As a kid, Bill Fuller didn’t spend his paper route money on toys or baseball cards. He bought Dinty Moore beef stew.

His family relied on free school lunches and food stamps to get by, and the refrigerator wasn’t always full. Some days, he’d find a secluded spot in his home near DuBois, Pa., and eat straight from the can.

“I had no intentions of being a cook myself,” says Fuller, who is now corporate chef for big Burrito Restaurant Group. “I didn’t care about food; it was just a necessity for survival.”

Fuller never forgot those experiences. Today he uses his expertise in the kitchen and clout in the restaurant industry to make sure other people don’t go hungry. And he helps others fundraise for other missions as well.

The Morningside resident regularly hosts benefit dinners where he offers nonprofit organizations free dinners for large groups at a big Burrito restaurant, such as Eleven. The nonprofit then charges typically $150 or more per plate and keeps all the proceeds. Supporters of the nonprofit enjoy a great dinner together and the nonprofit spends quality time with them while raising money. Fuller has been offering these dinners for years.

Fuller also serves on the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank’s board of directors.

“He has helped the Food Bank in so many ways, including offering his assistance with our Empty Bowls event for a number of years by generously donating a soup and working in the kitchen,” President Lisa Scales says.

As the person in charge of procuring all the fresh ingredients for big Burrito (including the Mad Mex restaurants, Umi, Soba, Casbah, Eleven, Kaya and the newly opened Alta Via), he’s glad to see the food bank expanding its facility to increase its offerings of local produce.

Fresh food is also his focus in teaching others how best to help: Rather than donate a sack full of dented canned goods to the food bank, he tells people, consider making cash donations. The money can be used to fill shelves with healthier, fresher options.

Fuller is also a big believer in the adage “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”

He also serves on the board of  Community Kitchen Pittsburgh, a non-profit culinary training and job placement program for adults facing employment barriers. And he leads weekly after-school cooking classes at Pittsburgh Obama 6-12 in East Liberty.

 

Through his Chef in the Garden classes, local students learn how to grow their own food. Photo courtesy of Bill Fuller.

Fuller is one of about 20 chefs who participate in the “Chef in the Garden” program, teaching kids to cook food they’ve grown, and sharing personal anecdotes about his own cooking adventures along the way.

His culinary career started at Dutch Pantry Family Restaurant, where he washed dishes. Eventually, he learned to fry eggs during the weekend breakfast rush. That simple skill helped him become self-sufficient.

“You can control so much of your own life if you learn how to cook,” he says. “I teach people how to build a life and provide for themselves, rather than wait for things to come along.”

Fuller’s path hasn’t been simple. Or typical. He left home at 18 and hitchhiked around the country. He settled in Washington, D.C., and took a job as a line cook at Kramerbooks & Afterwards Cafe, a local institution. Seeing his natural talent, the owner encouraged him to go to culinary school.

He attended L’Academy de Cuisine in Bethesda, Md. and George Mason University, where he studied business and chemistry while working full-time as a chef at the famed Occidental. Making his way out to California, he later graduated with a Master’s degree in chemistry from U.C. Berkeley.

Those years in the Bay Area exposed him to a world of exotic ingredients. He started canning and making his own jams and sauces. In the mid-’90s, he took this newfound knowledge to Pittsburgh, where the restaurant scene was as bleak as the winter weather.

A friend of his was starting a little eatery called Mad Mex, a “funky fresh Cal-Mex” joint that eventually blossomed into nine local spots with branches in Philadelphia, Erie and State College, Pa. Fuller joined the group to start Kaya. The rest, of course, is restaurant history: big Burrito was one of the pioneering groups that elevated Pittsburgh’s restaurant scene, and their restaurants continue to draw crowds.

Fuller has come a long way from eating canned stew in the shadows to being determined to help others who are struggling.

“People have so much shame in being food insecure,” Scales says. “Having someone like Bill share his story helps so many people to have hope and to minimize their shame in reaching out for help. It’s wonderful that Bill shares his story for that very reason.”