Updated, 2:16 p.m. April 18
Whether it’s a write-up in a local publication or a national notice in the New York Times, Pittsburgh’s dining scene is getting attention for all the right reasons.
The city is constantly adding new restaurants from experienced chefs and exciting newcomers, while local entrepreneurs are opening businesses, creating food products, starting services and working for nonprofits that aim to make Pittsburgh more equitable.
We’re honoring 16 of these chefs, restaurant owners, ice cream makers, food-event facilitators and do-gooders for our Who’s Next: Food class. These honorees were nominated by their peers (you can do the same now for Who’s Next: Drink) and selected by The Incline’s editorial staff from dozens of possibilities. Presented by S&T Bank, Who’s Next is The Incline’s chance to recognize Pittsburgh’s rising leaders. Later this month, we’ll host a happy hour for the honorees at Studio AM in Homestead. We hope you’ll join us!
Join us at Studio AM to honor the winners of Who's Next: Food. Your ticket includes an array of hors d’oeuvre from executive chef Steve Morehouse, beer and wine from Market Street Grocery, drinks from Arsenal Cider House and spirit samplings from Liberty Pole Spirits and Golia. You'll also have the chance to meet up-and-comers in Pittsburgh's dining and food scene. Special thanks to Who's Next sponsor S&T Bank.
Where: Studio AM at 225 E. 8th Ave. (Homestead)
When: April 24, 2017 from 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.
How much: $20 for public | Free for Who's Next: Food honorees
A self-titled “creative ninja” at online bakery Yummyholic, Jasmine Cho said she created the title from her custom baked goods and longtime involvement in martial arts. Cho launched Yummyholic in October 2015 and makes cookies and cupcakes that combine art and baking under the slogan, “Happy tummies and happy hearts.” Yummyholic has partnered with several nonprofits, including the Women’s Center & Shelter of Greater Pittsburgh and Beverly’s Birthdays, which organizes birthday parties and showers for children and families in need. Yummyholic has also been featured at events across the city. In November, Cho made a gingerbread house replica of the City-County Building for its Christmas tree lighting. Cho also works to empower the Asian American community in Pittsburgh and was a featured panelist for “Neither Black nor White, but Asian American” at the Annual Summit Against Racism in Pittsburgh. “She is a doer on all fronts,” one nominator said. Cho also has a third degree black belt in Tae Kwon Do. Cho attended Duquesne University, University of Hawaii at Manoa and Chatham University and lives in Squirrel Hill.
A previous version incorrectly described Cho's time at three universities.
After two years as a property owner, manager and real estate agent, Torie Day realized she loved cooking more. So two years ago, she started Day La Soul Catering, promoting her business of healthy, yet traditional soul food through social media. She gained traction by winning several cooking contests, and Day was was one of seven local chefs that created a two-day soul food menu at Conflict Kitchen’s Juneteenth celebration to honor the 150th anniversary of the abolition of slavery in 2015. Nominators stressed her hard work and passion to “educate people on the importance of healthy, yet soulful foods.” Day is a chef mentor for Community Kitchen Pittsburgh’s Project Lunch Tray, which encourages kids to create fresh and affordable meals. Next, Day plans to open a cafe and mini grocery store in the Allentown neighborhood this month. She lives in Wilkinsburg.
Dustin Gardner has worked for Big Burrito Restaurant Group for nearly a decade, rising through the ranks and moving between Casbah and Soba to his current executive chef role at Casbah. He’s been the executive chef there for nearly two years. Gardner’s focus is Mediterranean-inspired food from local ingredients. He’s “exceptionally talented, is a patient teacher and a respectful superior,” one nominator wrote. Another called him an “absolute artisanal swashbuckler.” Before his current role, Gardner was the executive chef at Soba, also in the Big Burrito group, for a year and was executive sous chef at Casbah for about four years before that. He is a graduate of Pennsylvania Culinary Institute. Gardner lives in Point Breeze.
Katie Heldstab and Christa Puskarich started Leona’s Ice Cream in June 2013. The pair makes small batch and lactose-free ice cream sandwiches, using as many local ingredients as possible. In its first three years, the company expanded from being in one store to more than 35. Puskarich is the “dreamer of flavors and combinations” and leads operations in everything from finance to inventory systems. Heldstab was inspired to be creative with food after meeting Puskarich and made the move to food marketing and culinary school. Leona is the name of their dog, which they adopted in 2012. Heldstab and Puskarich both came to the culinary world from other industries — Puskarich was a paralegal and trial consultant, and Heldstab worked in communications and public relations. Heldstab is a graduate of Marquette University, and Puskarich is a graduate of the University of Texas at Arlington. They live in East Liberty.
