There Is No Envelope – Progressive Cuisine, Philadelphia-Style

A couple weeks ago, I was sitting in the office, arguing with a friend about foam.

About agar agar, too. Reverse sphericalization processes. Sous-vide. It was an old argument, about the proper deployment of the wizard’s bag of tricks used by chefs in thrall to the tenets of modernist cuisine.

“Look,” I said. “Why don’t we have it here? Why is Philadelphia so resistant to … modernity?”

“I think it’s that people here just won’t put up with the bullshit,” he replied. In other words, the artifice. The fads. Philadelphians don’t like feeling they’ve been suckered into something, he said, waving off my accusations of puritanical culinary conservatism.

“All I’m asking for is one,” I said. “I think a city needs at least one place that’s really pushing the envelope in order to call itself vital and alive.”

Sure, he said. But who would go?

I didn’t feel I was asking for much: one kitchen embracing the groundbreaking idea that dinner tonight doesn’t have to be the same as dinner last night, or even last year. I thought about it all afternoon, on the train home, for the next few days. It took me almost a  week to realize what the problem was: I’d been totally and completely wrong.

Philadelphia isn’t at all resistant to modernity or to innovation. What it is is wary—distrustful of flash, suspicious of trends. We don’t need a chef failing nobly at dragging Philly’s  food scene into the future, because we already have several chefs waiting for us there.

You can’t fight your way through the crowded dining room at Ela for a plate of Jason Cichonski’s scallop noodles without tasting the progressive influence of Keller and Adria. And you can’t argue culinary conservatism in a town that has embraced both Matt Levin’s red Kool-Aid pickled watermelon and the unapologetically Age of Empires braised tripe at Popolino. The most informative (and maddening) class I’ve sat through in Audrey Claire Taichman’s kitchen classroom/laboratory Cook? Ideas in Food’s Alex Talbot lecturing on culinary innovation to a room full of chefs from Morimoto, Sbraga and the like. Not one of those guys was there to rip off Talbot’s deconstructed shaved celery Caesar salad. They were there to learn why considering such a salad might be a good idea.

My friend was right: Philadelphians brook no bullshit when it comes to dinner. They’re not going to put up with the learning curve, chasing after crazy fads, tacos made of Styrofoam. Our deep bench of young, fiercely smart chefs is wise enough to have waited out the sizzle for the payoff of the steak, cherry picking the best gimmicks from the slag heap of failed whimsy, then quietly employing them in their own kitchens—often without saying a word.

This is how Philadelphia innovates: by never admitting there’s an envelope to be pushed. By going our own way with tools and techniques proven elsewhere. And our packed dining rooms prove there are plenty of eaters willing to follow.