Talula's thriving despite divorce Chef leaves the table as iconic duo split.

Posted: April 25, 2010

Spring wildflowers sprouted from Mason jars on the farm table at the heart of Talula's Table, where lucky guests had already begun to arrive on a recent evening.

The seasonal tasting menu at this storied kitchen in Kennett Square has become one of the most coveted dinner experiences in America - just a handful of seats each night that must be reserved a year in advance.

And as always, owner Aimee Olexy launched the evening with warm greetings and flutes of Champagne, while a parade of hors d'oeuvres began to arrive: tiny white asparagus tarts topped with almond brittle, marble-size masa cups filled with chipotle-sauced duck confit, warm little tater tots crowned with caviar, and scrambled local eggs.

In true Talula's fashion, each one was more delightful than the last. And yet, something familiar was missing here. Bryan Sikora - the celebrated chef who helped his wife, Aimee, turn Talula's into the talk of the dining world - was nowhere to be seen.

Aimee, 39, and Bryan, 40, first rose to prominence at Django, where they became the iconic duo on the Philadelphia restaurant scene. They were a seemingly unbeatable "mom-and-pop" force that set the bar high for a generation of BYOBs - dozens of them also run by husband-and-wife teams.

But what happens to that idyllic equation when "pop" files for divorce and quits the team, as Bryan did in January?

Angst-ridden foodies, of course, must be wondering about the status of those precious reservations. Is an evening here still the enchanted dinner that Saveur magazine recently named to its coveted Top 100 list? The food, spirit, and future of the culinary gem were suddenly at risk.

Unconventional vision

At their peak together, Bryan cooked seasonal wonders, and Aimee ran the dining room (and lovingly tended her cheese). When they suddenly sold their four-bell Django to eventually open a far-flung gourmet market in Chester County - a move that struck many as a shock - the national acclaim they earned for the nightly tastings at Talula's seemed only to confirm their flawless, albeit unconventional, vision.

In fact, just a few months ago, industry insiders were abuzz with the possibility that the couple were planning a return to the city with their onetime boss Stephen Starr. Negotiations to remake the Blue Angel space (which Aimee originally helped open) had advanced so far, Starr says, that bids for construction were being put out.

And then, in mid-January, Bryan asked for a divorce.

"It was a total shock, really, like a ton of bricks," said Starr. "I never expected that."

Starr wasn't the only one.

Anxiety and gossip

A lot can happen in the year it takes to wait for a meal reserved at Talula's. Numerous expansion plans can come and go. Staff can turn over. A marriage can come undone.

To undergo that kind of private devastation on such a public stage - to become the subject of sordid small-town and Internet gossip, not to mention the anxiety of the local dinerati - only adds to the challenge.

Somehow, despite the upheaval in her personal life (including the added responsibility of primary custody of their 4-year-old daughter), Aimee has managed to preserve a dining experience here that is still one of the region's most sublime. In the kitchen, longtime cooks whose services reach back to the Django days - chef Matthew Moon and his sous-chefs Joshua Behm and John Patterson - have stepped out from Bryan's shadow to embrace the spring tasting menu as their own.

Seared Barnegat scallops pair with honeyed citrus and the unexpected richness of foie gras mousse topped with smoked salmon caviar. A hot croquette, cracked open, gushes a creamy marrow bchamel with spring ramps into a bowl of morel mushroom soup. Tiny cannelloni filled with silky sweet potatoes riff Southern over house-smoked bacon and spicy mustard greens ringed by a root beer liquor glaze. The tuna melt gets deconstructed and redefined - mustard-crusted, oil-poached, gratineed beneath Amish Swiss, whipped into tonnato dressing - with a modern elegance that has long defined the Talula's aesthetic.

That seamless continuity is as much a tribute to Bryan's skill in "creating the foundations" as it is the talents of the chefs now cooking, says Aimee.

"He was a great employee, if I could perceive him that way," she says. But eventually, he was almost on automatic pilot. "He was losing touch with his work," she says.

