The Gastronaut: The Next Exit

george-sabatino-stateside-kagan-mcleod

High-profile chefs often leave the places they made famous. But few have caused the kind of  earthquake George Sabatino did when he announced he was leaving Philly’s best restaurant.

“When I opened this place, I was literally just trying to not run out of food.”

That’s George Sabatino, the now-former chef at Stateside on East Passyunk Avenue. He’s musing about his early days there as a young first-time exec—terrified and excited, exhausted, so busy he didn’t have time to blink. When owners Stephen Slaughter and William Bonforte brought him aboard, he’d never been in charge before. He wanted to make a restaurant that his chef friends would like. He wanted to focus on small plates, charcuterie and American whiskies. Most of all, he didn’t want to embarrass himself.

“Stateside was like this huge lucky break,” he says now. “I never knew it could get so big. I’m really surprised by it all, dude. I’m just a cook, you know?”

Just a cook, but also the man behind Philly’s best restaurant (at least in this magazine’s most recent Top 50 ranking), winner of the national Hop Chef competition, and recipient of a visit from Anthony Bourdain when The Layover rolled into Philly. Sabatino, age 31, turned Stateside into a name, then a destination, racking up accolades and awards. And then, over the weekend of February 10th, Sabatino announced he was leaving. He’d been at Stateside just a year and a half.

“It’s crazy. To think how fast it happened … it was like, ‘Here’s 18 months. Why don’t you go ahead and grow up?’ I really learned exactly what I want in a restaurant,” he says.

Sabatino gave a generous 30 days’ notice when he told his bo­sses he was headed for the door, but his staff scattered immediately. “For my guys, I think it’s more of a security thing,” he says. “For them, they’re thinking, What’s next?, because there’s no certainty about what’s going to happen next.”

Slaughter and Bonforte did what owners always do. “With the exit of George Sabatino … we see a chance to evolve and create an environment for young, aspiring chefs like George to flourish,” they said in a boilerplate statement, then wished everyone well and insisted that they were excited about the next phase at Stateside.

By the time you read this, there will be a new chef at Stateside: 24-year-old Elijah Milligan, ex of Le Bec, Vernick and Bar Ferdinand. For his part, Sabatino will be running the kitchen at Morgan’s Pier this summer and on his way to opening his own restaurant with fiancée Jennifer Conley—a place where “hospitality is just as important as the food,” he says, “a return to an environment where the kitchen is the centerpiece of the restaurant.” As a young chef, he’s done everything right: worked hard, gotten lucky, gotten famous, gotten to a point where it can be his name on the restaurant lease.

He laughs, says yeah, it went just like that. Sure: “Look, around the time the world decided it loved me for six months, I realized that there were some things I couldn’t control [at Stateside]. Now, everything is up to me.”

This content originally appeared in the April, 2013 issue of Philadelphia magazine

Illustration by Kagan McLeod

  • DaTroof

    The name on the lease will be the person putting up the money. When it’s your money, only then are you really “in charge.” These youngins will learn the business side of it all some day. It ain’t all tattoos and quotes in local blogs.

    • J

      Ohh boohoo…another poor bitter old head who’s restaurant probably failed and can’t stand that all these young chefs are successful and doing things he never could. “Why god…why do they have it all?? What am I doing wrong??”

      A great chef once said “If you don’t have at least 10 people who hate you and what you are doing, you are doing it wrong”

      Join the haters club asshole. You can sit in your nosebleed clubhouse section and watch all the “youngins” just get better.

  • JA

    Comments section is broken…only currently two comments prior to this one. The actual number of comments is listed at 14 (again prior to this one)…I’m sure it’s just a glitch with new website format….and not censorship.

  • Raul Allegre

    The only thing worse than pickle menus and tater tots is angry blog posts about them.

    • BuhByeFoobooz

      I’d say deleting comments you don’t like is worse than the angry blog post itself. Worse than deleting those comments is doing it so ineptly that while the comments don’t show up, the total number of comments up top still shows that they exist.

  • Natalie S.

    What is wrong with beets or pickles? They have been two of my favorite foods since I was a kid (pickled beet/eggs have always been my favorite). My family has been eating them for decades or longer. Does that make my grandfather a hipster? How about we let people eat what they like and don’t judge what other people choose to like.

  • Frank the Tank

    Here’s the thing, Jason: as the editor of a food site, writing a rant such as this places you in the position of speaking on behalf of a perceived cultural zeitgeist, intentional or not, i.e., that we are all tired of beets and pickles. You, however, are not part of that school of thought—you’re ahead of it. You write food for a living, so you go out to eat an inordinate amount of times, experiencing the sways of the industry faster than the general public. I’d wager that the rest of us food enthusiasts can’t hit up every July opening in July, or even within a calendar year.

    Long story short: there’s a reason (beyond profit motive and chefs’ lack of originality) that upscale comfort foods and bitters persist on menus: we aren’t tired of them yet. So a post where you decry them only really serves to separate you from your readership. You are the arbiter of taste, so we should now hate bacon? No. Food trends should be dictated by people voting with their wallets, not those who are paid to eat for a living and thus imagine having control over them.

    This is why these Foobooz complaint pieces are annoying. (Honestly, this article is not so bad, and partially tongue-in-check. But there is an undeniable recent trend. Hello, Whole Foods steak.) You’re a rant away from becoming Staph Meal. Try to control yourselves.