“The first time I saw the place, all I could think was, ‘This is fucking bad ass’.”
That’s George Sabatino, the very-recently-ex chef of Stateside, talking about his newly-announced gig as chef at Morgan’s Pier. And the bad-assery to which he’s referring? That’s not the space (the size of which frightens him more than a little). That’s not the view (which is lovely on a summer evening). No, it’s the kitchen. The huge, fully-outfitted kitchen which is just so much bigger than anything he’s become accustomed to that he can’t wait to get in there and just start playing around.
“Dude, do you have any idea what I’ll be able to do there?”
This whole Morgan’s Pier thing came together in a hurry for Sabatino–the perfect opportunity at the perfect time. He was originally in talks to come aboard as a consultant, but, as he himself will admit, “I think I’m not good at sitting still. Being off work, it just makes my anxiety about everything even worse.”
So the consultant’s gig quickly gave way to a chef’s position that would have him in the kitchen and on the line daily, where he belongs. And once that was settled, he knew he’d need a team, so he tapped Paul Lyons (his long-time friend and the guy who took his place at Barbuzzo when he left to open Stateside) to be his chef de cuisine. After that, he just started making calls.
“One of the things that’s great about this is it’s a place for some of my guys to land,” he told me. A place where some of his old crew from Stateside (many of whom left along with their chef) could get back together and do what they do best.
But his old team is not going to be enough. Morgan’s Pier is a HUGE space–300 or so seats including a new, raised dining area that’s being built for this summer’s season, so roughly 10 times the size of the crowd he got accustomed to dealing with at Stateside. We got to talking about the logistics of supplying and staffing such an enormous operation and he seemed to be just beginning to wrap his head around the number of cooks he’s going to need. “I’m probably going to do oysters on the half-shell,” he said, “which means I’m going to need a guy who does nothing but shuck oysters all day. At least on Fridays and Saturdays. I’m going to do hand-cut fries–I’m just calling them Really Awesome Fries, served with a bunch of different house-made condiments–so I’m going to need a guy who just cuts fries all night. That’s crazy.”
In terms of the food, Sabatino admits that he never got the chance to check out Morgan’s Pier last year, under David Katz. “I didn’t go to Morgan’s Pier,” he explained. “I was holed up in South Philly banging pans.” But whereas last year’s vision for the menu leaned heavily on the grills and simple, easy-to-bang-out wood-fired dishes, Sabatino is looking at doing something different when Morgan’s Pier opens to the public around May 1st.
“The way it was explained to me in the first couple meetings, they wanted it to be like a backyard barbecue. That was their whole thing.” But Sabatino took that concept a step further. “I wanted it to be kind of like a barbecue for me and all my chef friends. You know, that thing where you get a bunch of chefs together and they’re all trying to outdo each other without ever acting like that’s what they’re trying to do?”
In terms of details, that means a lot of fresh seafood first. A lot of shellfish. A raw bar. He wants to do specials in the form of large, shared plates like whole fish or suckling pigs. And super-fresh produce, too, because now he’s in a position where, if he wants ears of corn or something for the menu, he can go to a local farm, look out over the day’s harvest and just buy up the entire load.
“It’s going to be simple food, but really good food,” he says. “Really fresh. Really awesome.” Like the fries, I guess.
Of course he’s also going to have a hamburger made with liquid nitrogen. He wants to call it the “Rocket Ship Hamburger“. But even that doesn’t seem that strange coming from a chef like Sabatino. The food at Morgan’s Pier? The menu? That’ll come. That’s not what he’s worried about right now.
“It’s the size,” he says. “That’s the risk in it. The large scale. I mean, I cooked in a place that had 30 seats, you know? So I figured I might as well go ahead and try 300.” Because then, once the summer is over and Morgan’s Pier shuts down (which should happen right after Labor Day) and Sabatino gets back about the business of opening his own restaurant, the 50 seats he wants to finally end up with?
There’ll be nothing scary about that at all.
Morgan’s Pier [Official]