Gretchen McKay

Two months in, Notion is buzzing

This is the third in an occasional series about the birth of Notion.

Dave Racicot settles in at Notion, his restaurant in Oakmont Larry Robers/Post-Gazette

Dave Racicot knew it wouldn’t be all rainbows and butterflies when he opened the doors to Notion, his 38-seat restaurant in Oakmont, a little more than two months ago. And not just because as executive chef and owner, the buck starts and stops with him.

Cooking for 50 or more diners a day is challenging enough when it’s prepped, prepared and delivered by a staff you almost can count on one hand. But when the menu is as labor intensive as Mr. Racicot’s? There’s a reason he’s guzzling French press coffee out of a plastic Chinese takeout container at 2 in the afternoon. Once he gets up from the table, he’s not going to sit down again for at least another 12 hours.

Each of the chef’s dozen dishes must be intricately plated with the steady hand and creative eye of an artist, and the garnishes — all integral to the dish, not just eye candy — often have as many components as the main parts of the dish. Here, for instance, is what goes into a cauliflower dish he dreamed up last week: roasted cauliflower, of course as well as cauliflower puree, brown butter pebbles, honey Dijon custard, pickled mustard seeds, one-hour egg, red grapes, vanilla aioli, lobster glace, lobster tail, dill and roasted panko bread crumbs.

As photographer Jason Snyder’s images demonstrate on Notion’s website, the food is as playful as it is beautiful and inventive. Many find it so darn creative, in fact, that dinner at Notion is much more than a meal.

“It’s what I intended on doing with food,” says Chef Racicot during an afternoon break on Feb. 11, a little more than a month into his life as a restaurateur. In a few hours, the ruby-red dining room will spring to life with wine glasses clinking and people talking and Smashing Pumpkins jamming on the sound system. What he didn’t expect was for Notion to so quickly become a destination restaurant.

The goal when he set out a year ago, after working for several years at Nemacolin Woodland Resort’s flagship restaurant Lautrec, was to create a place where people could get the incredible modern food and top-notch service that earned him several James Beard nominations, but in a non-fussy environment.

“We wanted it to be much less of an experience. But people,” he says, with the slightest hint of a sigh, “are sitting here all night. It’s become an event.”

Not that it’s a terrible thing that people want to linger. It’s just that the restaurant is small enough that if he’s going to make money —- and no, he’s not yet drawing a salary — tables must turn over more than once a night. “Being in Oakmont,” he says, “there’s not a lot of traffic to begin with.”

Week nights have been particularly slow, sometimes with only a handful of diners. Mr. Racicot optimistically chalks it up to the weather, and the lull that typically follows the holidays. There also isn’t as great a call for the $75 seven-course chef’s tasting menu as he’d like, with most people ordering a la carte off the menu.

That said, the restaurant is busy enough on Saturday nights that manager Jennifer Jin quite often has to wait-list people calling for reservations. Other would-be diners are turned away at the door. But hey, at least they’re drinking more wine and cocktails than expected while they sit, and many of his guests are repeat customers, something he takes as a sign he’s doing things right.

He’s also finding he doesn’t hate an open kitchen as much as he thought he would.

“It allows guests a personal connection,” he says.

“People make a bee-line for him at the door,” says Ms. Jin.

Celebrity must make up for a lack of sleep because the 31-year-old father of three looks far more rested than he did in the lead-up to opening night on New Year’s Eve, with a neatly trimmed beard and relaxed smile. And he obviously must find an occasional minute to play, as evidenced by the cool new tattoo on his left wrist: “notion” in Courier typeface.

“I feel great,” he says. “The restaurant’s going great.”

It hasn’t been completely smooth sailing while Chef Racicot and his staff have settled into a routine and perfected the menu, or rather, worked to make customers understand it. What do you mean chef doesn’t substitute or cook meat to order? Portion sizes (they’re not big) also have raised some eyebrows, as has the absence of bread and salad. He instead offers an amuse bouche to “excite the senses.”

“Quality versus quantity. Just one of the many challenges of a chef,” he noted on Facebook on Jan. 24.

