Photograph by Michael Persico
In any serious food city in America, there exists a cadre of chefs and restaurateurs who are the Big Dogs. The guys (because, yeah, it’s almost always guys) who, by the weight of their presence on the scene, tend to define the scene—particularly to those from outside the scene, who don’t live and breathe the scene, who, maybe, just eat out a few times a month and don’t track, with OCD fanaticism, the movements of every chef and investor within the scene.
Think about Charlie Trotter in Chicago (RIP) and the upstarts who’ve been siphoning off his ink for the past decade. Think about New Orleans, with its deep reverence for tradition, age and Emeril Lagasse; Denver, with its magnetic pull on the young and wickedly talented; or Seattle, where they worship at the altar of the farm-to-table movement but still flock to the restaurants of Tom Douglas, who, with 15 spots in a city genetically opposed to chain restaurants, is like a mini-chain-emperor unto himself.
In Philly, we have Stephen Starr, Marc Vetri and Jose Garces—our culinary trinity, each of them big for different reasons, each of them representing an aspect of ourselves. There are chefs in town who have more restaurants than Vetri, but no one who has brought such high-gloss glory to our Italian roots. Jose Garces isn’t the most critically beloved of Philadelphia chefs, but he’s on TV. He’s Iron Chef Garces, and with his ever-expanding roster of addresses both here and elsewhere, he speaks to something in our immigrant hearts with his Cuban sandwiches, Irish whiskey, Spanish tapas, tacos, dumplings, noodles and Chicago deep-dish pizzas. And Starr? He’s got money. And connections. With his older places, he’s feeding tourists and rubes, keeping the flame of wasabi mashed potatoes alive in the hearts of the culinarily backward. And with his newer locations, he’s become our most brilliant producer—bringing in major talent, giving them a place to work, then sitting back and watching them go. He’s the Phil Spector of the Philadelphia restaurant scene, only, you know, without the crazy Afro and the murder.
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