As executive chef of The Commoner in Downtown, Wyatt Lash said he enjoy combining food with creativity. And having local and fresh ingredients is something that’s been important to him from his start as a chef in Lancaster County, per The Commoner’s website. Lash puts a twist on a gastro-pub menu with local ingredients. And that twist “elevated” The Commoner to “one of the finest restaurants in Downtown Pittsburgh,” his nominator said. Lash started as a lead baker in Oxford, Pa., at Martinelli’s Main Street Bagel and Bakery, but made the jump to a line cook and catering chef before his first executive chef position at the Whip Tavern in Coatesville, Pa., from 2006 to 2014. He then joined The Commoner in 2014 and became executive chef in 2016. He earned a certificate in baking and pastry arts at the Lancaster County Career and Technology Center and is also an avid hiker. Lash lives Downtown.
Kevin Lintelman has been the executive chef of Carmella’s Plates and Pints in the South Side for more than two years. The restaurant’s menu focuses on “upscale comfort cuisine” and features wild game and seasonal features. Lintelman started in the culinary world more than a decade ago, and after attending culinary school, he started with an externship at the former Poli’s restaurant. Lintelman then spent four years working for the Monterey Bay Fish Grotto Company. He also worked in Virginia and Washington D.C. before moving back to Pittsburgh and to cook at Meat and Potatoes. Lintelman delights “customers with creative and unique yet comforting food,” a nominator said. He is a graduate of Indiana University of Pennsylvania Academy of Culinary Arts. Lintelman lives in Plum Borough.
Don Mahaney opened Scratch Food & Beverage in 2015 as a place that features meals from one of the “finest kitchens in the city in an approachable way,” per the restaurant’s website. Scratch offers a seasonal menu of made-from-scratch food, but the restaurant also serves as a local meeting spot. Scratch has welcomed partnerships with multiple organizations and hosted events for the Greater Pittsburgh Literacy Council and the Pittsburgh Center for Creative Reuse. A new addition is a monthly happy hour for the Troy Hill community. Mahaney also works with Community Kitchen Pittsburgh. According to his nomination, Mahaney has “put his life into expanding not only the culinary landscape” but also increasing local awareness of local breweries and distilleries. He is a graduate of John Carroll University and is pursuing a degree from Gonzaga University. Mahaney lives in Troy Hill.
Brian McCollum is a software engineer by trade, but he’s also responsible for Pittsburgh Restaurant Week. The semi-annual event, which returned in 2012 under McCollum’s direction, highlights restaurants across the city and offers diners the chance to try something new through special deals and pre-fixe menus. The Seton Hill University graduate is also one of the bloggers behind Pittsburgh TasteBuds, a celebrity judge for the Community Liver Alliance's Steel Chef Challenge and winner of the Partnership Marketing Partner of the Year Award from VisitPITTSBURGH. “Brian has done amazing things to further Pittsburgh's food scene with his founding of Pittsburgh Restaurant Week,” a person who nominated him wrote. “It has prompted people from all over the city and its suburbs to explore new restaurants and neighborhoods, spending their dollars far and wide throughout the city.” McCollum owns and operates 60 Minute Missions escape room in Greensburg and lives on the North Side.
When Claudy M. Pierre was growing up in Brooklyn, he cooked for his eight siblings and parents. The Haitian-American chef studied at the University of Pittsburgh on a football scholarship and at Le Cordon Bleu Institute of Culinary Arts in Pittsburgh before working in various hospitality and food positions at hotels, country clubs and restaurants. In January 2014, Pierre launched his own company, Eminent Hospitality Solutions, which does catering, consulting and cooking demonstrations. His Empowerment, Awareness, and Training (EAT) Initiative provides wellness classes and meal prep for nonprofits and schools "with a focus on helping marginalized people located in food deserts." Pierre was the owner of Culture Restaurant and Lounge in Downtown Pittsburgh, and he's now the chef at Savoy in the Strip District. Pierre, who was recently nominated to join the steering committee of the Pittsburgh Food Policy Council, lives in Forest Hills.
Dena Stanley’s Maddezsweetz bakery offers pies, breads, cookies, a soul-food cupcake topped with fried chicken and other pastries that can be enjoyed by people with dietary restrictions, including vegans, people with gluten intolerance, and diabetics. She graduated from Le Cordon Bleu Pittsburgh and studied under chefs in Atlanta before returning to Pittsburgh and starting her own company in 2015. Stanley is also the founder of Trans YOUniting, an organization that promotes equality, safety and services for trans people in Pittsburgh. “I have known Dena since we were kids and to watch her complete culinary arts school and start building this empire in our hometown of Pittsburgh is truly amazing,” wrote a person who nominated her. “She cares about her community and is a talented pastry chef! I couldn't see anyone more deserving of this spotlight than her.” Added another person: “Dena is a trans woman of color who is realizing her dream of owning her own business.” She lives in Sheraden.
