The Gastronaut: The Next Exit

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?”

Just a cook, but also the man behind Philly’s best restaurant (at least in this magazine’s most recent Top 50 ranking), winner of the national Hop Chef competition, and recipient of a visit from Anthony Bourdain when The Layover rolled into Philly. Sabatino, age 31, turned Stateside into a name, then a destination, racking up accolades and awards. And then, over the weekend of February 10th, Sabatino announced he was leaving. He’d been at Stateside just a year and a half.

“It’s crazy. To think how fast it happened … it was like, ‘Here’s 18 months. Why don’t you go ahead and grow up?’ I really learned exactly what I want in a restaurant,” he says.

Sabatino gave a generous 30 days’ notice when he told his bo­sses he was headed for the door, but his staff scattered immediately. “For my guys, I think it’s more of a security thing,” he says. “For them, they’re thinking, What’s next?, because there’s no certainty about what’s going to happen next.”

Slaughter and Bonforte did what owners always do. “With the exit of George Sabatino … we see a chance to evolve and create an environment for young, aspiring chefs like George to flourish,” they said in a boilerplate statement, then wished everyone well and insisted that they were excited about the next phase at Stateside.

By the time you read this, there will be a new chef at Stateside: 24-year-old Elijah Milligan, ex of Le Bec, Vernick and Bar Ferdinand. For his part, Sabatino will be running the kitchen at Morgan’s Pier this summer and on his way to opening his own restaurant with fiancée Jennifer Conley—a place where “hospitality is just as important as the food,” he says, “a return to an environment where the kitchen is the centerpiece of the restaurant.” As a young chef, he’s done everything right: worked hard, gotten lucky, gotten famous, gotten to a point where it can be his name on the restaurant lease.

He laughs, says yeah, it went just like that. Sure: “Look, around the time the world decided it loved me for six months, I realized that there were some things I couldn’t control [at Stateside]. Now, everything is up to me.”

This content originally appeared in the April, 2013 issue of Philadelphia magazine

Illustration by Kagan McLeod