A chef looks back to move forward

Derek Stevens has helped in building the culinary scene in Pittsburgh; he’s now ready to go solo

Chef Derek Stevens, stands out front of Union Standard restaurant he is opening in the old Union Trust building. The restaurant will be housed on the ground and mezzanine floors, and will overlook Mellon Park. (Nate Guidry/Post-Gazette)

Chef Derek Stevens, stands out front of Union Standard restaurant he is opening in the old Union Trust building. The restaurant will be housed on the ground and mezzanine floors, and will overlook Mellon Park. (Nate Guidry/Post-Gazette)

His technique is meticulous, and his food as exquisite as it is delicious. Derek Stevens graduated from the venerable Culinary Institute of America, after all, and for 10 years he spun magic as executive chef of Big Burrito’s showcase Eleven Contemporary Kitchen in the Strip District.

When he opens his Union Standard restaurant in the historic Union Trust Building, Downtown, early next year, diners can expect more of the upscale, contemporary American fare that has come to define Mr. Stevens’ culinary career in Pittsburgh. Or as he notes while leading a dusty-shoe tour of the construction site buzzing with the bang of hammers: “I try to make food that’s interesting and creative, tastes good, and has a familiarity to it.”

Not too shabby for a kid from the ‘burbs who chose vo-tech over traditional academics at North Allegheny High School, and got his start cooking at 15 in a most pedestrian way — tossing pizza at Chuck E. Cheese’s before moving on to Juno Trattoria, both in the North Hills.

“I wasn’t a good student headed for college,” recalls Mr. Stevens, 42, the youngest of three sons and also the tallest (he’s a towering 6 feet 4 inches tall). He was comfortable in the kitchen, and CIA was “just the best, and I learned a hell of a lot.”

The Maryland native didn’t move to Wexford until he was 13. So he considers himself only a “kinda-sorta” Pittsburgher, even though he’s spent most of his professional life here, beginning with an externship at the Duquesne Club just before graduating from CIA in 1994. That plum assignment led to a job offer in Chicago he turned down because it was just too hard to leave his family and friends, even though Pittsburgh didn’t have a food scene to talk off in the mid-’90s.

An ad in the paper led him to Hyeholde. Working as a line cook for the high-end Moon restaurant proved a good fit for the 20-year-old, who helped to craft imaginative dishes in a kitchen with emerging talent. Richard DeShantz of Meat & Potatoes fame was a co-worker, and so was Chris O’Brien of Poros.

Mr. Stevens also did a short stint at Nina in Highland Park and worked at four restaurants in California, including Bradley Odgen’s cafe in San Matteo. Then he kicked around Europe for a summer before boomeranging to Pittsburgh in 1999, where a job as a line cook at Casbah started his long love affair with the Big Burrito group. Within a year he became the executive chef.

It was a quick climb for the self-professed perfectionist, but also an exhausting one. Burned out, he left to try his hand at catering before ending up once more at the Duquesne Club after marrying his wife, Marie. “It’s fun and exciting, but working in a restaurant is hard,” he says.

Still, Big Burrito beckoned. In 2004, when it decided to open it’s 11th restaurant, Eleven, executive chef Bill Fuller wanted Mr. Stevens to be part of the the program as executive sous chef. Two years later, Mr. Stevens was promoted to executive chef, and he remained at the helm until early spring.

“He was smart, had experience and loved food,” says Mr. Fuller, who calls his cooking “intelligent.”

The idea for Union Standard started percolating a few years ago, when friends of friends approached Mr. Stevens with a space. It didn’t pan out.

“But it got me thinking that something could happen. I came to realize I wanted it happen,” the father of three says. “I realized I never wanted to look back with regret and say I wished I tried.”

Secret negotiations with investors and bankers ensued while he shopped locations. To their credit and his relief, all his chef friends, who knew something was up, kept silent until Mr. Stevens gave notice last fall. He says Big Burrito CEO Cary Klein was surprised but not completely. Ten years is a long time to cook in one place.

A small restaurant in a trendy neighborhood is not Mr. Stevens’ style; he wanted something more classic, close to all the new buildings going up Downtown. To that end, in March he became the first tenant to sign a lease at the historic Flemish-Gothic Union Trust Building on Grant Street, built by industrialist Henry Clay Frick in 1915-16. The Boston-based Davis Companies is spending some $60 million to restore its grandeur while adding 21st-century amenities.

Designed by Moss Architects, Union Standard will seat 190 between its dining room and bar, and feature a raw bar, wood-fired grill and rotisserie. Also, expect “good cocktails and a great lunch menu” that Mr. Stevens promises won’t be “too weird.”

The restaurant project is intense and stressful, but it’s also thrilling, he says — much like the ultra-marathons he runs to raise money for 5P- Society, a nonprofit support group for families with a child with cri du chat. His 7-year-old daughter has the rare genetic disorder.

“I’ll be so happy when I can wear an apron every day and be in that environment,” he says.