Csilla Thackray has been executive chef of The Vandal since it opened more than a year ago in Lawrenceville. A native of the Pittsburgh area, she worked as a sous chef at Bar Marco and infuses her Hungarian heritage into her cooking. “Csilla has not just come out of nowhere to help create a hugely successful new eatery that has received national attention, she's done it in a way that gives back to vulnerable populations and paves the way for a more sustainable and environmentally friendly future,” wrote a person who nominated her. “Csilla works diligently to build relationships with local farmers to ensure that the foods served at The Vandal is ethically sourced and helping to build local economies across the region.” Thackray has also spearheaded a fundraiser for Planned Parenthood of Western Pennsylvania and participated in a benefit dinner for 412 Food Rescue. “It is this generous spirit and commitment to community and building real equity that makes Csilla a hero not just among food professionals, but among people across Pittsburgh working to build a more just society,” the person who nominated her wrote. She lives in Lawrenceville with her two cats, Schultz and Alice.
Born and raised in State College, Travis A. Torsell joined the Marine Corps after graduating from high school and served for four years before graduating from Penn State University. Torsell’s mother prepared healthy, home-cooked meals, and he carried that love of food with him. He attended culinary school at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh and worked at local restaurants before he was hired to be chef instructor for Community Kitchen Pittsburgh. Torsell has trained 175 students and graduated 19 classes. “You won't find Chef Travis' name on lists like this one. He's not opening the next big-deal restaurant. For dozens of low-income, previously incarcerated and formerly addicted Pittsburghers, Chef Travis gave them the tools to become self-sustaining cooks, kitchen managers, and chefs,” the person who nominated him wrote. “He could be inventing amazing plates at any high-end restaurant, but instead he shares those skills in order to change people's lives and strengthen Pittsburgh communities.” He lives on the South Side.
Hana Uman grew up in Reston, Va., and graduated from James Madison University before making the move to Pittsburgh to study at Chatham University. After graduating with a Food Studies master’s degree, Uman worked for the Squirrel Hill Community Food Pantry before 412 Food Rescue hired her to be the volunteer and engagement manager. The person who nominated Uman, who’s now the nonprofit’s program manager, highlighted her work on 412 Food Rescue’s Hidden Harvest and Ugly CSA programs. “This year, Hana is working to expand [Hidden Harvest] to include urban farms, backyard vegetable gardens and local orchards to increase local produce donations and soon-to-be announced specialty products,” the person who nominated her wrote. “Hana is planning to expand [Ugly CSA] to three times as many shares, as well as accepting SNAP benefits and providing sponsored shares for volunteers from 412 Food Rescue’s nonprofit partners.” She lives in Lawrenceville.
Rafael Vencio was born and raised in the Philippines, where he attended De La Salle University- College of St. Benilde. He moved to the U.S. at age 19 and worked at Bitter Root Brewery in Montana and Silver Legacy Resort Casino in Reno, Nevada before coming to Pittsburgh. He served as a line cook at Spoon Restaurant, senior sous chef at Legume Bistro and sous chef at Grit & Grace before starting his own restaurant. Aubergine Bistro is based at Strip District restaurant incubator Smallman Galley, where Vencio serves dishes like kielbasa and kraut, jicama salad, street corn and buttermilk fried soft shell crab. “I relish the opportunity to bring people together through a mash-up of this country’s culinary traditions — everything from Creole to Cajun to Baja,” Vencio said in his Smallman Galley bio. He lives in Lawrenceville.
Ling Wollenschlaeger, who moved from China to the U.S. in 1997, didn’t begin her career in food. She graduated from Penn State University in 2005 and worked as a financial analyst in the corporate world for a decade before attending culinary school and founding her own company, Pittsburgh Fresh. Since March 2013, the healthy meal delivery, catering and grab-and-go company has grown to 10 employees. “Growing up in her mother’s kitchen, Ling learned from a young age that cooking with fresh, healthy ingredients results in meals that are not only nutritious, but also delicious and satisfying,” the person who nominated her wrote. “Today, Ling and her team of local chefs and delivery drivers are committed to bringing fresh, healthy, ready to heat and eat meals right to your doorstep.” Wollenschlaeger is a mother to two girls, three-year-old Ava and one-year-old Cora, and lives in Churchill.