Gastronaut: Summer in the City

Between the collaboration dinners and charity functions, you have to wonder if a chef is ever in his own kitchen. But is the overwhelmingly social nature of Philly’s restaurant scene what makes it so strong?

Illustration by Kagan McLeod

Illustration by Kagan McLeod

Philadelphia is a city of neighborhoods? Whatever. People have been spouting that trite crap since the notion of the neighborhood was invented, about any municipal area with a population larger than three. And while arguments can be made for the neighborhood-iness of Philly during the lethargic heat of the dog days (when no one wants to go farther than the corner bar for a cold beer and some company) or the depths of snow-day winters (when having a good restaurant within walking distance can make the difference between sane survival and going all Jack-Nicholson-at-the-Overlook), what Philly really is is a city of festivals.

At least in terms of its food scene and at least in the three seasons that aren’t awful, we’re a city of block parties and beer dinners, of collaborations and pop-ups and weird bro dinners and giant, sprawling events like Night Market and Feastival that can choke entire stretches of our city’s streets with tens of thousands of people coming together to eat and drink and eat some more.

Honestly, I’ve been around, and I have never lived in a city that had so much scene in its scene. And summer? That’s when it all ramps up — when you can easily find yourself facing down a Thursday-night choice between some hot new chef doing a menu-test pop-up in Fishtown, a one-night-only pig-and-whiskey dinner in Manayunk, two different collaboration dinners on East Passyunk, and some massive, block-rocking street fair full of food trucks and barbecue happening a mile away.

There are those who say that all of this is a symptom of a deep flaw in our culinary body: that chefs don’t spend enough time in their own kitchens anymore. That every night spent out on the pavement or behind the grill on some stranger’s line is a night they’re not seeing to their own business and the quality of their own product. There have also been many moments when I’ve stated, loudly and with great vehemence, that this thing — this Tuesday-night culinary three-way, this cotton-candy-vodka dinner — is the event that has finally taken things too far.

And I’ve been wrong every time. Because we have, in this city, one of the most lively, vital and interconnected restaurant communities I’ve ever experienced — an industry where everyone knows everyone, has worked with everyone, has trained with, under or beside almost everyone else working. It’s a community that shares ideas the way musicians trade licks, a scene that forces chefs and crews into constant close contact with their contemporaries from down the block or across the city. And it’s precisely our profusion of events, our wealth of special dinners, our crazy number of guest appearances and our collaborative culture that have created both our deep pool of talent and the odd, nearly unique blend of Old World/New World borderless and esoteric cuisine that is coming to define the modern flavor of Philadelphia.