TABLE contributor Dan Gigler meets Fig & Ash founder Cory Hughes. In spite of (or because of) the demands of his second restaurant, Fat Cat, and the soon-to-open Deutschtown Deli, a full conversation about life and food ensues.
Sitting in a North Side coffee shop in a green hoodie, palming a warm chai latte on a damp April day, with a scruffy smile on his face, it’d be hard not to characterize chef Cory Hughes as a man in full.
Consider the evidence in favor: Despite opening during the peak-pandemic time of fall 2020, his restaurant, Fig & Ash, was met with immediate acclaim and has quickly become indispensable in the Pittsburgh dining scene and a keystone in the renaissance of the East Ohio Street business district.
He gushes with pride over his 22-year-old son, Brandon, a Marine Corps corporal, stationed at Camp Lejeune. He and his wife Kate, a nurse specializing in electrophysiology at AGH, have celebrated their successes with epic eating tours in some of the country’s most elite restaurants in New York and California–Eleven Madison Park, The French Laundry, and Atelier Crenn, among them. They have a gorgeous new home in Ben Avon.
He’ll concede he’s a little tired — “I feel like I’m passing myself going in both directions,” he said — but that’s only because of his second East Ohio Street restaurant, Fat Cat, and a third, Deutschtown Deli, in the works. This is a guy who is clearly living his best life.
A Troubled Past
Yet, by his own admission, this is also a guy who is probably lucky to be alive. “Twelve years ago, I walked out of the ACJ [Allegheny County Jail] with no possessions, no money, and a 450-credit score.” It was January 22, 2011. The Steelers were playing the Jets at Heinz Field with a trip to the Super Bowl in the balance. Mr. Hughes was blotto in a jail cell, drying out. “I only knew we won because I remember hearing the other inmates stomp their feet, and cheer,” he said.
He’d been picked up by police, the culmination of a prolonged bender that included losing his job at one of Pittsburgh’s top restaurants.
“I was a total garbage head–it was always a mixture of booze and pain pills and uppers,” he said.
“Right before that, everyone was trying to help get me sober. Brian Pekarcik fired me from Spoon. I love this man with all my heart. And I talk about this with love. He fired me from Spoon as his sous-chef. And during the firing, he had a speakerphone going with his sister and some other people that were trying to do an intervention right there in the office, so that I would leave Spoon that day and go right to treatment. Wasn’t ready. It wasn’t until a couple of weeks later that it just came to be my last day out drinking and using was that AFC Championship game.
“At that point, I was getting divorced. I was asked not to come home anymore. And I was just slowly secluding everyone out of my life. I was sitting in ACJ. And like, how did this happen? Three years prior, I was having Grub Street write articles about me in New York City. And here I am with like nowhere to go.”
An End.. Or Beginning?
That could’ve been the beginning of the end of his story: instead, it was the end of the beginning. “That’s kind of where I had my moment of clarity,” he said. In his own words, he went to work. Not to a job, but on himself. “I just dug in,” he said, and faced painful truths with the help of a 12-step program.
“At some point, you got to hold up the mirror and ask why? Why is this happening? Why am I doing this to myself? Why is this my fault? Instead of blaming everyone else. It’s hard. But I got through that with a fantastic support group. I’m still involved in that 12-step fellowship today. I sponsor people, I have a sponsor. I’ve always said the hardest industries to stay clean in are restaurants and construction.”
A New Start
With a lot of help, he built himself back up. After an extended period away from restaurant kitchens, he dipped his toes back in, slowly at first. He’d go on to work for Parkhurst Dining Services and Six Penn. In an interesting twist, given his personal connection to that 2011 AFC Championship game, he’d regularly be on the catering crew for the Steelers annual training camp in Latrobe. He ultimately landed a coveted position as the executive chef at Google’s Pittsburgh campus.
Then came Fig & Ash, the instant East Ohio Street sensation that was a lifetime in the making. It continues to evolve and improve, which he credits to Chef de Cuisine Jennifer Walsh and Executive Chef Chris Shuplock.
“They’re killing it right now. They’re constantly bringing me dishes to taste,” like a goat cheese schmear with a quinella fig jam, as a recent example.
The Next Chapter
Fat Cat, the next Hughes effort right next door to Fig & Ash, is a laid-back sibling restaurant with live music and a menu of gourmet “stoner-food-meets-kids-food.” To wit: “Like, we’re doing a hot dog mac and cheese, but with house-made gemelli, smoked Calvita and house-made kielbasa instead.”
A block or so away at 401 East Ohio, Chef Chris Kweder will run Deutschtown Deli, where “old-school sandwiches” will be the features. “I’m talking about pastrami on rye, Reubens, and clubs. The only chefly spins we’re going to do over there is our pickling program. We’re gonna be pickling vegetables. We’re gonna be pickling eggs. By the register, I envision one of those giant glass jars full of pickled eggs. Or habanero-cinnamon or turmeric and ginger pickle spears with your sandwich. It’s going to be phenomenal.”
And phenomenal is an apt word to describe the current state of things for Mr. Hughes.
“When I first got sober, if I had put together a list of my wildest dreams and expectations, I would have sold myself short on every single line in that list,” he said. “I could never even possibly have dreamed or imagined the life I have today. What actually happened in my life was far better.”
Story by Dan Gigler / Photography by Dave Bryce
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