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Chef-restaurateur busy with 5 Pittsburgh eateries

By Kaitlyn Costanzo, Point Park News Service:

Brian Pekarcik isn’t slowing down, with his restaurants that is. Pekarcik, 39, co-owner and head chef of five restaurants – Spoon, Grit & Grace, Willow and two BRGR locations — in Pittsburgh, said he is always looking to evolve and grow with his businesses. The quirky and energetic chef shares his original career plans, his favorite meal to cook and why he turned down Bravo’s Hit TV cooking show “Top Chef.”

Brian Pekarcik, 39, co-owner and head chef of five restaurants — Spoon, Grit & Grace, Willow and two BRGR locations — in Pittsburgh. Submitted photo
Brian Pekarcik, 39, co-owner and head chef of five Pittsburgh restaurants: Spoon, Grit & Grace, Willow and two BRGR locations. Submitted photo.

Q: What sparked your passion for food?

A: That’s a good question. I don’t think it was something that first sparked my passion for food. I think I fell in love with the business first.

I’ve always enjoyed cooking. My mom was a baker; she used to decorate wedding cakes. She had a side business with a friend. I can remember at three or four years old always being dragged around. I was the youngest of four. We never had normal family meals because my older brothers or sisters were active and I was active. So, I would always come home and put together whatever was already cooked, and made leftovers. But I would always tweak it, and I enjoyed doing that.

Then, when I stopped playing baseball in college, my parents basically made me get a job. From there, I fell in love with being in the kitchen. My friend had a connection with a restaurant right off of campus. It was like your neighborhood kind of Italian bar. For me, it was like a natural void that was filled. Working in the kitchen is very similar to being in a locker room and the dynamics of the kitchen and the restaurant are very similar to team sports. So, it was like a natural fit.

Once I made that connection with the business side of things and what the profession was all about, then I re-tapped into an earlier interest in cooking.

Q: Did you always want to do this or were there other career paths in mind?

A: Of course, like any other naïve, active athlete, I always had the desire and interest in making a career out of something sports-oriented, but when I got to college, I quickly realized I wasn’t cut out for it at that level. I was somebody that fell in love with the title of a job. So I went into pre-dental and failed that miserably. Then, health management since I had already taken so many core health courses, but hated that. Then, I went to business management. Then, first semester of my senior year I declared psychology. So, I majored in psychology and minored in business.

That was at least what I thought I was going to do, but then once I realized that I wanted to move out to California, I realized I had a passion for this business and cooking. That’s when I decided to take it full speed.

Q: Did you ever receive training or go to culinary school?

A: No, I thought maybe I was going to after college. Cooking is very much like a trained profession so you could really apprentice for years and really learn what you would need to learn versus going to school. So once I started taking the profession seriously, I got really lucky working with some big celebrity chefs.

Q: Any celebrity chefs in particular?

A: Yeah, there were several, but my first big break was working for a European master chef. His name is Martin Woesle. He was German and actually was Wolfgang Puck’s sous chef that he brought with him from Germany. So, that was kind of like my year in culinary school working for him.

Q: Pittsburgh Magazine named you “Chef of the Year” in 2012, among other honors you have received. What does it feel like when you receive these awards?

A: I think it’s always great to have those awards. I was honored and humbled, but I think in my business, it’s dangerous to start believing what you read. I’m somebody that always wants the restaurants to grow, get better and evolve. I never allow any awards to kind of be your defining moment because I think once you let something be your defining moment that’s when you start taking a turn. I don’t want to ever have a peak. I acknowledge the awards, but I then quickly move on. That’s why I don’t put any of the plaques or awards in the restaurant. In this business, when you feel like you can rest on those awards, then you’re kind of already yesterday’s news. I always want to keep progressing.

Q: Have you ever thought about going onto a television cooking show like “Top Chef?”

A: I’ve actually been invited to on several occasions. I got a closed casting call for “Top Chef” right after the first season. This was for season two and at the time, I think they were looking for someone different than your typical angry “white” chef. Obviously, being Asian, I think they were looking for diversity, but I had already had some experience on cooking segments on live TV. I am so bad at it. Some people are cut out for it, but I am not one of those people. I’ve been in the middle of doing live segments and looked at myself in the prompter. I’m just pale, sweating and completely stumbling over my words. Every time I’m on TV, I am a total train wreck. So, I declined the closed casting call for “Top Chef.”

Q: You now co-own five restaurants with another on the way. What was the process of opening up the one we are sitting at now in particular, Grit & Grace?

A: Grit & Grace was a concept I had been really kind of working on and thinking about for probably a couple years before it opened. I knew this type of concept of a cool, hip and urban kind of casual eatery was a popular trend. I was trying to stay up on what the current trends were. … I knew I wanted to bring this back into Pittsburgh.

Q: What is your favorite meal to cook?

A: I’m a steak-and-potatoes kind of guy, but I also have a secret love affair with all things pork related. So, it’s probably a toss up between a really great grilled steak with roasted potatoes and roasted root vegetables, which is really simple and rustic, or going the Asian route and roasting a pork shoulder and doing it with a noodle bowl.

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