Bryan, now consulting for a restaurant group at the Delaware shore, still believes "in Talula's entirely." But he agrees that he'd lost his verve for the market's unusual routine of prepared foods by day with set monthly tasting menus by night and lots of customer schmoozing.

"It's a fortunate place to be," but the success of the tastings "was so accidental. . . . I was getting a little bored . . . and I need to be involved in something more than just standing at a stove for one table," he says. "Eventually, I got a little less interested in talking to people every night, and more interested in just being in a functioning restaurant kitchen."

Pressure cooker

Inside the intimate pressure-cooker world of a husband-and-wife-run restaurant, however, the challenges of home and work easily become enmeshed. Arguments over staff members spin into more personal disputes. Growing frustrations and diverging visions of a shared career can begin to mirror the state of the romance.

A sense of shared ownership is, in many cases, the strength that lends so many spouse-owned Philadelphia restaurants a unique sense of personality. But when communication goes sour, that spirit can unravel at the foundations.

Of course, a common workplace was at the foundation of Aimee and Bryan's relationship. She was from West Chester, he was from Western Pennsylvania. They met 13 years ago working at a restaurant in Boulder, Colo. They married shortly after and moved back East, where, for most of the following 12 years, they toiled together to build a universe of loyal fans and memorable meals around their intimate dining rooms.

"We worked in these little shoe boxes together for so long, then spent night after night across the stainless-steel table from each other, drinking wine and talking," said Aimee, "it felt like we were married for 60 years."

"Our shared passion for work," said Bryan, "is probably what kept us together all those years." Building Django, he said, was "spiritual." At Talula's, though, he was beginning to feel "roped in."

The deal with Starr seemed like a "darn near perfect" opportunity, said Aimee, for them to branch out beyond Kennett Square into that other challenge Bryan craved. "He seemed 100 percent into it."

But Bryan felt left out of the planning loop between Aimee and Starr ("like they were just going to tell me what time to start cooking"). It was, he says, the last in a long line of strong disagreements over their future plans, beginning with whether to abandon Django in the city, to whether to take on investors (they didn't), to a series of false starts on other restaurants over the last year.

"In my heart and the way I was feeling, this thing" with Starr "just didn't feel like the right situation," he says. "It was going to be another Aimee-and-Bryan show, another ego-driven, identity-driven restaurant. And I wasn't sure I wanted to be out front shaking hands with customers portraying something that . . ."

His voice trails off as the conversation turns to the inevitable next subject. Bryan acknowledges another woman had entered the picture.

Quick dissolution

Bryan asked for an expedited divorce in mid-January. Aimee says she signed papers March 1, accepting his fast-track request in order to protect their daughter, Annalee Talula Rae, 4, as well as the business, which she now owns completely. But she still loves him. "I do dream of reconciliation."

The Talula's family has rallied behind her, longtime pastry chef Claire Shears and dining-room stalwart Kate Stroh, among others, giving Aimee a familiar world to run for 12 hours each day - collaborating on menus, foraging for spring ramps in the woods and watercress in the creek, managing phones that ring like clockwork each morning at 7 sharp in hopes of a reservation.

And, of course, orchestrating each exquisite tasting meal like a memorable symphony in 10 courses. Ours continued in perfect tune. Wine-braised poussin over risotto. A trio of Landenberg lamb, grilled, braised, and ground to kebabs. The beloved platter of obscure and wonderful cheeses. A rich rhubarb crme brulee made with the eggs of chickens owned by people eating dinner that night.

"The spirit of Talula's has always been my baby. . . . I know I can do this," says Aimee. "Hey, look at Alice Waters! Look at Martha Stewart!"

Bryan isn't betting against her. "She has more vision for that business than she even knows. I hope she has tons of success there."

In the meantime, while Talula's guests devour the last macaroons filled with lavender buttercream and take their parting gifts of buttercrunch toffee into the Chester County night at the end of another stellar tasting, one of the region's most talented chefs of the last decade is adrift, in life and in his career, looking for a new spot to cook closer to Kennett Square.

"Bryan needs a job. . . . Anybody?" he calls out half in jest. "I've still got a ton of good cooking in me."

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

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