The Interview: George Sabatino is Having A Helluva Month…
…and it ain’t over yet. When I got the 30-year-old chef of Stateside on the phone this afternoon, I was pulling him away from his prep for this weekend’s sold out Brewery Ommegang Hop Chef national competition–which is only the next thing he has going for him in a month that has already seen him get engaged, win the Philly Hop Chef competition against some seriously heavyweight talent (Scott Schroeder, Nick Elmi, Jason Cichonski and Joe Cicala), get named Best Chef in the city in our 2012 Best of Philly issue and get to visit (albeit briefly) with Anthony Bourdain when he rolled through town last week filming for his show, The Layover. Sabatino was in low-grade panic-mode when I called, worrying about the contest coming up, whether or not the masses of supplies he and his sous chef had already laid in would be enough (halfway through the conversation he would decide that no, it wasn’t nearly enough) and about leaving his kitchen and his crew alone on a weekend for the first time…well, ever.
“The thought of leaving the restaurant…” he said. “Yeah, I might have an aneurysm before I hit 31 tomorrow.”
Oh, and did I forget to mention that his birthday is coming up, too?
Still, he took a few minutes to talk with me about everything from his worst gig ever to what he has planned next. Check out the interview after the jump.
So you’ve had one hell of a month, haven’t you?
Dude, it’s been fucking crazy.
Run down your CV for me. How did you get into cooking? Where did you start? What was the worst gig you had before finding your legs?
I got into it honestly because I was a failed rock star. I was living in New Jersey, in this house with the guys from my band and I would cook dinner. I was going to school for music, but I didn’t want to be some music teacher. But I had this friend in Philly and I decided I would go to culinary school, you know? And I did no homework. I had no idea. But I signed up at JNA [JNA Institute of Culinary Arts]. I took out a $9,000 school loan. And then I left after a month. It just wasn’t for me. School has never really been for me.
But then you went to work.
My first job was at Doc Watson’s. You know that place? Yeah, well I got that first job because the guy they had there–the guy I was replacing–was so fucked up on heroin that he put up a whole order of burgers with no burgers. Like he put up the plates and the buns and the lettuce and everything, but no meat. And that place… They had like a secret Jack Daniels barbecue sauce on the menu, and you know what it was? It was SYSCO barbecue sauce with Jack Daniels poured into it! They didn’t even burn off the alcohol or anything. So I was making, like, a cheeseburger or a chicken breast or something, and I’d throw it on the grill with the barbecue sauce and there would just be fire fucking everywhere…
[Sabatino then went on to tell me a story about the night Doc Watson’s–which was notorious for serving underage patrons–got raided by the cops and the owner, in an absolutely brilliant move, took all the underage girls who were drinking at the bar up to his 3rd-floor apartment and told them to stay there until the police had left, garnering himself several kidnapping charges in addition to the violations for serving kids. Honestly, I was laughing too hard to take proper notes, so I won’t try to quote him here.]
So was that your worst job then?
I don’t know about worst. If we’re gonna be honest, I had a lot of fun there, but…
Yeah, I get it. So what came after?
I wandered around for a while. I worked at Monk’s, at Fork. At the old Vesuvio. Then Lolita. I lied my ass off to get that job. [the lying involved whether or not he knew how to properly temp meat on the grill. As it turned out, he didn’t.] That’s where I believe my career began.
You worked at Lolita, then Bindi, then Barbuzzo. You were at Barbuzzo when it got named as one of the 50 Best Restaurants in the city. And there was that picture of you there [see above] holding some big piece of meat. I love that picture.
It’s funny. That photo is what snapped me out of…whatever. Barbuzzo was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. At the same time I was doing that, I was getting a divorce from my first wife. Things were all fucked up. [But] that was when I decided to really get my shit together. It was like one of those things where everyone else could see something that I couldn’t, you know? Like, what do all these people see in me that I don’t? And now, a year later? All this? I’m like, fuck, dude…
And then Stateside.
No, actually I took some time off. I worked at Pub & Kitchen for a summer, just cooking. I had a lot of things working and I needed some time. And when I talked to them at Stateside, I was like, ‘If you need someone just to do burgers and chicken, I’m the wrong guy. Let’s get that out of the way right from the start.’ But that wasn’t what they wanted. It’s been my menu from the start.
And when did Stateside open?
So 9 months.
Everything that’s happened…
I’m so humbled, man. You have no idea. The whole thing here, I just want to be the chef that cooks for cooks. I mean, I know we have to be approachable and have sandwiches and vegetarian things and all that great stuff. But I want to be where chefs come to eat. And to be honest, they do. They come in on Monday night for charcuterie, for foie gras terrine or pork rillettes, and that’s the biggest compliment.
With all that, what’s your biggest worry?
As quickly as this all comes, it can go away. That’s what I tell my guys. Why we can’t let up now.
So let’s run down the high points of the last month or so. First, you get engaged [To Jennifer Conley, who works behind the bar at Stateside].
Yeah. That was on Monday night. We were at dinner at 11 Madison Park.
Then Hop Chef…
That was Tuesday. And it was so great. I really became friends with all those guys because we’re talking shit on Twitter and stuff. [The back-and-forth between the chefs before the competition was almost as good a show as the actual event.] And Nick Elmi is saying, ‘Come on, man. We know what you’re going to do. Sausage and pickles.’ And I’m thinking, that really is what I’m comfortable with. For a while, I was thinking about making these little sausages stuffed with pickles and I would just spend the whole time chucking ’em over at Elmi’s table, but I didn’t.
Then like a week later, you find out about the Best of Philly award for Best Chef.
That was Wednesday, yeah.
And then, what? Here comes Anthony Bourdain. What was that like?
Honestly, man? He broke my heart. See, we’ve got a bunch of Pappy Van Winkle’s here. All four years. So he didn’t come for the food, he came for the booze. But no, it was great. I’m happy he was here and, the next day, the producers called and came back to interview me so I’m going to be on the show. But if I hadn’t had everything else this month? I would’ve been pissed. [He laughs] I would’ve been, like, in the walk-in in tears.
Then there’s the Hop Chef finals this weekend, right?
Right. And my birthday is tomorrow, so it was like ‘Yeah, let’s spend 5 hours driving to Cooperstown with 50 pounds of sausage in the back.’
So what are you planning? Sausage, obviously…
The shit I’m bringing? These other guys better bring their A-game.
And who are you competing against?
The guy from D.C., the guy from Albany, somebody from New York City. Honestly, I haven’t really done my homework. Anthony [Sica, who is going up as one of Sabatino’s sous chefs] keeps sending me information, but I kind of like the idea of not knowing. I don’t wanna second-guess myself.
[For the record, Sabatino will be cooking against Jamie Ortiz (Mazzone Hospitality, Hop Chef Albany Winner), Jeff Eng (Clyde’s of Tower Oaks, Hop Chef D.C. Winner) and Tommy Harder (Blind Tiger Ale House, 2011 BCTC Hop Chef Winnner). And with the roll he’s been on, we’re pretty sure he’s gonna smoke ’em all.]