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One on One: Dave Racicot
By James Wright
June 01, 2009
If you want an honest answer about the Pittsburgh dining
scene, ask Dave Racicot. Just be prepared, you might not like
the answer. If you want to taste the talents of a driven,
award-winning chef, take a vacation at the Nemacolin Woodlands
Resort deep in the western Pennsylvania woods where Racicot
plies his culinary craft.
But if you want to compliment (or criticize) the chef after
your 18-course extravaganza, forget it. Racicot doesn't want to
know who's in the dining room - even if Tiger Woods came to
play at the resort's two championship golf courses - or what
they think of his food. If Racicot thinks it's good, then
that's plenty good enough.
Racicot has a dogged determination that far exceeds his 30
years, not to mention a biting sense of humor. And humble he is
not - Racicot is supremely confident in his abilities and
proudly speaks of his numerous successes. However, the chef de
cuisine at Lautrec, one of the nation's most acclaimed private
dining rooms, is far from resting on his laurels. He wants the
world to know his name and won't be content until it does.
That might not take very long. Lautrec is one of only a
handful of U.S. restaurants that can boast both AAA 5-diamond
and Mobil 5-star ratings, the highest of praises from two of
the leading travel and hospitality guides. Those elite
distinctions are precisely what Racicot had envisioned when he
took the reins at Nemacolin's flagship restaurant in early
The Nemacolin resort is as ambitious as Racicot. Besides
golf, the 3,000-acre resort also features a 140-acre shooting
academy, an off-road driving school and an Orvis fly fishing
lodge. Founded by Joseph A. Hardy, founder and CEO of 84 Lumber
Co., the sprawling resort includes a luxurious spa and an art
collection consisting of nearly 1,000 original pieces valued at
more than $45 million, some of which don the walls of Lautrec,
one of several restaurants on site. Nemacolin guests not only
come for a taste of the outdoors or for head-to-toe pampering,
they also get to choose from a wide range of dining
I caught up with Racicot in mid-April, on the day Lautrec
hung up its Mobil 5-star plaque.
WRIGHT: What seafood
is featured at Lautrec?
RACICOT: Three kinds of caviar, including spoonbill caviar
for my White Chocolate and Caviar dish. I was the first one to
do this dish, and now everyone's doing it; mine's still the
best. White chocolate is sweet and creamy with a nice
mouthfeel. The caviar is briny for a sweet-and-salty thing -
two tastes people can recognize but not the flavors they might
We're also always doing langoustines, cod and tuna. We have
three tasting menus featuring 18 courses.
What's your favorite
seafood to work with?
Seafood, in general, is without a doubt my favorite thing to
cook. My favorite, which I rarely use, is scallops: Hot
grapeseed oil, browning beautifully on both sides, a little
garlic in the pan until they turn golden brown - no other piece
of fish does that. I love to just watch them cook.
What's your favorite seafood to eat?
I don't really eat it much. I'm a redneck; I like
cheeseburgers, man. If I go out to eat, I'll get the tasting
menu. I'll never say no to what the chef serves, I'll eat every
bit of it.
You started out washing dishes at a Holiday Inn - does that
earn greater respect in the kitchen?
My story is no different from anyone else's. I'm certain
Eric Ripert (chef at Le Bernardin in New York) didn't start out
where he is. The control and respect in the kitchen comes from
not necessarily who I am, but from work ethic - sometimes my
sous chef will just stop and watch me work. I don't even
notice, because I have an ability to shut everything off and
just focus. That's probably where the respect comes from. They
see that this is more important to me than anything else.
How many seafood
vendors do you use?
Just Browne Trading Co. (in Portland, Maine); won't buy
seafood from anyone else. We're not super huge; we don't buy
600 pounds of bass a week. They can easily meet my demand. I'm
kind of weird about ordering seafood from other places. Once
you trust your seafood purveyor, you trust him. You can buy
meat from anybody.
What's your seafood philosophy?
No farmed salmon or any farmed fish, really, except Kona
kampachi or loup de mer. We can't use products that aren't
raised properly. More important, though, we try to source the
best, freshest things possible, all the time. I refuse to use
frozen seafood, unless it's lobster or shrimp. I only care if
something line-caught is better than something dragged with a
net. If it's better, it's better.
Your restaurant bills itself
as the night's entertainment.
Is that a lot to live up to?
Living up to the demands of the average guest - if we don't
do that, we're a failure. We have to live up to something so
much bigger than just making the guest happy. It has to be the
best dining experience they've ever had. It has to be. It's
unbelievable, the pressure. I have a hard time sleeping at
Do you ever visit the dining room?
No. I don't want to know who's there; I don't want to hear
from them. I'm not good at receiving compliments or criticism.
My place is in the kitchen; I feel
naked out there.
How high do you set your sights?
When I first set foot in here, I told [the owners] my goal
was to be a AAA 5-diamond restaurant. It was something they
wanted for 10 years - we did it in nine months. We changed
everything. The service team, who's been here forever, I told
them we were going to do it together. It really showed us
anything is possible. I said, 'Congratulate yourselves, but
we're not done; it's not good enough.' My inability to be
satisfied really drives everybody. I care enough and am
passionate enough to make it happen.
What's next? Fame on TV?
Hell no. While this restaurant has the same awards as some
of the restaurants I admire and while it's rated among the top
restaurants in the world - until Lautrec and French Laundry, or
until Thomas Keller and Dave Racicot are said in the same
sentence, I'm not done. This is way too important.
Associate Editor James Wright can be e-mailed at