By Gretchen McKay

At Notion, a sprint to the finish

Categories : Food

(Second in an occasional series on the birth of Notion)

Chef Dave Racicot of Notion/ Larry Roberts/Post-Gazette


A perfectionist chef doesn’t get much sleep in the days leading up to the opening of a new restaurant, thanks to the critical and time-consuming task of developing dishes that will delight the eye as much as they thrill the palate. He gets less still when he also happens to be the restaurant’s business owner, lead designer, project manager, human resource director and public relations specialist.

The recommended six or seven hours of shut-eye each night? More like two or three.

It’s understandable, then, that Dave Racicot looked a bit ragged about the edges late last week at Notion, his 38-seat restaurant opening Friday in Oakmont.

The masking tape that just two weeks ago marked where to place furniture has given way to actual tables and comfy, upholstered chairs. But there’s still the matter of finalizing purveyors. Equipment malfunctions. A headache-inducing stack of tax and payroll forms requiring signatures. And damn! Why doesn’t anyone want to take the pizza oven that’s monopolizing his undersized kitchen off his hands?

“Construction worker, electrician, painter, designer, CFO, CEO, logistics, dishwasher … I’ll make time for chef eventually!” he posted Dec. 16 on Notion’s Facebook page.

Add a commute from Uniontown that keeps the 31-year-old chef on the road three-plus hours a day and, well, you’d probably have a few circles under your eyes, too.

At least there were no worries about the food, images of which he’s been sketching in his head for months, if not his entire career.

People eat as much with their eyes as their mouths, Mr. Racicot explains. So, along with the exact amount of Terra Spice Company seasonings to enhance a food’s flavor — each measured to the 100th gram — he’s spent countless hours perfecting his garnishes and plating techniques. Most turn up as sketches in the black idea book that’s never far from his side.

“It’s all very calculated and on purpose,” says Mr. Racicot, who was chef de cuisine at Nemacolin Woodlands Resort’s flagship restaurant Lautrec until January. He adds, “Notion will be an emotional, multisensory experience.”

A working menu pried out of his reluctant hands on Dec. 22 (he wouldn’t actually kitchen-test any of the recipes until two days ago ) reads more like poetry than weird science: Elysian Fields lamb smoked in hay. Chicken dressed in textured hazelnut oil. Lobster “au natural” with textures and forms of coconut. Manchego with pistachio custard and poached quince.

It’s a far cry from the simple pastas and boxed tacos he cooks for his three kids for dinner, and further still from the foot-long hoagies he’s been wolfing down, late at night, during the two-month renovation of the former Boulevard Bistro. But it’s perfectly in keeping with the forward-thinking dishes the Indiana, Pa., native created at Lautrec.

Prices will run between $24 and $34 for an entree, with the chef also offering a 7-course tasting menu for $75 ($99 paired with wine). A sommelier will suggest wine pairings.

“Our goal isn’t to be an overly priced, pretentious place where you feel uncomfortable and have to save money for a year to go to,” he told his Facebook fans. “We will be serving my food, the food I am passionate about, but without obtrusive, stuffy, overbearing service.”

Pastry chef Josh Lind, sous chef Andrew Stump and cook Joshua Neeley will help with the cooking, but menu development is his alone; his creative persona, Mr. Racicot admitted on Tuesday, doesn’t mesh with “random ideas” being thrown around.

It’s a culinary doctrine that appeals to the faithful: Manager Jennifer Jin, who’s also working on a degree in computer science at the University of Pittsburgh, has taken more than 50 reservations for tomorrow’s grand opening. Customers have purchased gift certificates, too.

“So, even before we’re open, we’re actually making money,” he notes with a grin.

The road to Notion

Unlike some chefs, Mr. Racicot didn’t grow up in a rich culinary environment. There was no backyard garden from which to pick fresh veggies, no expansive grocery lists or relationship with a local butcher; food, he says, was more about subsistence than enjoyment. That said, he speaks fondly of going with younger brother Ryan, executive chef at Longue Vue Club in Verona, to their Italian maternal gram’s house in Homer City for fresh pasta on Sundays. He also remembers making crepes at age 6 with Memere, his French grandmother on his father’s side.

