America needs a great kitchen movie, and Philly is where it should be set.
While I was interviewing chef George Sabatino about his new summer gig as chef at Morgan’s Pier, he told me a funny story. It had to do with the difficulties of staffing up a place that easily seats 300, and how—after coming from a restaurant that sat maybe 40—he was stunned by the fact that he was going to have to hire a guy just to shuck oysters, and another just to hand-cut the fries.
“I was talking to a friend about it,” Sabatino told me. “Another chef friend, and he says, ‘Dude, forget the cooks. What you need is to hire a film crew.’”
This other chef friend was really making a joke about the million potential disasters inherent in any kitchen operation as large as the one at Morgan’s Pier. A kitchen that serves 40 seats a night is already a place with enough drama to give any reality-show producer an aneurysm. But with 300 seats to serve, the comedy and the weirdness just crawl right out of the walls.
The problem is, even in our food-obsessed age, no one has yet managed to make a great kitchen movie. Yes, Big Night was probably the best of a weak field (and possibly the only one to accurately capture the dark inner life of a dying little neighborhood restaurant). The kitchen scenes in Dinner Rush were great (they got almost every physical detail of that basement kitchen just exactly right), but the rest of the movie was awful.
Sadly, Ratatouille, with its staff of strange and borderline criminal chefs, delusional and profit-obsessed owner and seemingly endless scenes of prep, was probably the strongest and best depiction of what it’s like to actually work in a professional kitchen—and that was a cartoon about a talking rat.
But it’s never too late to right an egregious wrong. In the past two years, at least two reality TV productions that would have focused (at least partly) on the chefs and restaurants of Philadelphia have been in discussion, but I’m asking for more than just the small-screen treatment. What we need is not just a great food movie, but a great kitchen movie. And I think Philly is the perfect place for this (as yet completely imaginary) film to be set.
Why? Because we’re not New York (too on the nose) and we’re not Omaha (no one wants to watch a movie about the goings-on at an Outback Steakhouse). Because Philly’s cooks are scrappy and loud and territorial, like pit bulls in white jackets but saddled with a century of culinary history that they’ll never work themselves entirely clear of. Because Philly is a place where tiny kitchens, big crowds and crushing pressure are de rigueur (like Dinner Rush), and where it would be entirely believable for a young, Hollywood-ready chef to be running one of the best restaurants in the city and still be operating on the kind of razor-thin margin that makes for good drama (as in Big Night).
And not for nothing, but our rats? They could cook circles around those lazy, pampered Paris rats any day of the week.
Illustration by Kagan McLeod
First appeared in the May, 2013 issue of Philadelphia magazine.