I spent a bunch of time out West—about eight years in between Big Sur and Los Gatos, California. I definitely learned how to be a chef out there. My wife and I were going to open Cure somewhere in the Bay Area. But the reality of what it was going to cost, the amount time it would take, the lifestyle I would live, and the ten years it would take to pay that off all the loans—it just didn't make any sense to me. Up until that point, if someone had asked if I would ever leave California, I would have told them to go fuck themselves.
The thing is, I went to college in Pittsburgh and had so many friends there. They made the same amount of money I made, but they could afford homes, vacations, they could go out and eat sandwiches and drink beer—basic shit in life that I couldn't afford. I was about to sign a lease in California and I couldn't touch the pen to the paper. The realtor said, "Go home and think about it." Literally a month, two months later, we were in Pittsburgh.
In Pittsburgh, it's more camaraderie than competition. The restaurant scene is so under-saturated. You want to open a sushi restaurant? Please come to Pittsburgh. We need, like, 500 sushi restaurants. We're all, as restaurant owners and chefs, collectively getting together celebrating what we get to do, because there is no competition. When I worked in California and a new place opened, it was like, "Is it going to be better than us?" Whereas now, I want Eric Ripert to open a restaurant right next door to me.
I quickly became really, really impressed with the farming community in Pennsylvania. It's young and vibrant. I'm very encouraged by it. More farmers want to sell us food than I can actually deal with.
My grandfather was a butcher, but he retired when I was like nine. When I decided to become a cook I was really proud of that. I kind of always naturally gravitated to that part of the kitchen. What really did it for me, though, was working at this restaurant in Carmel, California. I had this moment when I started researching where meat actually comes from. I learned about factory-shipment farms and how chickens grow so fast they can't lift their body weight up, so they drag their breasts against the ground and that causes a blister. How many times did I cut through that blister, like it was no big deal? That really grossed me out. I was reading about grain causing ulcers in cows. I stopped eating meat completely for about six months—not because I didn't want to eat meat, but because I wanted to educate myself on how to source it and what it was.
I ended up getting a job at Manresa in Los Gatos, which was great because their moral standards are even higher than mine and they knew more than I did. I really learned how to butcher four-legged animals there and how to make charcuterie. Up until then, I didn't really know much in comparison to what I needed to know about curing meat. I knew very little. After working at Manresa, I began butchering and selling charcuterie at farmer's markets. I spent a bunch of money teaching myself what charcuterie was. When you buy six 300-pound pigs a week and you want to make money on them, you have to use every little part and learn how to preserve everything. My wife thought I was crazy and she was probably right, but I learned a ton. We walked away from that business without really making any money but also without losing any money, and it was absolutely the most powerful learning experience of my life.
There are a lot of misconceptions about dining outside of New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago. People in Pittsburgh travel around the world. There was this really great moment when I proved to myself that people in Pittsburgh are educated about food and they do want something different—you just have to give it to them. I was a chef at a restaurant before I opened Cure, and I wanted to put boudin noir on the menu—very classic with chestnuts and apples and Cognac. And the answer was, "No, there's no one in Pittsburgh who wants boudin noir." I was like, "Tell me a restaurant in Pittsburgh that serves it and tell me how you know no one wants it." We opened Cure and I think the menu was like eight items long. There was venison tartare, a deer my buddy shot, boudin blanc, oxtail, and foie gras. People love it.
As told to Alex Swerdloff
Justin Severino is a three-time Beard nominee for Best Chef Mid-Atlantic and a skilled whole-animal butcher. He brings an extensive charcuterie program to his two Pittsburgh restaurants, Cure and Morcilla, both of which he co-owns with his wife and Director of Operations, Hilary Prescott Severino.