Other problems have been beyond his control. “Small farms and winter storms,” he lamented on Jan. 27, a Thursday. “My duck is coming a day late and I didn’t order lamb. That’s the price you pay sometimes for great product.”

Another weekend in February, pastry chef Joshua Lind was off doing drills with the Army National Guard.

Chef Racicot is learning to go with the flow. At Lautrec, he says, the stress level was so high that the entire staff walked on eggshells. “I had a temper,” he admits, adding, “If it wasn’t perfect, it was the end of the world.”

He still is under pressure, of course. As he posted last Friday, “This is the hardest, most challenging thing I’ve ever done in my life. There was a time I thought the stress of trying to get 5 stars was hard! HAHAHAHA! It’s nothing compared to this.”

But it’s his stress, which frees him up to have more fun.

“If we don’t fill the water glass just so, or pull the chair out far enough, or drop something on the floor, it’s OK,” says Ms. Jin.

The numbers aren’t yet where he’d like them, but Notion already is generating a buzz. On Feb. 18, Chef Racicot was named a semi-finalist by the James Beard Foundation in its annual national awards in the Best Chef Mid-Atlantic category. Five finalists in that and each of the 18 other restaurant and chef categories will be announced March 21, with the winner bringing home the bacon at the annual awards ceremony and gala reception on May 9 at Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall in New York City. The same day, he was invited to cook, for the second time in as many years, at the famed Beard House.

“Unbelievable,” he wrote after learning of the nomination. “I know it’s the long list but who cares! It says notion!! Finally doing it for myself and my team.”

He’d love to take them up on it, of course. But without investors to pick up the tab, the experience could end up costing the cash-strapped chef thousands of dollars — money he needs to immediately put back into the restaurant to assure its success.

Some might wonder how a chef who was in business for only one day — opening night on Dec. 31 — and not yet reviewed could find himself on Beard’s list.

“As a chef, I’m offended that Dave Racicot was chosen as a semi-finalist,” sniped an anonymous writer on the foundation’s blog. “His nomination makes me wonder about the checks and balances involved in the JBF decision making.”

Characteristically, Mr. Racicot let the criticism roll off his shoulders.

“I was a semi-finalist for Rising Star Chef of the Year two times” in 2008 and 2009, he says, “so the foundation knows about me, and there’s also people who follow chefs and know what I was accomplishing at Lautrec.”

With uncharacteristic modesty, he adds, “I don’t expect it to go any further.”

That’s because Pittsburgh, unlike Philadelphia or Washington, D.C., isn’t known as a food town. “It’s about changing the culture, and getting people who live in the city to support restaurants that are trying to change the way we think about food.”

A nod from James Beard, he continues, won’t keep his doors open; the only way to accomplish that is to consistently make money.

Notion is generating a pretty decent buzz, but a nice review on Urban Spoon only gets you so far, says Chef Racicot. So this spring he’ll advertise in local magazines and he’s also joining Open Table to boost the restaurant’s presence on the Internet. The place also is reaching out to wine lovers with classes, offering Saturday wine tastings from 3 to 4 p.m. ($40) with sommelier Alan Uchrinscko.

Mr. Racicot also is toying with the idea of an “evolutionary” tasting menu that would feature upwards of 20 courses paired with even fancier, more exclusive wines that are currently out of the question — say, a high-quality white Burgundy. Private chefs dinners are another possibility.

But that’s jumping the gun. The immediate challenge is getting people in during the week, and making them realize Notion isn’t just for special occasions.

“So far, it’s so much better than I thought,” he says.

“I walk into my own restaurant each day, and just smile. There’s still stresses, but it’s mine.”

ndustrial magic artists transform machine shop into modern living space

Garry Pyles and Atticus Adams, both conceptual sculptors, are two very creative souls. So you’d expect the home they share in Lawrenceville and use as studio space to also be a bona fide original.

