F&W Star Chef
Restaurant: Salt of the Earth, Union Pig and Chicken, Station Street, Pittsburgh
Experience: The Bigelow Grille, Alchemy, Pittsburgh
Education: Pennsylvania Institute of Culinary Arts, Pittsburgh
Chef Kevin Sousa may be as recognized for his talents in the kitchen as he is for his social entrepreneurship. The McKees Rocks, Pennsylvania, native uses his restaurants as engines for urban renewal, bringing attention to depressed Pittsburgh neighborhoods such as Garfield, where his first solo venture, Salt of the Earth, opened in 2010. For his next two projects, Sousa pushed into the once-blighted neighborhood of East Liberty, opening the barbecue joint Union Pig and Chicken, and the hot dog shop Station Street in 2012.
Sousa sat down with Food & Wine as he began work on his fourth venture—a mixed-use building in distressed Braddock, Pennsylvania, which will house two restaurants, a culinary job-training facility and a one-acre farm.
What recipe are you most famous for?
My venison tartare with white chocolate and blood oranges has probably been my most talked about and controversial dish. The wording on the menu at Salt of the Earth is very simple, so it left a lot to the imagination. I think people always expect a classic tartare with cornichon and frites. When they read it on the menu, they would order it almost out of curiosity, but it’s so delicious they would come back for it again and again. The white chocolate helps offset the gaminess of the venison. There is Champagne and sage in the sauce, so it’s very dry and wintery. It just works.
What two dishes really tell us your story as a chef?
There’s a dish that is indigenous to the Rust Belt called City Chicken. It’s actually not chicken at all, it’s pork and veal that’s lightly dusted and pan-fried, served with sauerkraut, apple butter and lots of caraway. I grew up with that dish, but it’s well interpreted into the fine-dining world. I’ve done it several different ways at my restaurant—with veal sweetbreads, pork belly, pork neck and a variety of different sauerkrauts.
The second dish would be a sashimi I did at Alchemy. I grew up very blue-collar in Pittsburgh, and I remember the first time I ate sushi around the age of 16, it blew my mind. From that point on I was always super-interested in sushi and its weird juxtaposition of super-fresh, highly manipulated ingredients that are presented very simply. The first element of the Alchemy dish was an uni ice cream that we coated in rice pearls. We marinated tuna in ponzu, then froze it and shaved it so you got these really thin ice-cold ribbons of tuna. Then we did a little avocado-togarashi mosaic and wasabi oil pebbles. I wasn’t trained in creating classic, delicious, amazing sushi but I understood the flavors. This dish was a kind of homage to what was going on in my culinary life back then.
What is your favorite cookbook of all time?
El Bulli 1998–2002 is one that really captured my imagination. Up to that point I had only been reading the classics—this is before everyone was doing sous vide. It forced me to think about food in a different way and to consider what was possible in a restaurant. It was mind-boggling. There are techniques in that book that I still haven’t mastered.
What is one cooking technique that everyone should know?
How to poach an egg. It’s one of the simplest techniques but it teaches you so much about the science and finesse of cooking. It’s all about the details: swirling your pot, having a little bit of acid in there to help all of the albumen coagulate and just watching your temperature. If you can poach an egg properly you can make the most beautiful foam or fluid gel. Learn how to do it and move on.
What is your secret-weapon ingredient?
Nori. It’s nutty and fishy, so it’s very useful in vegetarian preparations. It’s also sweet, so it lends itself very well to desserts, too. It can represent every texture: ground, toasted or fried, crunchy or pureed.
Name one indispensable store-bought ingredient.
I love Kewpie mayo. I have one of the Kewpie dolls tattooed on my arm. I don’t understand it; I don’t know why it’s so good; it just is. It’s got that weird umami thing that you can’t re-create. It takes on other flavors very well. It’s great straight out of the bottle but it also helps stabilize sauces and dressings without adding too much additional flavor. I know I have at least have two full bottles in my home right now.
You’re planning a budget-friendly food trip—where would you go and why?
The Eastern Shore—Delaware, Maryland, Virginia and up into Pennsylvania a little bit—is one of those places I always go back to. It’s south of the Mason-Dixon so you have the beginning of some of that roadside barbecue and fried chicken culture. But then you’re also on the shore, so you have great crab shacks and amazing seafood houses where you’re getting stuff that’s coming right off the boat. And you have all the beach towns with their boardwalks and their great classic fries, dogs, burgers and soft-shell crab sandwiches.
If you were going to take Thomas Keller out to eat, where would you bring him?
I would probably take him to WD-50. It’s not all that original, but it’s a restaurant that I find myself going to every time I’m in New York just to see what Wylie Dufresne is doing. It would be interesting to see what Thomas Keller had to say about the meal. I’d want to hear how he feels about the direction of modern food, and whether or not he finds any of it laughable, because I know I do.
What is your current food obsession?
It’s always been kimchi. We always have something fermenting in a jar in our refrigerator. It’s sour, it’s sweet, it’s spicy, it lends itself to seasoning, or it can be the highlight of the dish. It’s just so simple: You mix a few ingredients and two weeks later, you have this amazing, funky blend of flavors.
What is your favorite online shop?
I can’t even get on the Korin website without spending too much money. I don’t want to mention the knife I just bought, because my wife will eventually read this and get angry about how expensive it was. So let’s just say it was a carbon steel Japanese chef’s knife. Knives are a weakness.