Chefs of Philly's future

Classic technique? Substitute rustic charm.

Posted: September 25, 2008

When chefs Jose Garces and Marc Vetri cross town aboard a private trolley next month, between tapas at Amada and pasta at Osteria, it will be more than a rolling intermezzo in the celebration dinner to promote their debut cookbooks.

It will be a victory lap for two star chefs who have emerged as the leaders of Philadelphia's next generation of cooks - a generation poised to enter a new golden age of the chef-driven restaurant.

The dining landscape they navigate today, though, is starkly different from the go-go days of expense-account dining when Georges Perrier led the last big wave with Le Bec-Fin and Brasserie Perrier. That was decades ago, when he and his competitors - Jean-Marie Lacroix, Susanna Foo - ruled a posh French-centric scene from Walnut Street and the Four Seasons Hotel.

The formality of that white-tablecloth fine dining, unraveling nationwide, has lost footing in Philadelphia to earthier, more casual venues like BYOBs, small-plate kitchens, and gastropubs. Most of the remaining high-end dining dollars, meanwhile, are gobbled up by Stephen Starr - a successor of sorts to Neil Stein as the city's leading restaurant impresario - with his ever-expanding juggernaut of stylized, concept-driven eateries.

And yet, Garces, Vetri and a growing number of new chef-owners are having a transformative impact. In the same way that Perrier, Lacroix, Foo, Fritz Blank of Deux Cheminees, and Bruce Cooper of Jake's trained a generation of young cooks, these chefs are now molding the younger talents that will define Philadelphia's restaurant scene for years to come.

Garces and Vetri (and their acolytes) are creating menus that are less reliant on the butter-rich French refinements of the past, channeling other authentic international ideas through locally sourced ingredients, sometimes with futuristic techniques. Elevated rustic cooking, whether a Spanish tortilla or a Yemenite soup, is just as likely to be served on rough-hewn wood tables as on crisp white linens.

"I have great admiration for Jose Garces and Marc Vetri," says Perrier, who rarely bestows compliments on fellow chefs.

Garces, 36, has been an entrepreneurial dynamo since launching his Spanish hit Amada after leaving Starr, who brought him to Philadelphia to run Alma de Cuba and open El Vez. Garces has since built one of the strongest stables of sous-chefs in the city as he added the Basque-inspired Tinto and the nuevo Mexican Distrito.

Vetri, meanwhile, whose namesake jewel on Spruce Street turned 10 years old this week, was far more patient, adding his only other restaurant, the larger Osteria on North Broad, just last year. But his influence has spread impressively nonetheless beyond his own domain, as five of his former proteges now run their own three-bell kitchens (Jim Burke at James, Chip Roman at Blackfish, Michael Solomonov at Zahav, Dionicio Jimenez at Xochitl, and Jeff Michaud, who co-owns Osteria).

Publication of the two cookbooks - Latin Evolution (Lake Isle Press) from Garces and Vetri's Il Viaggio di Vetri (Ten Speed Press) - will bring respect from across the country for the two chefs and the evolving Philly scene, says Perrier, whose own book was published in 1997.

But other chefs of their generation are also leaving an imprint now on the younger ranks of cooks: Daniel Stern at Rae and Gayle, Patrick and Terence Feury at Maia, Chris Scarduzio at Brasserie Perrier, and Matthew Levin at Lacroix at the Rittenhouse, to name a few. A handful of other Starr alums, such as Bryan Sikora and Aimee Olexy at Talula's Table (who inspired a generation of BYOBs with their earlier success at Django) and Michael Schulson at Izakaya, are making their voices heard.

Will they be as enduring as the heroes of kitchens past?

"I must say [Vetri and Garces] do a good job," says the now-retired Jean-Marie Lacroix, who during his 18 years at the Four Seasons (and two at Lacroix at the Rittenhouse) was one of the city's greatest teachers. Like many in the old guard, though, he frets that some of the basics are being neglected: "Where do you get good sauces anymore? That's important to me. How many people can cook an egg? None."

Indeed, many young charges are no longer working in kitchens wedded to "mother sauces" and Escoffier, says Daniel Stern, a former chef at Le Bec-Fin.

"We're probably the people who are supposed to be training them at this point," says Stern. "It's important to know the techniques. . . . But I've always been an American chef and it's allowed me the freedom to look at things from a different angle. Why does endive always have to be a salad with bleu cheese and walnuts? Why can't it be a dessert?"

Still, it is Stern's own classical training that allows him to make a leap like transforming bitter endives into a stellar "parfait" dessert.

Like Garces, Vetri, and most of the other leaders of this new guard, Stern did time in several of America's most prestigious kitchens, logging unpaid internships and years of low-paying grunt work on the line before rising to prominence.

Many of them already sound like old codgers when they assess the lack of basic skills and motivation of the young cooks walking through their doors, often deluded by the false glamour of TV chef shows and too easily tempted by the ready access to less challenging kitchens that a burgeoning scene like Philadelphia provides.

"It's just nuts how lazy a lot of these guys are, how rare it is to find guys who really want it," said Vetri, 41. " 'Oh, I'm tired, chef.' Tired from what? A 12-hour day? Big deal. That's just what it is - you're 23 years old, you know? When I was coming up. . . ."

"I see it all the time," concurs Stern, 37. "They want to be on the fast track to opening their BYOB, because there are places you can work where you're in charge after three months."

"It's ridiculous," says Levin, 35. "A 25-year-old kid comes out of cooking school expecting a sous-chef job for $55,000 a year, and I'm like, 'You know what, Bud? Work for me six months for nothing, let's see how your knife skills are. . . . and then we'll see where you're at.'"

Is it any wonder Levin's four-bell kitchen has lost a number of line cooks in the last few months to more lucrative - but perhaps less stimulating - jobs in high-volume restaurants like Starr's new Parc on the other side of Rittenhouse Square?

"I don't want to blame them," Levin said, "but I looked at things differently coming up."

Many of these chefs tip their toques to the BYOB movement, which has been a liberating outlet for young chefs to find their voice. But the vibrance of that scene has ebbed a notch in recent years as owners of some pioneers - Django, Pif, Matyson, Alison at Blue Bell - either moved on or acquired liquor licenses.

So the spotlight has slowly turned back toward traditional, full-service restaurants - except that the old fine-dining concepts no longer quite work in an era when savvy diners seek their culinary fireworks without the starch of formality.

In the last year, that pressure touched Restaurant Row icons such as Striped Bass, which closed, and Le Bec-Fin, which went a la carte - and allowed jeans - after 38 years of a prix-fixe menu. Meanwhile, the boisterous, casual settings of Garces' tapas bars and Vetri's Osteria are among the hottest reservations in town. Newer mega-restaurants like Maia, Table 31 and Rae buffer their upscale fine-dining ambitions with the cushion of a multiconcept approach, adding less expensive bistro and bar menus.

"I don't envy those guys," said Lacroix. "Twenty years ago it was easier. There was less competition, and it was the aspiration for every cook to do a white-tablecloth restaurant. Today, they have to compete to be a star."

"Change is a way of life," he said. "Our time is over - for Georges and myself."

Perrier, who still runs four restaurants, sees things a bit differently. He gives the new kitchen lions their due, but isn't ready to pass the torch just yet.

"They don't have big heads. They work hard, and they're down-to-earth, low-key guys . . . like I am," he says.

"But," he adds with his legendary modesty: "I know I'm still the best. . . . If [Vetri and Garces] last as long as I do - 40 years this year! - then we can say they're great chefs."


Contact restaurant critic Craig LaBan at 215-854-2682 or claban@phillynews.com.

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