The Gastronaut: In Search of the Michelin Man

Michelin guide for Philadelphia restaurants

Illustration by Kagan McLeod

In the beginning, there was France—just this dumpy two-bit European country where everyone grubbed around in the mud, ate rocks for dinner, caught cholera and died at 34.

But over time, France became a colonial power. It went all over the globe picking fights. And everywhere they went, the French brought their armies, their ridiculous hats, their whores and, because they were French, their chef’s knives.

Everywhere they went, they pillaged the local cuisine, stole every good idea, then gave them all French names. To the French, codification was tantamount to ownership. The great French cookbook-slash-encyclopedia, Larousse Gastronomique? A world history of plundered cuisines.
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Gastronaut: Getting the Band Back Together

Illustration by Kagan McLeod

Illustration by Kagan McLeod

Back in the day, when I was still cooking dinner for strangers rather than writing about it, there was a kind of running joke that went through all the kitchens I worked in. At the end of particularly long nights, the crew and I would look around and say, “Shit, for a rock band, we’re not a bad kitchen crew.”

The first half of that bon mot would change occasionally, place to place: Shit, for a web-design company … For an artists’ colony … For an architecture firm … The joke was funny because back then, almost no one came to a kitchen as a first choice. Most of us had done something before, failed at it (often spectacularly), then discovered kitchens as places of no-questions-asked reinvention.

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Gastronaut: And Now for Something Completely Different

taste-gastronautThere is something to be said for a steak.

A big one—thick and bloody, perfectly seared, laid on a plate and flanked by a baked potato oozing butter and a desultory mound of creamed spinach that you probably won’t eat anyway. A shrimp cocktail off to one side. A gin and tonic near at hand.

That, my friends, is dinner. So, too, is a big mound of pasta from a kitchen that knows what it’s doing. A perfect bowl of pho. A plate of tacos. The tasting menu at Zahav.

Culinarily, there is so much good going on in Philly right now. So much excellent food. So many incredibly talented chefs. There is, in fact, so much greatness (with more coming, it sometimes seems, every single week) that it led me to wonder …

How does so much bullshit cuisine still survive?

No, seriously. In a time and place where almost anyone can eat phenomenally well on almost any budget, how is it that so many bad ideas, dead fads, ridiculous trends and generalized culinary dumb-assery still pass as acceptable? We’ve grown up, Philly. There was a time when we had to take what we could get and eat the crumbs that fell from the tables in grander food cities. But we’re big now. There’s no longer any reason (other than drunkenness, of course) to eat what the dim, the slow or the overly impressionable tell us is cool.

Here, then, my humble list of Shit That Has to Stop Right Now:

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Gastronaut: Don’t Touch My Junk

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When guilty pleasures become the cuisine du jour, what’s the illicit culinary thrill-seeker to do?

There was a time when fried chicken—really good fried chicken—was something to be coveted. You’d find a place that did it well (often in some dodgy neighborhood, in a place where even paper napkins were too uppity), and then you would tell no one about it. It was your spot, and you guarded the address the way you did the phone number of your weed guy or the place you could go and pay a hundred bucks for an inspection sticker for your car, no questions asked.

Now, fried chicken is cool. Fried chicken is “hip” in the worst sense of the word, and it’s no longer a secret, guilty pleasure, because you can get it everywhere. Restaurants display it on their menus in a way that’s almost braggy. In a way that says, Look how awesome we are! We took this classic American dish and jammed a bunch of lemongrass and pomegranate in it so now it’s cool to eat again! Aren’t we clever?

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Gastronaut: Le Bec Fin Is Dead (Again)

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The death, rebirth, and strange, sad second passing of Philadelphia’s most famous restaurant

We got word early on a Saturday night that something bad was happening at Le Bec Fin.

In phone calls and text messages, sources were telling us that Nicolas Fanucci—the man who bought Le Bec Fin from Georges Perrier just over a year ago, who brought it back from death once and had been the primary architect of Le Bec 2.0—had left. Literally just walked out the front door and vanished.

Thus began the final, shuddering weeks of Le Bec Fin—the restaurant that once was Philadelphia’s pride and joy.

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Gastronaut: No Child Left Behind

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Making kids feel welcome in good restaurants is the best way to guarantee a generational commitment to food in any city. It’s time for more of that in Philly.

I  hate screaming children in restaurants.

I hate it when they run around like small, loud monsters—getting in the way of the staff and bothering everyone in the house while their parents sit by and do nothing.

I hate kids’ menus full of chicken fingers and hot-dog chunklets; parents who use waitresses as free babysitters; and the looks on the faces of other diners when shown to a table within the blast radius of any child brought out to dine.

But you know what bothers me more than any of this? To spend an evening in a good restaurant anywhere in Philly and see no children.

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Gastronaut: We Oughta Be in Pictures

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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.

No one has managed to make a great kitchen movie »

The Gastronaut: The Next Exit

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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?”

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The Dead Zone: These Are the Darkest Days for Restaurateurs

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The time between New Year’s Day and Mother’s Day is the darkest season for restaurateurs. But there might be something we can do to help.

Welcome to the Dead Zone.

We’re in the middle of it now—the worst stretch of the year for chefs and restaurant owners. Suffering through the dull, dark, desolate stretch of the calendar that begins with the first hangover of the New Year and reaches all the way to that first mimosa with mom in May is something that all restaurant-industry people (and their accountants) share. Broken only by the small mercies of Easter and Valentine’s Day, the Dead Zone does not play favorites. No one gets through it easily. If there’s something—anything—beyond a love of knives and pork products that might be shared by Marc Vetri, Peter McAndrews, the cooks at the greasy-spoon diner where you go for Sunday-morning pancakes, and the guy who owns the little Chinese takeout joint on the corner by your house, it’s that sense of awful desperation that comes in mid-February when you look out over your dining room on a Thursday night and see … nobody.

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Gastronaut: New York State of Mind

Philly has been luring Manhattanites away from the Big Apple for years. Now we’re taking its chefs—and concepts—as well.

For decades, Manhattan has been a kind of protected game preserve for chefs and foodies, a rarified environment where restaurateurs with big names could lure in enough of the monied trade to make the cripplingly high rents and off-the-charts food costs work with $300 tasting menus and $18 cheeseburgers. And because the biggest names in the game opened there, the best crews flocked to them. The best suppliers. It was a system that worked only because every piece of it depended on the willing suspension of all good sense, and a kind of universal acceptance by the people of Manhattan that they were living (and dining) in the greatest food city on earth.

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