Taste: Food for Thought: A House of High Honor

When a Philly chef is invited to cook in the most famous kitchen in America, it’s recognition we can all call our own

Chef David Katz is getting sentimental. Microphone in hand, cooks at his back, standing before 60-some friends, family members, fans and mentors, the stout 33-year-old chef-owner of Fitler Square American bistro Mémé is expounding on his love for his parents, his wife, his sons, his friends, his patrons, pork belly…

On the one hand, it’s no wonder he’s gushing: He’s spent three days in nonstop preparations for the five-course dinner he just finished serving at the James Beard House in Greenwich Village. He woke at four this morning to pack a Honda Element and a Civic with strip steak and duck liver pâté and parsnip-apple soup. Now, as he stands in a second-floor dining room, exhausted, elated, looking out over a crowd of the very sated people in his life, you can’t fault him for getting kind of schmaltzy.

On the other hand, this is David Katz. Bearded, tattooed, trash-talking, cargo-shorts-wearing and faux-hawked, the native Jerseyan has built his rep on his badass-ness. From Mémé’s open kitchen, he freely rails against vegetarians, people who call themselves “foodies,” and anyone who uses the word “delicious.” Rarely does one of his sentences lack a four-letter epithet. He answers his BlackBerry with “What’s up, dickster?” Typically, this self-proclaimed “Charles Barkley of the food world” wouldn’t choke up after a Tuesday-night dinner service. But tonight is different.

Not only is Katz freely expressing deep feelings of happy indebtedness — he might even be welling up. And while it could be the sleep deprivation, or the pinot gris he just chugged from his wife’s glass, more likely it’s the venue. The prestigious James Beard Foundation doesn’t invite just anyone to cook a meal at its elegantly quirky brownstone headquarters, which happens to be the former residence of its late beloved, iconic namesake, author of umpteen cookbooks, BFF of Julia Child, and inspiration for the international not-for-profit organization that has become the culinary equivalent of the Oscars. By creating a meal here tonight, Katz joins the ranks of Jean-Louis Palladin and Jean-Georges Vongerichten — chefs he refers to as “kings.”

Yet as a Philly-based chef, he’s not exactly alone in this achievement. A few years ago, Michael Solomonov received his first of three invites. CinCin’s Michael Wei was here in January, Rich Landau and Kate Jacoby of Horizons turned up in November, and Butcher & Singer’s Rob Dacko cooked here in September. As special as this night is for Katz personally, headlining a Beard dinner is getting downright commonplace even for Philly chefs who aren’t Jose Garces, Marc Vetri, Susanna Foo or Georges Perrier (who have all done it).

Which shouldn’t diminish the honor for Katz, because it does say something about dining in our fair city. It’s a sign, maybe, finally, that we’ve grown past Restaurant Row and BYOBs, and have put our permanent mark on the world’s culinary map. At least, it’s clear, we’re on James Beard’s.

Want to relive Katz’s meal? Join our Restaurant Club for a chance to be part of a re-creation of his dinner on May 25th: Phillymag.com/newsletters.