Garry Pyles, left, and Atticus Adams, on the steps leading from the studio to a bedroom loft. Bill Wade/Post-Gazette

There’s the dramatic display of their whimsical artwork, which features everyday materials such as wire, plastic and metal mesh in nontraditional applications. Greeting visitors at the front door is a hanging sculptural form Mr. Pyles created out of wax and wire. A climbing tangle of twigs that looks as if it is growing out of an exposed stackpipe in the living room, for example, is actually mounted on tiny magnets. Mr. Adams calls the piece “Winter Landscape.”

It’s not only their art that intrigues. Only when you’re inside do you realize that their home actually spans two adjoining buildings. They live mostly on the upper floors and rent out a one-bedroom, 2,000-square-foot space on the first.

The exterior is so unusual that judges for this year’s fifth annual Renovation Inspiration contest, co-sponsored by the Post-Gazette and Community Design Center of Pittsburgh, quickly dubbed it a must-see. The former machine shop on the left still wears its original 1954 brick, while the balloon-frame 1890s grocery on the right, in a playful nod to Lawrenceville’s industrial past, is faced in corrugated galvanized steel. But what really earned the home the title of runner-up, large project category (more than $50,000), is the 6,000-square-foot interior.

A celebration of light and air, with long, exposed beams and ductwork, the loft-style home is a modern artist’s dream: big, but not gigantic, with lovely bones just aching to be revealed.

The work it took to get there? Well, not so dreamy.

When the artists purchased the two buildings four years ago for $150,000, they were jam-packed with so much … stuff that the pair had a winding path of only about 18 inches to get around. Scrap metal, old store fixtures, work benches, framing lumber, metal shelving, machinery — you name it, the former owner had collected it and stacked it from floor to the ceiling.

An island in Garry Pyle and Atticus Adams' Lawrenceville kitchen is crafted from maple reclaimed from a bowling alley. Bill Wade/Post-Gazette

“I was a bit traumatized, and overwhelmed,” admits Mr. Adams, 49, a pharmacist with Medco in North Versailles. “I’d never even heard about hoarding.”

It took the men a year and a half to empty the space. More than 100,000 pounds of scrap metal went to a recycling facility, and they also filled an entire Dumpster with screws and bolts. Other items ended up on Craigslist.

“It was very much one day at a time, one room at a time and connecting with the people who wanted this stuff,” says Mr. Adams. “Luckily, Garry always had a vision.”

Some improvements, including the rubber roof, are brand-new or second-hand discoveries from Construction Junction (doors and windows) or Craigs­list (the mid-century cherry-red fireplace in the corner). Many more are creative repurposings of items and materials they uncovered during the clean-up. A 20-foot-long work bench, for instance, was refashioned into kitchen cabinets; metal shelving they discovered in the rafters was turned into open storage units with all-thread bolts and washers hung from the joists; teak paneling from a steel company’s boardroom decorates a wall in the foyer and was used to build a small deck off the kitchen.

They also built a pavilion in the living room from old 2-by-4s and laid a floor of 2-by-6-foot pieces of hickory that came out of a steel mill in Follansbee, W.Va.

“The hard part was going through everything and figuring out what to keep. It was mind numbing,” says Mr. Pyles, 47.

One no-brainer was the 31/2-by-9-foot kitchen island, which the previous owner made from maple salvaged from a bowling alley. You can still see the pin holes in the corners. Another was the six-burner Imperial commercial range hidden under piles of junk.

There were other issues, too: When Mr. Pyles put the house he owned on Butler Street on the market, it sold in just six days, leaving him and his three sons with no place to live during the renovation. They ended up renting a house with only a basement toilet and no central heat during the five months of construction.

“We were really roughing it,” he says.

A fiew of the living room in Garry Pyles and Atticus Adams' Lawrenceville home in a fomer machinist's shop. Bill Wade/Post-Gazette

An interior designer who’s a vice president at Franklin Interiors in the Strip District, Mr. Pyles is an old hand at ambitious renovations, having transformed five buildings into homes over the past 25 years. This would be a bit more challenging in that they were determined to keep costs around $50 per square foot, which also explains why the men were so eager to reuse as much of the buildings’ booty. They even sweet-talked sculptor Dee Briggs, who works in bronze and steel, into bartering her services.

