Making its home in a historic former YMCA building, Whitfield at the Pittsburgh Ace Hotel serves time-honored fare inspired by the rich cultural heritage of Pennsylvania. From craft cocktails to locally sourced dry-aged steaks, their authentic menu matches the Whitfield’s rich architectural details. But beyond their inspiring interior, what we love most is their commitment to the community.
Originally a long-empty century-old building in East Liberty, everything from the original plaster moldings to the former YMCA’s two-story gym was carefully restored. The result is a classy but comfortable space that is the perfect backdrop for any public gathering. As firm advocates in the Whitfield’s “by the neighborhood and for the neighborhood” ethos, we stopped by to chat with head chef and James Beard Award-Nominee, Bethany Zozula to learn about Whitfield’s seasonal menu, her journey in becoming a professional chef, and Pittsburgh’s unique chef's community.
Tell us a bit about your background – how did you get into cooking?
"Professionally, it's something I just happened upon, to be honest. I was planning to go to art school and decided to take a kitchen job to help pay the bills. I had some basic skills coming into it, having grown up helping prepare meals with my family. As I started doing it and learning more, I realized that I really love the work. From there, I just went for it."
In addition to being a chef yourself, your sister Hilary is also a chef! What was it like growing up, and what’s it like now to have a sister that’s also passionate about food?
"Hilary was a chef and co-owner of a restaurant, but now she's a full-time mom and artist. Growing up, we were always surrounded by food and have always felt comfortable in the kitchen. Our mom made sure we always helped in the kitchen, and that we each had our own jobs. Sometimes we would do our own thing. I remember being 10, and the two of us made deviled eggs from scratch. Hilary actually cooked more than me, and she was always baking too. When we weren't in the kitchen, we loved watching shows like Great Chefs of the World. Food and cooking were just a natural part of life for us."
How do you see interior design and the overall aesthetic of a space influencing the dining experience?
"I think it certainly plays a part to an extent. If you're not comfortable with where you're sitting or if the lighting is too harsh, it will impact your meal and experience. Overall, it all has to be harmonious – the space, the music, the food, and the service."
You’ve worked in a variety of impressive restaurants over the span of your career. But the Whitfield is unique because it’s part of the Ace Hotel. What would you say are your favorite parts about the Ace & Whitfield sharing a space?
"Being located at the Ace definitely allows us to be fun while still being serious. For example, we have this very formal in-house whole-animal butchery program here that's filled with a lot of care and love, but no one bats an eye when I name a dish "The Sausage Party." At the Ace and Whitfield, you're encouraged to be yourself, and I feel like I can really express my personality here.
Overall, our location helps us take away some of the pretension that can come with dining out because we can play off the atmosphere, spirit, and energy of the hotel. There's always so much happening here, whether it's a DJ set in the lobby or an art event in the gym – that energy flows into the dining room. It also means that we're able to draw such a diverse audience for the restaurant. Travelers who are staying at the hotel come in for a meal, and we often have locals who come in because of an event at the gym stop into the restaurant for a drink."
Over the years you’ve come up with quite a few amazing flavor combos. How do you come up with your menu?
"It always starts with ingredients and what's in season. When it comes to flavor profiles and creating dishes, I start with food I like to eat. Sometimes chefs are afraid to make food spicy or bitter or too garlicky. I personally love strong flavors, and I don't shy away from that. Then comes balance. So, if something is spicy on the plate, I want to be sure to have an element that's either fatty or sweet to help cut that down. Finally, I try to think about how a meal is going to interact with your stomach. I want you to enjoy yourself, feel satiated, and not feel uncomfortable in any way."
What’s your current #1 recommended food and drink order?
"It comes down to what time you're visiting us. If you're coming for breakfast, then order the Sweet Potato Scramble. It comes with sheep milk feta, chives, and a mezcal chili sauce. For lunch, I love our Fried Chicken Salad. It's a Pittsburgh-style salad, so it comes with fries on top. It's a lot of food though! So, if you're looking for something smaller, but still satisfying, go with our Trout Nicoise. For dinner, the obvious choice is steak, but I'd recommend our vegetarian tasting menu as well. It changes a lot since it's hyper-seasonal, so it's a great way to taste what's current."
What’s it like to be a chef in Pittsburgh? Is there a strong community of chefs?
"We have a close-knit community of chefs here. We're all supportive of one another. We learn from each other, and we get excited when we get the chance to work together (since we don't get to eat at each other's restaurants often because we're always working)."
Finally, any side projects, events, or dinners on the horizon that you’re excited about and would like to share?
"We're always busy! I'm currently focused on the holidays since we serve a lot of meals during Thanksgiving and Christmas. Further down the line, I'll be working on the next iteration of our collaborative chef series, Sharing Farms."
Photography by Rob Larson