The Gastronaut: Philly vs. Manhattan

How do we make Philly the culinary heart of the East Coast? According to Drexel’s Mike Traud, one chef, one student and one night at a time.

Illustration by Kagan McLeod

Illustration by Kagan McLeod

For an ex-lawyer, Mike Traud makes a pretty good cook. Good enough to open Osteria for Marc Vetri and work the line at Zeppoli with Joey Baldino. And for a cook, he makes a pretty good teacher. That’s his gig now—a director at Drexel’s Center for Hospitality and Sport Management. In simpler terms, home of Drexel’s culinary school.

I know, I know. Culinary school? A vain and pointless waste of time and money for anyone serious about cooking. That’s something Traud agrees with, in general terms. He went to culinary school, to Johnson & Wales in Charlotte, and he doesn’t argue when I say JWU is excellent at turning out Applebee’s kitchen managers and not much else. The Culinary Institute of America, the restaurant industry’s Ivy? A diploma mill for over-moneyed kids who think the best thing about being a chef is leaving the kitchen to tape cooking-show pilots or meet with their cookbook agents.

Drexel’s cooking school, Traud insists, is different. First, it’s a four-year program that you have to qualify for the same way you do for Drexel itself: good grades, test scores, recommendations, the whole nine yards. It also comes with a minor requirement, which, for most, means a business education through Drexel’s LeBow School.

Second, Traud is using Drexel as his home base for a war against Manhattan. “Fuck New York,” he says. “We’ve got it all here. We don’t need to go there.”

There’s a formative moment in every young chef’s career when he or she must decide whether to take a shot at the Big Apple. Manhattan has always been where you went if you were serious about learning from (and testing yourself against) the best chefs in the country. You could travel Europe, or stage in Chicago or San Francisco. But if you had dreams of one day being the best, you had to go to New York.

Traud says that’s now a quaint notion from the past, like wasabi mashed potatoes. “I just don’t think that perception is out there anymore,” he says. As a matter of fact, he insists, more and more of New York’s chefs are coming here.

Traud is convinced Philadelphia can be the center of cuisine on the East Coast, unseating NYC. And he’s committed to making this dream come true. He’s bringing in the city’s most successful chefs to teach at Drexel (like Marc Vetri, for starters), and securing co-ops for students in our best restaurants. In January, he organized the first-ever Philly Chef Conference, at which our culinary stars talked about cooking in Philly for an industry-only audience. (“It was almost like that scene in The Godfather when Don Corleone brought together the heads of all the families.”)

“It’s no longer enough to be technically proficient,” Traud says, speaking of the line-focused curriculum at most cooking schools. “You need that business sense, that savvy, to succeed. You need a community.”

For Traud, that’s Philly’s real strength—the tight-knit cabal of chefs who have come up through the ranks here. Is Philly really going to unseat Manhattan as the center of America’s culinary universe? Not anytime soon. But talking about it is less ridiculous today than it’s ever been before. “It has a chance, you know?” Traud insists.

Yeah, we do.

First appeared in the March, 2014 issue of Philadelphia magazine.