Final course for food society

Posted: May 10, 2007

Irene Rothschild recalls a time when Philadelphians were wary of anything ethnic, when great chefs or cookbook authors rarely visited the city and "French was the only cuisine."

A cooking instructor, cookbook author and former radio cooking show host, Rothschild traveled widely to broaden her culinary horizons, but when she first offered a class in Moroccan cooking, it was in New York: "Philadelphians just weren't interested."

Sure, Philadelphia had the haute LaPanetiere as early as 1967, but the opening of restaurants like Frog, Friday Saturday Sunday, and Astral Plane - all in 1973 - signaled a marked expansion of more interesting world cuisine.

But it would be more than a decade before Susanna Foo's restaurant offered her innovative French-Asian fusion cooking, and the first Book and the Cook festival celebrated the city's growing gastronomic diversity.

And that's when, just as the scene was starting to sizzle, the Culinary Society of Philadelphia made its debut. Two decades later, the party's over, and it's calling it a day - a casualty of its own success.

"We are victims of the wonderful Philadelphia food renaissance," current president David Levy told a gathering of fifty people - members and their guests - who came together at the Moshulu May 2 for a last supper.

Founded in 1980 as the Delaware Valley Association of Cooking Professionals, the organization changed its name in 1989 to welcome nonprofessional foodies into the fold.

Rothschild curtailed her involvement with Les Dames d'Escoffier just a bit to become the Culinary Society's president.

For years, the group had a loyal core of 50 or so members who met monthly at the Restaurant School at Walnut Hill College and brought in top chefs from around the country to teach master classes.

They were plenty of good times remembered at the group's farewell dinner: Charlotte Moskowitz recalls introducing fellow member Margaret Kuo, who owns high-end Chinese restaurants, to potato latkes.

"It was a fun group," said Kuo, who turned down a family banquet with guests from Singapore in order to attend the society's finale. (She sent her husband to the family dinner.) "This group meant so much to me. I just had to be here to pay tribute to Irene."

Besides touring famous restaurant kitchens and bringing in well-known chefs, the group held an annual dinner gala and gave away nearly $100,000 over the years in scholarships to aspiring chefs.

But by 1995, the universe of cooking schools, magazines, the Food Network, and Internet resources for foodies was becoming immense. And the need for a group like the Culinary Society diminished.

"After the Food Network kicked in," in 1993, membership in the Culinary Society slacked off, said Levy. The range of cuisines in city restaurants increased exponentially, even farmer's markets were offering exotic vegetables. Food enthusiasts now had oodles of options to express their passion.

And with only about 20 members left paying $45 a year in dues, the Culinary Society no longer has the people-power to plan monthly events and classes, he said, let alone an annual fund-raising gala.

Rothschild agrees that shutting down is the right thing to do because the work of running the organization is too big a burden for the remaining members.

"The handwriting has been on the wall for some time because the culinary scene has changed," Rothschild said.

"I've been on every committee through the years," said food stylist Pat Ward, an original member from 1980. "Lately, when it came to be somebody else's turn, there was nobody else to turn to."

So last week, when the last of the grilled mahimahi with citrus beurre blanc and soy glaze was served, Levy addressed the gathering at the Moshulu. He dispensed accolades all around.

And then he hinted that all may not be lost, after all.

The society still has $50,000 in its treasury, he said, so culinary scholarships will be awarded this year.

In addition, he said, there's interest in working with the Restaurant School at Walnut Hill College and chef Michael Chow, of Sang Kee restaurant, to bring back the Chinese New Year banquets Philadelphians once loved.

Some details - such as the price - are still up in the air, said chef Philip Pinkney of the Restaurant School, but the 10-course, B.Y.O.B. dinners will be offered at the school next winter.

For more information as it becomes available, contact Pinkney at 267-295-2358 or ppinkney@walnuthillcollege.edu.


Contact staff writer Dianna Marder at 215-854-4211 or dmarder@ phillynews.com. Read her recent work at http://go.philly.com/diannamarder.

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