The Making of a Philly Restaurant 2008

What, you thought it would be easy opening a little French bistro?

FALL 2006

Anticipated opening: Summer 2007

“I’m going to open a French bistro,” Peter says. The chef slides a pencil sketch across the Rittenhouse Square bar where he’s drinking French wine after his shift in the pastry kitchen of Stephen Starr’s Washington Square. The drawing is of Bistro La Minette — the name change, that extra “T,” will come later, after Peter orders hand-thrown wine carafes stamped with the more familiar spelling of the word; “bistrot” is just more authentic — and while opening a restaurant is an almost universal ambition among young chefs, Peter is more convincing in his pitch than most.

Peter talks about La Minette as if it already exists. After all, this is the restaurant the Bala Cynwyd-raised chef has imagined since he moved to France when he was 21 to study cooking at Le Cordon Bleu and in the kitchen of Michelin-starred Lucas Carton. Why did Philadelphia have so few restaurants successfully re-creating the classic French bistro? he wondered when he returned to his hometown, working his way through the kitchens of Le Mas Perrier, Striped Bass and Washington Square. His decade in restaurants gave him a clear picture of what his own place would be when he was ready to take the ultimate step of opening it. Now almost 30, Peter thinks he’s ready. Bistrot La Minette is his restaurant.

That small, banquetted dining room will be — is, in Peter’s focused thinking — in Northern Liberties; he’s in negotiations with the owner of an under-renovation building on 2nd Street. The photographs on those dining room walls will be — are — Peggy’s, evocative but unclichéd images of the French countryside and compelling portraits of her father and grandfather baking in the family boulangerie. And if you look very closely (and have Peter’s fervent narration in your ear), you can see a pitcher of unpretentious house wine and a blistered, bubbling gratin on every table.

Though you can’t see it in Peter’s sketch, beyond the dining room is an open kitchen. He draws a second rough sketch of a graceful, French-style circular cooking line. Peter will be in that kitchen, and alongside him, Christophe Tresca, a French chef he met through his wife. “I need to have a real French chef in the kitchen,” he says. La Minette will serve “la cuisine famille” — the comfort foods of France — and though Peter, fluent in French and in French baking, has steeped himself in all things France, he wants that extra insurance that La Minette will be a faithful rendition of the much and often poorly copied bistro. “Authentic” and “French” are Peter’s mantra, and one of the few concessions he’s willing to make to his Philadelphia-not-Paris address is the restaurant name. The French term of endearment “la minette” (literally, “pussycat”) is authentically French — it’s his sister-in-law’s nickname — but it’s also easily pronounced with a Philly accent.

Authentic. French. Authentic. French. The mantra raises an important question for the chef hustling to find the nearly $1 million he estimates he’ll need to make La Minette a reality. “Financially, how does a French restaurant work?” he muses. “I don’t know. Near as I can tell, you open a restaurant, work for 30 years barely making a living, and then you sell. That’s your retirement.”