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 »
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 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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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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Editor’s Note: From this month’s Philadelphia magazine, a discussion about the future of Center City and a question: Does Center City even have a future? We’ve seen a significant fall-off in the number of openings in Center City this year, and even though we’ve had a couple of new openings announced since this piece was written, it’s nothing like in years past (as you can see in the above Taste Illustrated infographic). All of which makes us wonder what’s going on in Center City, and whether we’re now seeing the beginning of Philly’s outlying neighborhoods as the true drivers of cuisine.
Tracking the End of the Downtown Restaurant Boom
“So there’s Jane G’s on Chestnut.”
“IndeBlue. And that Pennsylvania 6 thing.”
“Yeah. And then … ”
“And then nothing.”
In the past couple of years, Philadelphia has become a good restaurant city. But what is it going to take to make us great?
It was one hell of a summer.
In terms of restaurant developments—openings, radical changes and arrivals both large and small—it was huge. The reopening of Le Bec Fin alone might’ve been enough to satisfy in a slower season. The debut of Shake Shack on Sansom hit the city like a cheeseburger-flavored Second Coming. Our penchant for hot-weather trend-humping brought jumped-up poutine from Alla Spina (putting a fresh twist on a fad that’s been dangerously close to being played out at least twice in recent years), haute scrapple at Rittenhouse Tavern, tiki pop-ups, high-end South Philly hot doggery, and an end to our city’s shameful ramen shortage.
Summer polished our image as a solid restaurant town by filling in embarrassing holes in our culinary landscape. And we did good. But because I am a man perpetually dissatisfied with what I have, I can’t help but look and see what’s still missing. Philly is on its way to being a great restaurant city once again, but now that we’ve got the cheeseburgers, the ramen and the fancy-pants French food covered, here’s what needs to happen next:
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What really caused the American restaurant renaissance.
I was a restaurant critic for more than 10 years, and during that time, I owned two ties. One was my funeral tie; the other was green. I had one jacket, and it spent far more time sealed in its dry-cleaner bag than it did on my person.
I frequented places where a jacket and tie would have instantly marked me as some kind of narcotics agent or worse—Russian Mafia bars and late-night Japanese karaoke joints, neighborhood taquerias and humid pho shops in locales generously described at “edgy.” But I spent just as much time in establishments where the appetizers cost more than my watch, and dinner for me and a couple of my professional mouths (including bar tab) could easily top what I’d paid for my first car. In my good jeans, button-down shirts and the occasional Nice Sweater (Christmas presents all), I never felt out of place among the swells, because—lucky me—I got to enjoy the best of my critic’s years in an age in which restaurants, cuisine and dining, both fine and not-so, were boldly hijacked by … well, by men and women a lot like me.
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A couple weeks ago, I was sitting in the office, arguing with a friend about foam.
About agar agar, too. Reverse sphericalization processes. Sous-vide. It was an old argument, about the proper deployment of the wizard’s bag of tricks used by chefs in thrall to the tenets of modernist cuisine.
“Look,” I said. “Why don’t we have it here? Why is Philadelphia so resistant to … modernity?”
“I think it’s that people here just won’t put up with the bullshit,” he replied. In other words, the artifice. The fads. Philadelphians don’t like feeling they’ve been suckered into something, he said, waving off my accusations of puritanical culinary conservatism.
“All I’m asking for is one,” I said. “I think a city needs at least one place that’s really pushing the envelope in order to call itself vital and alive.”
Sure, he said. But who would go?
I didn’t feel I was asking for much: one kitchen embracing the groundbreaking idea that dinner tonight doesn’t have to be the same as dinner last night, or even last year. I thought about it all afternoon, on the train home, for the next few days. It took me almost a week to realize what the problem was: I’d been totally and completely wrong.
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After 42 years, the most important restaurant in Philadelphia has ended its legendary reign. Here’s why what happens next matters.
Forty-two years isn’t a long run for a restaurant. It’s not short, by any means, but neither is it epic—there are places in the United States that were serving back when you could get hauled in by the cops for riding your horse home drunk.
But in the four-plus decades that it existed (in its purest form) on the Philadelphia food scene, Le Bec-Fin packed in more history than some places twice its age. Its kitchen was deeply admired by the galley luminaries of its heyday; Craig Claiborne declared it the best restaurant on the entire East Coast. Le Bec-Fin was, arguably, the one restaurant that spearheaded, maintained and defined Philadelphia’s “Restaurant Renaissance,” every prix fixe and orbit of the dessert cart announcing that we were here and a force to be reckoned with.
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