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.

And honestly, they were probably more right than wrong. But lately, this facade of self-congratulatory awesomeness has begun to crack. Suddenly, there are guys who are looking around and thinking that maybe—maybe—there’s a different way to play the game. A different place. Somewhere where the stakes aren’t quite so high and the margin between success and failure isn’t quite so thin. And a fair number of them are looking at Philadelphia.

Yeah, yeah … you’ve heard it before. I know. But look at what we’ve seen recently. There’s Fette Sau, Joe Carroll’s beloved Brooklyn-born barbecue operation, open now on Frankford Avenue in NoLibs courtesy of Stephen Starr (who was instrumental in convincing Carroll that his concept could work here without him having to bring a whole crew of Brooklyn pit-men to town with him). On South Street, Peter Serpico—formerly David Chang’s number two man at Momofuku, now also coming here courtesy of Mr. Starr—is working on a noodle bar concept that everyone is dreaming will be like the tiny, restrictive heaven that was Momofuku when it first opened in New York, before it became an empire.

And bringing in two of the Big Apple’s crown jewels isn’t all. There’s also Vernick Food and Drink in Rittenhouse Square, opened by chef Greg Vernick, who spent years in the orbit of Jean-George Vongerichten (a man with more than a couple NYC addresses). Christopher Lee, who won all sorts of awards while cooking at Striped Bass, then bailed to work at Aureole in NYC, is reportedly coming back to East Passyunk for a project there with the crew from Salt & Pepper. And there’s Fork, where the departure of chef Terrence Feury (for New Jersey!) created an opening that owner Ellen Yin filled by bringing in young heavyweight Eli Kulp, most recently of Torrisi Italian Specialties in Manhattan, but also formerly of Del Posto, La Fonda Del Sol and Casa Lever. I’m still getting calls and emails from New York friends asking after Kulp, wondering what he’s doing here, how his menus look, if he’s, you know … happy.

The chefs bring the suppliers (LaFrieda meats are everywhere these days, with New York purveyor Debragga Meats now after a piece of that action), and the suppliers bring the high-end products (Niman Ranch beef, cured meats from Olli and Salumeria Biellese) that allow the chefs to work at the level of quality to which they have become accustomed while inside the game preserve. And you know what the best bait for attracting chefs to any city is? When their peers and friends go somewhere and are successful. So this sudden flood of 212 talent we’re seeing?

There’s a good chance it’s only the start.