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A small-town chef hits the Strip

Sunday, October 05, 2003

By Kathleen Ganster

You can take the boy out of the country but you can't take the country out of the boy. At least not Stephen Brown Jr., executive chef at Savage River Lodge in Frostburg, Md.

Stephen Brown Jr., left, executive chef at Savage River Lodge in Frostburg, Md., takes a tour of the Strip District led by Kevin Sousa, executive chef at Kaya. The sights they visited included Stamoolis Bros. (Matt Freed, Post-Gazette)
Click photo for larger image.

Related article:

Maryland lodge has Chef for a Day program

On 42 acres adjoining 700 acres of Savage River State Forest, the lodge is in a remote setting.

Brown, 25, grew up in nearby Hagerstown, Md., and although he graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., he prefers the small-town setting. "I love where I'm at," he said.

Brown was in town recently with friend Bonnie Kaufman on his first trip to Pittsburgh. After hearing about the Strip District, a favorite with Pittsburgh chefs, Brown decided to visit. Another young chef, Kevin Sousa, volunteered to show him around.

Sousa, 28, grew up in McKeesport. Although he has traveled and lived around the world, he returned to Pittsburgh to attend culinary school. He is the executive chef of Kaya, 2000 Smallman St., the Strip.

The two started out around 10 a.m. to visit stores and see the sights. Sousa was in his own neighborhood; Brown had traveled about two hours to get to Pittsburgh from Frostburg.

"Penn Mac [Pennsylvania Macaroni Co.] is an early memory for me," said Sousa. "I remember coming here with my father and grandfather, and they spoke Italian to the guys who worked down here."

His grandfather and father owned a restaurant in McKees Rocks when Sousa was growing up.

As the two perused the shops, they shared stories, sources and ideas. Brown has to depend on keeping food in stock and doing without when he runs out of things. Sousa can run down the street to suppliers and pick up an ingredient. "Our location is great. If we need something, we can run out the door and get it. If we can't find what we want, we can find a substitute," he told Brown, as the two walked around.

Brown laughed. "I can't do that."

The different settings also make for different menus. Sousa's menu has a Caribbean flair, something that Brown's clientele wouldn't anticipate. "People expect things like antelope and bison on the menu because of our rural setting. They like the casual setting," he said.

Later, while dining at Kaya's sister restaurant, Soba, in Shadyside, he joked with Kaufman, a server at Savage River Lodge. "Can you imagine our servers dressed like that?" he said, nodding to a sleek looking young man in a black turtleneck and black slacks.

There are other differences. Sousa came from a food family; Brown is the first chef in his family. In fact, when he graduated from high school, he decided to pursue a career in music, another love of his.

"While I was at Frostburg University, I started working in a restaurant. I decided to pursue that career instead." He also has an associate's degree from Hagers-town Community College.

Despite the differences, the two share the interest that makes for good restaurants -- preparing delicious food.

"This is where you can get great biscotti," said Sousa as they went into Enrico's. And so the morning went, with Sousa pointing things out and introducing folks, and Brown asking questions.

It wasn't Sousa sharing all the hints, though. "I buy some fabulous cheeses from a place called Firefly Farm near us," Brown told Sousa.

"Can you give me the number?" Sousa asked.

As Sousa explained Kaya's vegetarian dinners, Brown told of some of the lodge's innovative projects.

"We do a Chef for a Day program that has worked out well," he said.

They went into Benkovitz, Goods Trading, Lotus Grocery Store, Renya Foods, Stamoolis Bros. and Wholey's during their tour. Although Brown enjoyed his day, he won't be leaving Savage River Lodge anytime soon.

"I love it here and definitely miss having all these sources available, but I don't think I could live in a big city," he said.

Caramelized Mushroom and Onion Soup

  • 4 tablespoons butter

  • 8 cups yellow onion, sliced
  • 4 cups button mushrooms, sliced
  • 2 cups portobello mushrooms, sliced
  • 2 cups shiitake mushrooms, sliced
  • 1/4 cup garlic, minced
  • 1/2 cup Calvados brandy
  • Mushroom stock
  • Brown veal stock (see note)
  • Kosher salt
  • Fresh ground black pepper
  • Watercress for garnish

In a large pan, melt butter over medium high heat until it just begins to foam. Add onions and coat well with oil. Cook, stirring often, until well caramelized (about 10 minutes). Remove onions and reserve.

In the same pan add mushrooms and cook until brown and tender (another 10 minutes). Add garlic and cook until garlic is tender. Add cooked onions back to pan and reheat them.

Turn flame off and deglaze with Calvados, stir well and scrape the bottom and sides of pan well. Return to flame and ignite brandy to cook out alcohol.

Pour contents into a 3-gallon pot with equal parts mushroom and brown veal stock to cover onion mixture by about 3 inches. Simmer for about 45 minutes or until desired flavor is reached. Season with salt and pepper. Garnish with wilted watercress and Cheddar Cheese Crisps (recipe follows). Serve very hot. Makes 8 servings.

Note: You may also use beef stock.

Stephen Brown Jr.

Cheddar Cheese Crisps

  • 2 cups (8 ounces) aged cheddar cheese

  • 1 egg
  • 1 teaspoon minced garlic
  • 1/4 pound (1 stick) butter
  • 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 cup semolina flour
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt

In a food processor, combine the cheese, egg, garlic and butter. Puree until creamy, being careful not to overmix or the butter will melt. Sift together the dry ingredients and combine with cheese mixture. Knead until it forms dough. Refrigerate for 20 minutes.

Remove from refrigerator and roll out with generous amounts of flour to 1/8 inch thick. Cut desired shapes, and bake on parchment-lined sheet pan at 400 degrees for about 15 minutes or until they are dry. Remove from oven and allow to cool completely before storing in a covered container. Makes 16 crisps.

Stephen Brown Jr.

Maple Creme Brulee

  • 4 cups (1 quart) heavy whipping cream

  • 8 egg yolks
  • 1/2 vanilla bean, split lengthwise
  • 1 pinch salt
  • 1/2 cup pure dark maple syrup
  • Granulated sugar as needed

Separate the eggs and reserve the white for later use. In a stainless steel mixing bowl, combine 1 cup of the heavy cream with all 8 eggs yolks. Mix gently with a wooden spoon.

Split the vanilla bean lengthwise and scrape seeds out gently with the tip of the knife. In a saucepot, gently mix the remaining three cups of cream with vanilla bean and seeds from the bean. Bring to a simmer over medium heat, stirring with a wooden spoon.

When cream begins to simmer, add the salt and maple syrup. Steep with vanilla bean for 5 minutes.

Temper cream mixture into eggs yolks slowly, trying to avoid frothing the mixture.

Strain the mixture through a chinois (see note) and portion into prepared ramekins in hot water bath. Bake in a preheated 300-degree oven for 35 to 45 minutes or until creme is slightly firm.

Remove from water bath immediately and refrigerate for at least 3 hours before serving. To serve, sprinkle the tops with granulated sugar and brown the top with a butane torch or under the broiler in the oven. Makes 5 large servings.

Note: A chinois is a metal conical sieve with an extremely fine mesh.

Stephen Brown Jr.

Kathleen Ganster is a freelance writer based in Hampton who also loves going to the Strip.

Savage River Lodge: 1-301-689-3200 or

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