How does it feel to have a restaurant ranked as number four on Bon Appetit’s Hot 10 of America’s Best New Restaurants?
“It’s a total honor to be included in that list,” says Justin Severino, founder of Lawrenceville’s Cure and the newly awarded Morcilla. “When I heard the news I started poppin’ bottles of cava.”
NEXTPittsburgh recently talked to the city’s hottest chef about his background, his ethos, and the proper pronunciation of Morcilla.
What events in your life got you here?
I was born in Ashtabula, Ohio. I didn’t go to college out of high school—I went into construction for my dad. During the week, we lived in hotels, and during the weekends I lived with some friends in Canton, Ohio. The first thing I realized I missed about not living at home was the food, because my mom cooked just about everything we ate. So I had this idea—instead of staying in hotels on the road, I thought that we might be able to rent a furnished apartment, and my dad agreed to let me leave work early so that I could go home and cook for everyone. I did that for a while, and then winter came, and working construction in Ohio during the winter sucks. I told my dad that I needed to do something else and I went to the Art Institute in Pittsburgh. At that time, I was more interested in using school as a way to get out of my current situation, but cooking has since become a huge part of my life.
Do you have a personal mantra? Or is there an ethos that runs through all your endeavors?
I think it’s very much about the people that I get to work with. Or the people that work for me. But I consider it “work with.” I realized shortly into starting Cure that it wasn’t about me, but about what the team can do. I put more energy into the team than into cooking. If I can promote that team concept, people are more honest, responsible and better cooks.
Let’s end the debate. How do you pronounce Morcilla?
If we were in the Basque country, it would be Mor-thee-ah, but I’m not going to expect people to do that. Call it Mor-see-ah. Though sometimes I like to mock it and call it The Mor-chill-ah.
What has been the biggest challenge in opening Morcilla?
For me, it was the unbelievable amount of stress associated with how attached I am to Cure. On a personal level, I was scared of what might happen to it. Did I water it down? But I don’t think Morcilla has done that; on the contrary, I think we’ve put a ton of work into making both restaurants better.
What is one thing you think Morcilla does exceptionally well?
What we do well is what we want to do. One of the things that has driven me forever is that when I worked for other people, I went to work at that place because I wanted to work for that chef. Or when I went to eat, I wanted the chef. Restaurants in Pittsburgh wanted to do what every customer wanted and I think that’s the wrong way to go about it. I want to be able to wake up and do what we want to do. This outlook helped create the identity of Cure, and now Morcilla. I’m lucky that what I want to do inspires cooks and customers who want to see what’s happening next.
And what do you want to do?
The goals are ever changing. At both restaurants, the food right now is more simple than its ever been. And also better. I’d like to continue cultivating an open, honest work environment.
Where is the Pittsburgh dining scene headed?
I think more restaurants are going to open and I think that’s great. In the last few years I’ve seen everything about the dining scene improve in Pittsburgh so dramatically. I’m talking about the quality of cooks and servers, but also people are more adventurous, people are spending more money, people are moving to Pittsburgh instead of moving away. I can’t see the scene in Pittsburgh doing anything than moving on the same path it’s been on for the past seven years.
That’s when I think things started to improve.
What is lacking in the Pittsburgh dining scene?
What Pittsburgh really needs is more high quality sushi.
What is your favorite dish at Cure? At Morcilla?
At Cure, it’s a pasta dish with heirloom tomatoes, which is one of the more simple things we have on the menu. We make the cheese and pasta, and the tomatoes are right from the farm so they never hit the fridge. It’s literally six ingredients, just beautiful.
At Morcilla, my favorite is Champiñones a la Plancha. First, we cook several different types of mushrooms in butter, and then we cool them down and sear them on the plancha, which is a piece of Spanish cooking equipment, basically a piece of cast iron that gets very hot. We add shallots and thyme, set raw egg yolk on top, and the idea is that the customer breaks the egg, which gets cooked into the mushrooms.
If you weren’t a chef, what would you be?
I’d probably be living in a van down by the river in Santa Cruz.
Any new projects in the works?
I’m pretty happy with what I’ve got going on right now. Cure is the thing that I hold nearest to my heart; I try to spend more time at Cure than Morcilla, it doesn’t only work out that way. I have lots of plans in general for both restaurants, but now that Morcilla is up and running I’m going to refocus energy back into Cure.