Noted chef and businessman Kevin Sousa opened his newest restaurant, Superior Motors, in Braddock this July. Chef Sousa was kind enough to grant an interview and commented on a wide range of topics related to his career and latest endeavor.
First I asked Sousa if he was related to another highly talented American, John Philip Sousa. He smiled and said that he wasn’t and was not a big fan of marches. Sousa commented that he is of Italian heritage and his family’s name got shortened when immigrating to America. He added that Sousa is a common surname in Portugal, so some people think he is Portuguese.
He continued “I grew up in McKees Rocks where my family had an Italian-American restaurant called Sousa’s. On one part of the menu Italian specialties like tripe and pasta could be found, and on another part were American offerings like deli sandwiches. At the time I didn’t want to go into the restaurant business, but did enjoy working there and hanging out with the dishwashers and other staff.” Unfortunately after years of operation a fire damaged the restaurant and his family chose not to rebuild.
Sousa wanted to be an artist and went to art school but then dropped out. He did a lot of traveling and then at the age of 26 reached a decision point. He liked the artistry of tattoos and wondered if he should work in a tattoo shop or go to culinary school, having continued to work in restaurants to pay the bills. After careful contemplation he thought that tattooing is kind of a cubicle job and thought he’d be better suited for a career as a chef.
The Making of a Chef
After earning his degree at the Pennsylvania Culinary Institute in Pittsburgh he went to the highly respected Boulders Resort in Carefree, Arizona. Sousa spent two and a half years as a chef at the resort. He was mentored there by Chef Ron Dimas. Sousa’s respect for ingredients and technique was further enhanced in working under him. He said “I started to realize what I was capable of as a chef while working there.” Sousa’s girlfriend at the time wanted to move back to Pittsburgh, so they did, breaking up soon after returning.
Sousa landed a job at the Duquesne Club, Pittsburgh’s landmark high-end city club. “At the Duquesne Club I learned how to do a large amount of volume while maintaining perfection and pleasing the customers” Sousa commented. I asked if Sousa had worked there with Union Standard restaurant owner Chef Derek Stevens. He replied “Yes, he was my boss, and is a very talented chef.”
Known for being a very creative chef, Sousa gained his first real notoriety while working at Bigelow Grille in Downtown. When asked what his wellspring of creativity is, he answered “I get ideas from reading books and my own self-interests. I learned classical French cooking where many recipes begin the same way. I didn’t think you always had to follow those methods to get a great result. My time out West gave me an early introduction to creative cooking and I’ve always followed creative chefs whom I respected. Most of my creativity is driven by the ingredients.”
Sousa would showcase his talents at his first signature restaurant, Salt of the Earth on Penn Avenue in Garfield, which he co-owned with a partner. Although the restaurant was very innovative and successful, disagreements between him and his partner caused him to sell his share to the partner and exit the business. At the time he also had two other restaurants in the East End: Union Pig and Chicken and Station Street Hot Dogs. Both were respected establishments but Sousa found himself overextended both managerially and financially. He sold Union Pig and Chicken to a group of employees and closed Station Street Hot Dogs.
Sousa would find that sometimes in life’s failures are sown the seeds of success. One of the regular customers at Station Street was Braddock Mayor John Fetterman. Later Fetterman sought Sousa’s advice about his desire to see a top-notch restaurant open in Braddock. At Fetterman’s invitation Sousa went on a tour of Braddock with the mayor.
Welcome to Braddock
Growing up in McKees Rocks, Sousa had seen many trains in the town’s large rail yard hauling steel from the mills, so Braddock reminded him somewhat of his hometown. He also liked the community aspects of Braddock including Braddock Farms, an urban farm similar to Garfield Community Farm, which he had first started to work with when running Salt of the Earth. He also noticed the Braddock Employment Training Center. Sousa then began to realize that he would like to open his next venture in Braddock. Mayor Fetterman had suggested that he look at placing his new restaurant in a building that he was restoring. It was a former auto dealership called Superior Motors that had closed years ago and is right across the street from United States Steel’s Edgar Thomson Plant of the Mon Valley Works.
Having had financial problems when he was overextended, the banks wouldn’t make any loans to Sousa. So he went the Kickstarter fundraising route. He publicized the fundraising drive and reached the campaign’s goal by the deadline. Sousa also secured loans from nonprofit groups, and additional private investment and support from attorney Gregg Kander. Mayor Fetterman and others have been helpful as well. A list of all supporters can be seen on the Superior Motors website.
As on many new projects, things take longer and cost more. Such was the case with the buildout of Superior Motors, which finally opened in July. A restaurant that Sousa admired and visited was wd~50 in New York City. The service level at the restaurant he says was super attentive while at the same time unobtrusive. He met the general manager, Chris Clark, there while on a trip. When Clark, originally from Bridgeville, later heard about Sousa’s Superior Motors project he called Sousa and asked if there was a position at the restaurant for him. He is now Superior Motors’ GM and lives in Braddock as do Sousa and his family, and many employees.
When asked how it feels to have Superior Motors open, Sousa answered that he feels “inspired, good, proud, and happy.” It is evident from the look of contentment on his face that the words are true. He continued that the restaurant is doing well and that his highly trained team is functioning very smoothly.
He says Braddock residents have been very supportive of the restaurant and he is trying to pay back that support. Sousa mentioned that Superior Motors’ 50% off food cards have been mailed out to all of the town’s residents and that they have no expiration date.
A Braddock Ecosystem
He mentioned several times that he is trying to tap into and help build even more of an ecosystem in Braddock. The Superior Motors staff buy as many food ingredients as they can from local and regional purveyors including Braddock Farms. They will be building a greenhouse on the roof of the restaurant building which will hold 200,000 pounds of soil in raised beds and supply lettuces and other greens year-round. On the eastern side of the restaurant will be an urban farm plot. Superior Motors will even have its own farmer. Additionally Sousa says they would like to join in with the community to build some more urban farm plots in Braddock.
Part of the ecosystem is also having barebones productions theater company in the rear of the building. The company is currently building a new theater there that Artistic Director Patrick Jordan says they hope to have up and running in several months. The steel planters that run along the front of the restaurant were fabricated by Braddock’s Wheaton and Sons as were other parts of Superior Motors’ decor. Hiring and training as many area residents as possible is also an integral part of the ecosystem. On the western side of the restaurant is a community oven that is shared by residents and Superior Motors. The restaurant is now serving pizzas outside at a picnic table cafe.
When asked if he had had any interactions with the people from the hulking steel mill across the street Sousa replied “The people from USS have been super supportive. Because we’re not currently open for lunch they often come in after work. Chris and I were even invited over for a tour of the plant. It was a mind-blowing, life-changing experience.” He proceeded to take out his smart phone and showed me a picture of a massive molten steel pouring ladle and said that it was as tall as the Superior Motors’ building. It appears that Sousa is fitting into Braddock quite nicely.
1211 Braddock Ave.
Monday thru Thursday: 5-10 p.m.
Friday and Saturday: 5-11 p.m.
Sunday: 5-9 p.m.
See our dining review of Superior Motors.
Story and photos by Rick Handler, executive producer of Entertainment Central.