece of equipment he has been coveting for a long time. Finally, he will be able to use it when Superior Motors opens early this fall.
In the process of opening his first restaurant, Station, Curtis Gamble is blown away by the support of the Bloomfield community. He says it seems as though every person in the neighborhood who has been able to help out has, including passersby who helped him load pieces of the old kitchen into the trash.
Constructing a restaurant is completely out of Gamble’s comfort zone, since he’s been standing at a hot line most of his working life. But he’s had to learn fast how to sand floors and tear down walls. When he had to grout tile, he says, it was “a ridiculously hilarious experience.”
The hardest part has been organizing people to help him with the work and adapting to their schedules, he says.
Station is set to open in August with a “European public house” feel. The space will be warm and relaxed with a large, open bar. The menu will be high-quality and overly executed, and include dishes such as a burger topped with buttermilk onion rings, a hit at his edition of No Menu Monday at Bar Marco this past May. Flavors of the Mediterranean will make an appearance in dishes like carrots with pomegranates and beets with strawberries and goat yogurt.
Sarah Sudar is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.