“We really love her work, so we traded it for materials,” Mr. Pyles explains. Her suspended metal sculpture hangs next to one of Mr. Adam’s 3-D metal fiber creations in the kitchen.

Financing proved to be a bit of problem, as it was tough to get lenders to understand the project and how someone could live in an industrial space. Even today, says Mr. Adams, people want to put in applications for the restaurant they thought the men were going to build.

“We did a lot of explaining,” he says.

Visual artists need plenty of space to create, so when designing their studio in what had been the second floor of the grocery, they had Lawrenceville contractor The Christie Group remove a walled staircase to the attic and build a new one, without hand rails. The master bedroom, which adjoins a private bath with concrete floors, is on the first level, off the front door. A second bedroom at the rear of the house, used by Mr. Pyles’ youngest son, has a ladder to a sleeping loft.

The home is intentionally unpolished, with some of the repurposed materials begging for a good coat of decorative makeup or perhaps even a wall to keep things out of sight. The water heater, usually a hidden mechanical, stands out in the open in the pantry, and even the new ducting is exposed. But that suits its occupants just fine.

“Most people like things buttoned up,” says Mr. Pyles, “but I like things unfinished.”

“It’s so great being home now,” agrees Mr. Adams. “The light is fantastic, and it’s a great space to entertain. I just feel so satisfied, like I never need anything else.

“We both feel like this is the last place we’ll ever live.”

Taking the low road

Joshua Boggs and his equally fleet-footed twin, Justin, have run races on every imaginable terrain since embracing the sport in high school. But their mad dashes to the finish — Joshua insists because he’s a few minutes younger he’s also the faster brother — have always had one thing in common: the course’s beginning, middle and end were above-ground.

Not this time.

Runners sprint to the finish line of the Runnin' Outta Our Mine race. Steve Mellon/Post-Gazette

Oh, the Runnin’ Outta Our Mine 5K on Feb. 19 in Wampum, Lawrence County, finished in the sunshine. But for the rest of the 3.1-mile run, the 28-year-old Boggs brothers and 500-plus other runners found themselves where no one in running shoes and a race bib had ever gone before (at least in Pennsylvania) — underground.

Staged in a retired limestone mine along Old Route 18, it was the state’s first underground race, and only the second in the U.S. Setting the standard is the annual Children’s TLC Groundhog 5/10K Run in Kansas City, Mo., which this year drew more than 3,500 runners from across the nation. It’s held in SubTropolis, a former limestone mine that in the 1970s and ’80s was repurposed into the world’s largest underground business complex.

The natural environment of a mine provides controlled year-round temperature and humidity (it hovers around 55 degrees), so it’s not unusual for these vast subterranean spaces, after they’ve been abandoned, to be reused for the preservation of paper and film or vehicle storage. Bill Gates, for instance, keeps his vast Corbis photographic collection 300 feet underground at Iron Mountain Storage, a former limestone-mine-turned-storage-vault near Butler.

Wampum’s Gateway Commerce Center — abandoned in 1946 — stores microfilm, computer tapes, film (including the “Star Wars” triology) and other records in secure vaults, along with hundreds of vehicles.

Mines also have been used for agriculture — Creekside Mushrooms grows its famous Moonlight brand white button mushrooms 300 feet underground, in a former limestone mine in Worthington, Armstrong County — as well as recreational activities. Like hot-rodding in darkness and mud? Mines & Meadows ATV Riding Resort offers four-wheeled spelunking through an abandoned limestone mine less than a mile from Gateway Commerce.

Occasionally Hollywood comes calling, such as in 1985, when a former mine shaft in Gateway served as a location for George Romero’s horror classic, “Day of the Dead.”

A race, though, is a whole different can of worms, mostly because the tiny computer chips that runners strap onto their shoe or ankle to register their time won’t work underground. Plus, where do you put all those people and how do you keep them from getting lost in the 2.5 million-square-foot mine?

