Recipe for Success: In the Kitchen with SAVOY Executive Chef Kevin Watson
Hanging in the kitchen at SAVOY Restaurant is a homemade sign that reads “Every Day is Game 7.” The bold, red letters encourage the staff to push themselves to turn out the best dishes “and win the Stanley Cup every night,” says Kevin Watson, executive chef at SAVOY Restaurant. Watson embodies that same passion to better himself and the community he’s proud to live in. “People helped me, so I’m just paying it forward,” he says.
Watson is heavily involved with Allegheny Youth Development (AYD), which serves as an after-school program for inner-city middle school and high school students of Schiller Classical Academy and Perry Traditional Academy. For 20 years, AYD has provided a hot meal, homework help, physical activities, Christian education classes, and the support system to empower its members to reach their full potentials. “Ninety percent of crimes in this community are committed by African-American males,” Watson says. “They’re working to shrink that number and break stereotypes.”
Recently, the Judo classes at AYD have become a favorite program. The students learn the self-discipline and perseverance skills they need to succeed in life. (And in Judo itself. Former AYD student Devante Tiller won a gold medal at the 2011 U.S. National Junior Olympics National Championships thanks to his training!) Watson teaches the students how to keep their diets disciplined, too, improving their health and Judo performances. “Some of these kids think they can eat a bag of Twizzlers, then go do a tournament,” Watson says. “It doesn’t work that way. You need to be eating plants, not food that was made in plants.”
The students soak up as many life skills as they can at the program, even learning how to plan for the future. Watson invited the students to SAVOY Restaurant to show that the restaurant business is more than chefs; it also takes plumbing, electrician, HVAC, and other technical experts. With the support of the program, Watson says 92 percent of the members graduate high school and successfully enter the workforce. “They’re becoming assets to the community,” he says. “They’re staying in school, finishing school, some are going to college, some are working. They could be doing a whole lot of other things, but they voluntarily go to this program.”
Even on the first nice day of spring last year, Watson, who wanted to spend his own day enjoying the warm weather, was shocked to see that more than 20 students finished their normal school day and chose to attend this additional school program for the rest of the afternoon. “There’s a chain of events linked together,” Watson explains. “If you can come here on the best day of the year, you can succeed in math. If you can succeed in math, you can do other great things in life. It’s the building blocks. Those are the connections that are used in our lives that push us to that place.”
Creating his own snowball effect, Watson gives that game-seven-worthy performance daily, so he can also be successful later in life. He hopes that the AYD students he works with will mimic that mentality. “I work hard now because I’m young,” the chef explains. “I don’t want to still work hard when I’m old. I want to be relaxing on the beach, collecting that royalty check. I want to show them that they can have those goals, too.”
Watson credits his drive to the mentors who pushed him in life: his grandmother; Paul Kraus, his former boss at The Balcony; Bill Hunt, the Director of Culinary Education at Le Cordon Bleu of North America; and Ellie, the pastry chef he worked with at the Ritz Carlton. Even when they gave him tough love, Watson knew it was for a better, bigger picture. “The teachers that I remember are the ones that marked my paper up, gave it back to me, and said, ‘Do it again,’” he says.
Having people push him beyond what he thought he was capable of, Watson has excelled in the culinary world. As an executive chef, private chef, personal chef, and caterer, he has earned the honor of cooking for elite diners, including former President George W. Bush and the Pittsburgh Steelers. “Nobody is self-made,” he says. “Somebody helped you to get where you are. That’s why my big attitude is to pay it forward. And, you know, I couldn’t fry an egg without God. It’s my gift from Him. And my gift back to Him is what I do in the community.”