“I’d stand on a footstool in front of her stove,” he says.

Had he liked washing dishes at the Holiday Inn as a teen, Chef Racicot might never have tried his hand at cooking. But man, did he despise being a “dish pig,” and before long he was on the hotel’s line cooking omelets and French fries. By age 20, he’d been promoted to executive chef.

A job at Nemacolin’s Golden Trout soon followed and this, he says, is where he learned much of his craft, first by watching and then by doing. He read voraciously about food, devouring Thomas Keller’s “The French Laundry Cookbook” so many times that to this day he can recite entire passages.

“For me, it was very important to understand how chefs thought, and organized their kitchens,” he explains.

In 2003, Mr. Racicot turned in his chef’s coat at Nemacolin, packed up his wife, Kelly, and two children, and headed west to Las Vegas, where Julian Serrano was stretching the boundaries at Picasso, a AAA Five Diamond restaurant in the Bellagio. As he explained to Chef Serrano in the certified letter he sent him the same day he gave notice at Golden Trout, he needed to work for someone who was passionate about food if he was ever going to make a name for himself in the business. It took six long months, but eventually Mr. Serrano offered him a cook position.

Two years later, a more experienced Chef Racicot was back at Joe Hardy’s resort in Fayette County, the new chef de cuisine of Aqueous. In 2007, he took the reins at Lautrec and within a year steered it to its Five Diamond rating from AAA. He’d work there for the next three years.

The experience of maturing his craft in one of Western Pennsylvania’s top kitchens was unparalleled, which is why the split last January wasn’t exactly a happy one.

“I was given an opportunity to just cook,” says Mr. Racicot. “No one told me what I had to do or put on the menu.” A wistful smile creeps across his face.

“I was able to really define what I wanted to be as a chef.”

Crafting the menu

Chef Racicot’s goal at Notion is to create the same progressive, modern American food that made the folks at the James Beard Foundation take notice while he was at Nemacolin. For the most impact, the menu — to be previewed at an invitation-only soft opening this evening, with staff sampling it yesterday — includes just 12 extremely focused items; diners, he says, also can expect flawless service.

To err might be human but not in Chef Racicot’s kitchen, even on the first day of business: If you allow people an opportunity to make mistakes just because something is new, he notes, it changes the mindset.

“I don’t have the capacity to give myself any wiggle room,” he says on Tuesday afternoon, cool as a cucumber in his crisply starched chef whites — despite the fact that two days out, he was still writing recipes and compiling shopping lists.

It helps that most of Mr. Racicot’s staff has previously worked together, and enjoy the team mentality and easy camaraderie that keep a commercial kitchen functional.

“It’s like riding a bike, or dusting off the cobwebs,” says Mr. Lind, who worked with him at Lautrec. “He’s a great leader. He can lead me in any battle.”

Any butterflies are best left to apprentice Graham McCollum, an 18-year-old senior at Riverview High School who’s busy trimming a big bowl of brussels sprouts.

Back to the food. Some of Chef Racicot’s creations were as simple as blinking: To envision the dish, all he had to do was close his eyes. Others are elaborate, intellectual works of art with as many as 14 garnishes and a marriage of textures and flavors. A broccoli starter, for instance, combines a puree made from the very green tops and stems slow-cooked in butter with toasted barley and scalded milk froth. Lamb will be unveiled in a small cloud of smoke to tickle the olfactory receptors.

Many ingredients will be locally sourced, of course. Just don’t expect Chef Racicot to use Farm to Table as a marketing tool because rather than try to make people “feel good” about their food choices, his aim is to provide the freshest food from the best possible sources.

As he puts it, “If the best strawberries come from a local farmer, I’ll support him,” he says. “But if they taste better from California, I’ll use that.”

Nor will he allow diners to substitute.

“I think a lot about everything,” he says. “I don’t sit down and write a menu in 15 minutes.”

Some customers might not appreciate such artistic integrity. But if Chef Racicot accomplishes what he has set out to, he says everyone who dines at Notion will leave the table happy.

“If I do my job, it’s going to taste great to everyone.”