Chefs to Watch 2016: Justin Severino, Cure and Morcilla, Pittsburgh

Joy Manning

Justin Severino started cooking right out of high school. But his initial training wasn’t typical of a James Beard-nominated chef.

“I asked my mom how to cook some things,” says Severino. “I just knew I couldn’t eat any more fast-food sandwiches.”

At the time, he was working for his father’s construction firm, which meant staying at hotels to be near the work site Monday through Friday. “After I knew how to cook a few things—pasta, meatballs, chicken thighs—I convinced my father to rent us an apartment with a kitchen instead. I said, ‘Aren’t you tired of eating this shit food every day?’ and I promised I’d cook.”

This arrangement had the added bonus of getting him out of work a little early each day so he could make dinner, and Severino was happy for any reprieve from the construction work that, in spite of being a family business, wasn’t for him. But even though he really enjoyed cooking, it didn’t register with him as a future career.

It wasn’t until he went to visit a friend who was studying at Pittsburgh’s Art Institute that Severino thought about culinary school. After watching the culinary students in action, he registered for the program on the spot. “I’ve dedicated my life to cooking since I put my name on that piece of paper that weekend,” he says.

Since then, his training, talent and ambition have taken him to some of the country’s great restaurants, including David Kinch’s lauded Manresa. While cooking there, he had two revelations that would shape his career: He became more and more interested in sustainable ranching and whole-animal butchery, and he lost his verve for fine dining.

“I wanted to butcher a large pig, not just the smaller animals we did at Manresa,” Severino says. To that end, he teamed up with a local pig farmer and a chef who allowed him to butcher in his restaurant kitchen after hours. Soon this side project grew into a meat CSA and finally bloomed into Severino’s Community Butcher shop in Santa Cruz, Calif., which he ran for several years.

But although he loved breaking down animals, his heart never left the kitchen. And when he decided to move closer to family in Ohio, he chose Pittsburgh because the city felt like home and he knew the people there were ready for his cooking. “Historically, Pittsburgh is one of the wealthiest cities in the world,” Severino notes. “People who live here travel, and they know about food.”

Today, Cure is the fullest possible expression of Severino’s obsessions and talents. There’s a pretense-free atmosphere and welcoming vibe. He marries his expertise in charcuterie with his Italian-American roots and fastidious approach to classic techniques. And nowhere on the menu is this more apparent than his version of carbonara, which is made from the ends of his cured meats that don’t fit through the slicer ($24, recipe). “I don’t think carbonara is usually made right. It’s a very finicky dish, and you have to be on your toes 100 percent of the time,” he says. He and his cooks embrace the technique, tuning out everything else as they temper the eggs in the midst of a frantic kitchen. “It’s the kind of dish that shows what I love most about food.”

Q&A with Justin Severino:

What ingredient is central to your cooking?
For me, ingredients themselves are secondary to the people we are sourcing from and the relationships we’re building. From those connections, the quality and integrity of ingredients follow naturally.

How do you describe your food?
I like to make sure the food we’re cooking has some sort of historical reference and understanding of where it’s coming from geographically.

What would you do if you weren’t a chef?
I’d be a motivational speaker out of a van by a river in Santa Cruz, Calif.

What’s on your cooking bucket list?
I’m working toward baking sourdough bread in both of our restaurants rather than buying bread from a bakery.

How do you find calm in your kitchen?
Encouraging honesty among the team and promoting a no-ego restaurant environment to keep fear and intimidation out of the kitchen. I find our kitchens very Zen compared to others where I’ve worked.

What cookbook is most important to you?
Historically, I revere Paul Bertolli's Cooking by Hand. A more recent cookbook I love is Zahav: A World of Israeli Cooking by Michael Solomonov and Steven Cook.

Who inspires you?
My wife, Hilary Prescott.

What do you eat at drink on your night off?
I'm always drinking rose, all the time, any time of year. I'm also really into Aperol spritzes right now. At home, Hilary and I eat a lot of salads. Recently we split a 24-ounce ribeye that we grilled at home over a tomato salad.

When did you realize that you loved food?
I've always loved food. It's a huge part of family culture. Though we may argue and disagree at times, we'll always find peace with each other gathered around the table.

If you could stage at any restaurant in the world, where would you go and why?
I'd love to experience the life of a bartender/tapas chef at Cal Pep in Barcelona.