Woman on Top: Chef Jessica Lewis

It’s hard to believe Jessica Lewis is only 32. It’s even harder to believe she’s been in Pittsburgh for just five years. Her name seems to come up constantly, always attached to whatever is cool and new in the Pittsburgh food scene. Lewis, a lifelong athlete, is always up for a challenge, ready to push even harder. Now, she’ll tackle her biggest undertaking yet as executive chef at the new Oaklander Hotel.
Lewis grew up in Allentown, and took up sports at a young age. She attended the University of Virginia on a swimming scholarship and excelled in their competitive program. As far as food went, it just needed to be healthy and plentiful. “Food was always something we consumed a lot of,” she laughs. After college, Lewis put her economics degree to use and got a job at an investment company. It was a good gig, the kind with a 401(k) and ladders to climb. She might have stayed, if tragedy hadn’t touched her life soon after.
In 2010, Fran Crippen, a close friend and teammate from UVA, died in an open-water race in the United Arab Emirates. Crippen had been training for the Olympics, and his death shocked the international swimming community and prompted changes to open-water swimming regulations. The tragedy also shook Lewis. “It was just a changing point in my life,” she recalls. Crippen’s death made her stop and reassess everything, including her cushy desk job. “I was like, what the f**k am I doing?” she says. “None of this is really extraordinary, none of it’s making me happy.”
So Lewis took all of her savings and headed to New York to pursue something that did make her happy: food. “I like events, I like parties, I like the production of it all,” she explains. Lewis enrolled in the Institute of Culinary Education, learning that food can be a whole lot more than something to scarf between laps.
New York gave Lewis her first taste of line cooking, and with it, her first taste of failure. Suddenly, the star student and athlete was a small fish in a very big pond, and she found herself working next to cooks who were far faster and cleaner. “It was a hard pill to swallow,” she remembers. But her competitive nature kicked in, driving her to work harder and learn more. She cooked in chic Manhattan steakhouses, for massive catering operations, and at Citi Field, the home of the Mets. She even competed on a season of the fiery Gordon Ramsey reality show, Hell’s Kitchen.
In 2014, Lewis moved to Pittsburgh to work as a catering chef at Heinz Field. It was a stressful and chaotic job, churning out batches of 1,200 cookies and 60-pound tubs of buffalo chicken dip. The stress, combined with a less than ideal diet (“I was living off of caffeine and sugar”), made her realize quickly that stadium food wasn’t the right fit.
So she changed gears once again and launched Carota Café, one of the first restaurants at Smallman Galley. The move gave her a chance to be part of something totally new, and let Lewis create original dishes rather than follow someone else’s recipes. At Carota, Lewis showcased her passion for healthy food and local sourcing with seasonal, vegetable-forward cooking—no buffalo sauce in sight.
Lewis was also part of the opening teams at two downtown hotels: the Commoner at the Hotel Monaco and or, The Whale at the Distrikt Hotel. And she fell in love with the rollercoaster ride of opening restaurants. “I like building the team, the organization, the procedures, the structure. I guess it comes with my economics background…there’s a lot of strategy involved in opening, and I like that part of it.”
In the midst of the chaos and construction, she met Dennis Marron, a fellow chef and her now-fiancé. Together they opened Merchant Oyster Co., a New England-style seafood shack in the heart of Lawrenceville. There, Lewis added more tools to her arsenal, learning how to manage a team and navigate day-to-day operations.
This diverse resume—the large-scale production of stadiums and hotels, the entrepreneurship and creativity of Smallman Galley, the many openings—seems tailor-made for Lewis’s new position as executive chef at the Oaklander Hotel. “There are people defined as ‘hotel chefs’ and people defined as ‘independent chefs,’” she says. “I’ve done both, so I know and understand how to balance the two. They didn’t want it to be a ‘hotel restaurant.’”
The 167-room Oaklander is Pennsylvania’s first hotel in the Autograph Collection, a group of high-end Marriott hotels that are uniquely designed for each city. Located just steps away from the Cathedral of Learning, the Oaklander offers luxury accommodations for visitors to Oakland’s universities and attractions.
Large windows provide stunning views of the neighborhood at Spirits & Tales, the restaurant on the top floor of the hotel. The name is a nod to the brown spirits and classic cocktails that come from the restaurant’s stately bar, as well as to the people and stories that shaped Pittsburgh. “It’s really important to keep talking about what Pittsburgh is and where we came from,” says Lewis.
When we spoke, Lewis was in the early stages of planning the menu, allowing the still-evolving space to inform the food. “This space is very fluid,” she explains. “There’s dining, there’s bar, there’s lounge, there are people checking in.” In keeping with the flexible, casual vibe, the menu will feature a large selection of creative snacks and small plates—what Lewis describes as “French tapas.” But there will also be comforting, familiar fare for the visiting college dad who’s used to steak and potatoes. “There’s going to be a little bit of everything for everybody,” she says.
Reflecting her zest for healthy eating, Lewis plans to highlight fresh seafood and local produce at Spirits & Tales. And she is drawing from her past to help build the menu. Expect, for instance, to see a version of horseradish gnocchi, a much-loved dish from her days at Carota Café. She’ll also be featuring oysters, recalling her time at Merchant and or, The Whale.
Speaking of oysters, they are part of Lewis’s continued commitment to sustainability and responsible sourcing. Though hotel restaurants, known for buffets and lavish excess, are not always at the forefront of sustainability, Lewis hopes to change that. “Part of my role is to express to the corporation how important [sustainability] is to the consumer now,” she says. “This is what is going to be successful.”
In addition to buying locally when possible and reducing waste, Spirits & Tales will participate in the Oyster Recovery Partnership. The program collects oyster shells and returns them to the Chesapeake Bay, where they form a reef and give oysters a place to reproduce.
The Oyster Recovery Partnership provides a glimpse into Lewis’s holistic vision of food. She’s a chef striving for delicious, but also an athlete looking for nutritious. She’s an entrepreneur who’s always minding the bottom line, but also an environmentalist who considers the greater impact of the way we eat. It’s a lot to heap on anyone’s plate. But I have a feeling Lewis is up for the challenge.