Alex McGroarty makes his own ketchup. "It's not like Heinz," he says, smiling, maybe with a twinge of guilt.
He is the chef at Storefront Deli
in Los Angeles -- the restaurant lovechild of Zak Walters and Chris Phelps, who also own Salt's Cure
in West Hollywood. But Mr. McGroarty is from Sewickley, so he knows good ketchup is important.
It's made of heirloom tomatoes from the farmers market, several vinegars, seasonings, salt and a little brown sugar.
It's one of many items created in-house at Storefront. "We do our own sausage," he says, "we grind our own burger meat, we make our own hot dogs, we do our own bacon. It's great."
These are skills he's picked up from Mr. Walters and Mr. Phelps, who he says have taught him a great deal about nose-to-tail cooking. "They bring in a lot of really, really good meat that I get to see and to play with sometimes. They bring in whole animals -- the whole cow, the whole pig, the whole goat, the whole lamb. It's a lot of fun."
Working the line at Salt's Cure was his first job in L.A. after he and his now wife moved to town from Connecticut "jobless and homeless." Salt's Cure fit with his culinary sensibility, it seems, as he was raised on cooking from scratch. "My mom cooked basically six nights a week," he says, "and then one night we had leftovers. That's where I got [my love of cooking] from -- seeing her cook and always being so enthusiastic about it."
He showed a knack for cooking early on. "I remember cooking for my mom when I was 9 or 10 years old," he recalls. "I cooked a whole dinner for her and my family and I remember her saying, 'Alex that was so good! How did you get everything to come out all at the same time?'"
Now 32, he began working at The Sewickley Cafe
as a dishwasher starting at age 15 or 16. When both the chef and the sous chef went on vacation, they needed someone to work lunch. "I wasn't washing dishes much after that."
He continued working at the Cafe off and on until he was 19, ending up second in charge of the line by the time he went to college at the University of Delaware. After that, he moved to New Haven, where he lived for nine years, working in various restaurants and up the line. He never went to culinary school, but believes learning on the job was the right route for him.
"I think growing up in Pittsburgh affected my work ethic," he says. The son of a psychologist, he watched his father work six days a week, often 10 to 12 hour days. By age 13, he was delivering papers. His parents told him that if he wanted to buy something, he'd have to go out and earn money.
But he didn't mind. "I've always found work pleasurable, in a way," he says. "I wasn't the best paperboy, but it was fun biking around."
He finds work at Storefront pleasurable too. He enjoys the process of continually shaping the menu, which wears its badge of blue collar inspiration proudly. It's sandwich-heavy -- there's a ham and Swiss laced with the sweetness of peach jam, as well as a hoagie called The Mousa with pickled cayenne peppers that will leave your mouth burning for hours. The burger has made waves -- impressive in burger-obsessed Los Angeles -- and the BLT (along with the whole restaurant) got a rave from the city's most respected critic. There are breakfast sandwiches, too, as well as a good dozen or so deli sides all created from scratch by Mr. McGroarty.
He'd love to put a Primanti's-style sandwich on the menu, but the restaurant doesn't have a fryer. "Maybe I could get a tabletop fryer and do it that way," he says, brainstorming on the spot.
He plans to continue working for Mr. Walters and Mr. Phelps for the foreseeable future as they "take over the world," he says. He's proud to be their disciple, though he jokes he is not sure if he could take the job since Mr. Phelps is from Baltimore.
Despite a hometown rivalry with his boss, McGroarty wears a Pittsburgh Penguins cap every single day.Ali Trachta photoFollow Ali Trachta on Twitter @MySo_CalLife