The Gastronaut: Philly vs. Manhattan

How do we make Philly the culinary heart of the East Coast? According to Drexel’s Mike Traud, one chef, one student and one night at a time.

Illustration by Kagan McLeod

Illustration by Kagan McLeod

For an ex-lawyer, Mike Traud makes a pretty good cook. Good enough to open Osteria for Marc Vetri and work the line at Zeppoli with Joey Baldino. And for a cook, he makes a pretty good teacher. That’s his gig now—a director at Drexel’s Center for Hospitality and Sport Management. In simpler terms, home of Drexel’s culinary school.

I know, I know. Culinary school? A vain and pointless waste of time and money for anyone serious about cooking. That’s something Traud agrees with, in general terms. He went to culinary school, to Johnson & Wales in Charlotte, and he doesn’t argue when I say JWU is excellent at turning out Applebee’s kitchen managers and not much else. The Culinary Institute of America, the restaurant industry’s Ivy? A diploma mill for over-moneyed kids who think the best thing about being a chef is leaving the kitchen to tape cooking-show pilots or meet with their cookbook agents.

Drexel’s cooking school, Traud insists, is different. First, it’s a four-year program that you have to qualify for the same way you do for Drexel itself: good grades, test scores, recommendations, the whole nine yards. It also comes with a minor requirement, which, for most, means a business education through Drexel’s LeBow School.

Second, Traud is using Drexel as his home base for a war against Manhattan. “Fuck New York,” he says. “We’ve got it all here. We don’t need to go there.”

There’s a formative moment in every young chef’s career when he or she must decide whether to take a shot at the Big Apple. Manhattan has always been where you went if you were serious about learning from (and testing yourself against) the best chefs in the country. You could travel Europe, or stage in Chicago or San Francisco. But if you had dreams of one day being the best, you had to go to New York.

Traud says that’s now a quaint notion from the past, like wasabi mashed potatoes. “I just don’t think that perception is out there anymore,” he says. As a matter of fact, he insists, more and more of New York’s chefs are coming here.

Traud is convinced Philadelphia can be the center of cuisine on the East Coast, unseating NYC. And he’s committed to making this dream come true. He’s bringing in the city’s most successful chefs to teach at Drexel (like Marc Vetri, for starters), and securing co-ops for students in our best restaurants. In January, he organized the first-ever Philly Chef Conference, at which our culinary stars talked about cooking in Philly for an industry-only audience. (“It was almost like that scene in The Godfather when Don Corleone brought together the heads of all the families.”)

“It’s no longer enough to be technically proficient,” Traud says, speaking of the line-focused curriculum at most cooking schools. “You need that business sense, that savvy, to succeed. You need a community.”

For Traud, that’s Philly’s real strength—the tight-knit cabal of chefs who have come up through the ranks here. Is Philly really going to unseat Manhattan as the center of America’s culinary universe? Not anytime soon. But talking about it is less ridiculous today than it’s ever been before. “It has a chance, you know?” Traud insists.

Yeah, we do.

First appeared in the March, 2014 issue of Philadelphia magazine.

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  • PK

    This guy is just blowing smoke. I went to Drexel and I liked going to Drexel. However Drexel and Philadelphia did nothing for me to put my career onto a global stage. It was NYC. Philadelphia has very good restaurants, but they will never live up to a Masa, NoMad, or Eleven Madison Park. Philadelphia only thinks locally. It felt like a clique from high school. If you were not from there, you are not welcome. Traub said you need to be business minded to succeed. There was nothing 6 years ago with networking, business development mixers, and forget an international crowd. It was basically groups that moved into the city from the suburbs and South Jersey. I am a photographer, which essentially places me in the same boat as the cooks. I now have two international companies that cater to many fortune 500 brands and it was because of what NYC had to offer. The openess to network, networking groups, the power of the business happy hour (in Philly that is just a joke), and the variety of jobs available. Until Philadelphia starts bringing in global and international companies and tourism Traub’s dethrowning of NYC restaurants will never happen.

    This also builds onto the article of the Michelin Guide. The author nearly immediately dismisses the chance of having Michelin come to Philadelphia. It is with that attitude for it will never come and that Philadelphia will never reach the quality of a NYC restaurant. Those chef’s strive to get that star. Philly is like F that we are too good to have someone else outside the city to care. People come all over the world to purposely eat in NYC, Chicago, and San Francisco. Philly does not have the Allineas, the French Laundries, and Le Bernidains. Those are destinations within themselves.

    In order to have a Foodie destination like the above, you need to have Thomas Keller, Daniel Bolud, and Adam Tihany. Or at least their counterparts. They appeal to the global client. No one cares that the food appeases a small group of wealthy individuals and hipsters.

    • rk

      Yes, you have to be local to succeed in philly. Just ask Eli Kulp or Peter Serpico. smdh.

      funny to name check Boulod (misspelled), Alinea (misspelled), and Le Bernardin (misspelled) and Keller and then say that philly’s flaw is that it only appeases a small group. Please, tell me how many people get to eat at Per Se regularly (and how is SF getting credit for San Fran).

      And you’re talkig about 6 years ago when the guy quoted is talking bout the present and the future. catch up.

      We won’t rank with those cities because there isn’t enough wealth in the philly area to support that many super-expensive places. it starts and ends there. IF you judge a city only by high luxe places. Not sure that’s the right way, not sure I want us to compete with that. but philly’s food scene is pretty damn impressive and local chefs are getting national visibility at a pretty impressive rate (see: Garces, Sbraga, Elmi, Kulp, Vetri, etc.) by either opening elsewhere, getting food press love, or winning major food competitions, especially considering it’s size and wealth. Anyone who thinks otherwise is just hating irrationally.

      • PK

        I was wrong not to include some of the affordable options. As you can imagine there are hundreds in not thousands of them to list.

        The article was about being a food mecca. It came down to celebrated and international cuisine and those were my strong points. I can go on forever citing strong affordable restaurants and even comparing them to Philadelphia’s, but it would just take forever.

  • Matt

    Wow. I’m embarrassed this guy is speaking for my fellow cooks and industry workers here in Philadelphia. It’s sad when we have vocal leaders in our region that talk in terms like this rather in the spirit of collaboration and self-betterment.

    As for the comment “A vain and pointless waste of time and money for anyone serious about cooking.”: ask any of our best chefs if they went to culinary school. I can almost guarantee you the answer will be “yes”. Chefs LOVE to say that culinary school is a waste of time, but they ALL WENT.

    Let me assure you in clear terms: Traud doesn’t speak for Philadelphia’s industry workers or its best minds. He’s wrong about Philly and he’s wrong about New York and he’s wrong about culinary school.

    But anyway…hey, did you hear Federal Donuts is making MORE DONUTS?????!1 Oh looky…Shake Shack has FRENCH FRIES.


  • eldondre

    while i dont have a horse in this race i would note that everything happens at the margin. philly has better food, more visitors, more residents, and is more international than it was twenty years ago and so far that trend appears to be continuing. the argument is about what philly can be rather than what is. id think that if the city is serious it needs to focus on cost and ease of running a business as well as access to fresh foods. philly will never be bigger or wealthier than ny so the cost of providing a similar experience also needs to be lower. that is true whether its a restaurant or an airport

  • culinary school