Photo: Chef Alfredo with his granddaughter, Chandler, on the day after his surprise 80th birthday party. Photo courtesy of Marilyn Russell
Chef Alfredo Russell, formerly of Bistro To Go, credits a belief in himself and faith in God for his strength.
By Amy George
On the night of June 7, a gathering of family, friends, and a talented group of jazz musicians honored Chef Alfredo Russell on his 80th birthday. Chef Alfredo is a Northside resident known across the city for his unique character and cuisine.
The “Enchanted Evening” surprise party was organized by Chef Alfredo’s eldest daughter Marilyn Russell, a resident of Baltimore, and held at Sweet Time General Store on East Ohio Street. Silver and gold decor, semi-formal attire, and live jazz music courtesy of Center of Life’s Jazz Pro Band lent a classy air to the occasion. Party guests, including Tim Smith, pastor of the Keystone Church of Hazelwood, gave countless tribute speeches throughout the night that emphasized Chef Alfredo’s positive, infectious spirit. Their words glowed with reverence and love.
One of the highlights of the night was when former Steelers running back Franco Harris sent Smith a “Happy Birthday” text message to relay to Chef Alfredo. In the message, Harris congratulated the Chef on being “80 years young.”
Mr. Lewis Coylar, or “Brother Lew,” a “bosom friend” of Chef Alfredo, sang a soulful tune he wrote for the Chef called “Birthday of the Year.” All the party-goers joined in on the chorus, and the jazz professionals skillfully struck up accompaniment.
Bistro To Go, the retired Chef’s former headquarters, which is located a few doors down from Sweet Time General Store on East Ohio Street, prepared an array of delicious dining options, including chipotle-grilled salmon and beef tenderloin. Before coming to Bistro To Go in 2007, Chef Alfredo operated his own business called Buckingham’s Catering and Restaurant in Homewood. He also catered special events and set up a stand on occasion at the Citiparks Farmers Markets.
He hasn’t always lived in Pittsburgh, though. Originally from Andros, an island in the Bahamas, Chef Alfredo decided to come to the U.S. in the mid-20th century after hearing all about it while working on the docks as a boy.
“He heard so many great things about America, so he wanted to come and find out for himself,” Marilyn explained. “[He wanted] an adventure.” The Chef’s mode of travel wasn’t so ordinary.
“He came as a stowaway on a ship,” Marilyn said. “He worked around ships when he was young, so he knew their [anatomy] and was able to [avoid detection].”
After arriving in Florida, Chef Alfredo moved to New Orleans, where he cooked at Houlihan’s on Bourbon Street. He stayed until 1976, when a friend persuaded him to move to Pittsburgh and help him open a restaurant.
The restaurant never came to fruition, but Chef Alfredo kept a positive outlook.
“I never gave up, [although] I knew nothing about Pittsburgh except the Pirates and Steelers,” he reflected in a thank-you speech at the party.
Chef Alfredo was able to use his trademark cooking style, a mash-up of Cajun, Carribean, and Creole, to his advantage. During his early years in Pittsburgh, he secured various cooking positions to support his family of seven children. One of his specialities is jambalaya chicken.
“People love his cooking,” Marilyn said. “He loved to do it. It’s always been his passion.”
The main source of inspiration in Chef Alfredo’s life, however, is God. The same can be said for his family and friends. The humble, sincere sense of spirituality and faith of all of those close to him permeated the room, and radiated from within the Chef himself.
“God is in me,” he said in his speech. “Without Him, we are all nothing. He made all of it.” This line was met with a chorus of “Amens” and “Hallelujahs.”
Smith’s speech further illustrated Chef Alfredo’s faith, and the two men’s close relationship.
“If this is what 80 years looks like, I’m in, bro,” he joked. “Age is just a number with Alfredo. It’s about spirit. When you get around him, it’s going to be positive. He’s not just speaking to you, but your spirit. He goes beyond that surface conversation.”
The pastor went on to tell a humorous story centering around his distaste for coleslaw.
“Every food I said I didn’t like, [Chef Alfredo] said, ‘You’ll like it if I make it,’” Smith told the guests. “And I did. Even his coleslaw.”
Another one of the Chef’s friends asserted his uplifting spirit.
“We all have bad days, but [you’re] always a 10 when [you] call on the phone,” she exclaimed. [You] always lift me up, no matter what day.”
Chef Alfredo’s generosity proves to be another huge, defining aspect of his character. As a Pittsburgh resident, he has aided Hurricane Katrina refugees, cooked for community events, and mentored youth at the Center of Life, a community empowerment organization headquartered in Hazelwood.
“He’s always ready to give,” explained Smith.
In 2009, a serious car accident caused Chef Alfredo to lose the ability to walk, but his faith in God and determined spirit spurred a remarkable healing process. He recovered control of his limbs and lost no time in getting back to his daily routine, including church on Sundays with Smith.
“Age is nothing to me,” Chef Alfredo told his party guests with conviction. “I never gave up, I weathered the storm. Sooner or later, the sky has got to clear. You’ve got to believe it or it won’t happen. That’s what makes me so strong.” And according to Chef Alfredo, there’s a lot out there that is worth believing in—especially yourself.
“You can’t go wrong when you believe in who you are,” he said. “If you say you can make it, you can.”
The Chef clearly influences all those he meets. Everywhere he goes, he leaves behind a legacy of passion, understanding, caring, and love. And in 80 years, he has covered a lot of ground.
“I love people, because people make the world go around. I don’t care where they’re from. Love is everything.”
Chef Alfredo ended his thank-you speech on a humorous note.
“When I leave home, even without a dime in my pocket, I look rich. Because you never know who’s watching.”