Pittsburgh chef Kevin Sousa, a Food & Wine People’s Best New Chef nominee, wins raves for his inventive, irreverent cooking. With his first three restaurants, he’s also shown a penchant for braving the city’s rougher neighborhoods. Now he’s working to revive an entire town with help from a Kickstarter campaign that ends on Monday.
Braddock, Pennsylvania, is a onetime steel boomtown 20 minutes east of Pittsburgh. It’s fallen on such hard times that a 2009 Rolling Stone profile called its charismatic tattooed mayor, John Fetterman, the “mayor of hell.” The town is also a food desert: “You can’t get a bag of chips, you can’t get a bottle of water,” Sousa says. “The nearest food outlet is two miles away. You have to cross a bridge and take a bus.”
Fetterman introduced the chef to Braddock, and offered him a restaurant location rent-free—a former car dealership called Superior Motors, built in 1921. (Fetterman owns the building, and lives in the top-floor loft with his family.)
The chef intends to use Superior Motors—he’ll keep the dealership’s name—as both a restaurant and culinary school for Braddock’s youth, and anyone else who wants to move there to work for him. Trainees and staff can even stay for free at the former convent next door, which the mayor converted to a hostel. Because Sousa firmly believes that “fresh, local and honestly prepared food cannot be exclusionary,” he will offer residents a substantial dining discount. He also plans to source at least 85 percent of Superior Motors’ produce from a 1,000-square-foot greenhouse and raised-bed garden on the building’s roof as well as a 2-acre urban farm down the block. Trainees will learn to cook, farm and even make honey at a nearby apiary.
A local architecture firm has drawn up remodeling plans pro bono, and Sousa has turned to a Kickstarter for help implementing the designs. “It’s difficult to get money to build a restaurant in the more affluent areas of Pittsburgh,” he says. “No one wants to touch Braddock with a 10-foot-pole—yet. Not without a huge chunk of capital to start with.” He’s more than halfway to his goal of $250,000. The deadline is this Monday, January 6. Contributors who ante up $5,000 or more will be rewarded with a dinner prepared by Sousa at Mayor Fetterman’s loft.