Veteran runner/race organizer Jim Pitts of Sharpsville, Mercer County, though, is a pretty creative guy.

“We used a clock start, and had it end outside, so the chips didn’t matter until you finished,” he explains. As for observers, each had to sign into the cave and stand behind a yellow barrier tape.

The idea for the underground race took off last October, after Mr. Pitts, 40, ran into old high school buddy Michael Wish, who owns Gateway’s archival and vital records entity Underground Archives, at the Monster Stomp 5K in New Castle. The men had bumped into each other at races over the years, but this time they actually got to talking. Mr. Wish had been mulling the idea of a race inside the mine to raise money for charity; after chatting with Mr. Pitts, warehouse manager for Kraynak’s in Hermitage, he realized he just might be able to pull it off.

More than 500 runners took part in the Runnin' Outta Our Mine race at the Gateway Commerce Center in Wampum, Lawrence County. The five-kilometer event was held entirely underground. Steve Mellon/Post-Gazette

Soon they had a meeting with Mr. Pitts’ friend Herb Cratty, owner of Miles of Smiles Timing Services in Ellwood City, which provides electronic timing devices to hundreds of races a year. Before long, Gateway’s customer service rep Allison Frickanish helped draft a business plan, organizers had lined up more than 20 sponsors and Nikita Falen, a senior at Lincoln High School in Ellwood City, was tapped to sing the national anthem.

Less than a month after opening up to entries in mid-December on smileymiles.com, with virtually no advertising, the race was sold out.

“We had to turn hundreds of people away,” said Mr. Pitts, with calls coming from as far away as New York and North Carolina.

Well, duh: “It was the opportunity of a lifetime,” said Ellwood City’s John Antinossi, 66, who’s been running for 26 years.

Aside from timing, the biggest challenge was parking, requiring runners to be shuttled to the site on school buses. It also wasn’t the most lung-friendly race, thanks to the faintest hint of fumes from the hundreds of campers, RVs, boats and cars parked in “rooms” along the course, and a giant dust cloud kicked up by the Bobcat leading the way. Some also worried the cave’s uneven surface would make for a slower event (think “trail” instead of “track”). Pictures of the mine on Gateway’s website show a brightly lit, polished concrete roadway and white concrete block walls. Yet the course — carefully mapped out on paper before being marked with yellow police tape — pretty quickly turned into a dimly lit, and occasionally cramped, twisting maze of soft dirt and gravel.

Aubrey Pursel of Hermitage had planned on running the 3.1 miles barefoot. But the gravel was “so bad,” he said, giving his soles a rueful glance, he only made it about 80 percent of the way without shoes. Not fast enough to win one of the trophies made from a hunk of limestone mounted on wood, the 37-year-old consoled himself with the obligatory slice of post-run pizza and Eat’n Park Smiley cookie.

John Titus, 44, interim minister of First United Church of Christ in Harrison City, fared better, placing seventh in his age group with a time of 21:22:70. “The footing was a little challenging but it was relatively fast,” he said. (In case you were wondering, Joshua Boggs of Columbiana, Ohio, came in second overall with a time of 16:56:80, or .9 seconds ahead of his brother.) Winner Joshua Hayden of Pittsburgh, 29, clocked in at 16:26:10.

Also on the plus side: none of the snow, whipping winds or frigid temperatures associated with a February run in Pittsburgh. Many runners, in fact, stripped down to T-shirt and shorts. And did we mention no hills?

“I’m really excited!” said Rachel Louik, 25, of Shadyside, who ran with boyfriend Jason Smith, 28, a cross-country coach at Avonworth High School. “It’s so nice to be underground, on a flat surface.”

The race proved so successful, with about 530 finishers raising more than $9,000 for Family House, Venture Outdoors and New Beaver Borough Food Bank, that organizers already have penciled in a date for next year. Limited to 600 runners, it will be held on Feb. 18, with registration (hint: you better be quick) opening sometime in November. Check smileymiles.com for details.

“Everyone did a good job, and people really had fun,” said Mr. Wish.