The food tree: Top Philadelphia restaurateurs nurture next generation of fine-dining talent

For a look at who's who on the dining scene, click right here for a nifty .PDF. To see a larger version of the graphic above, simply click on it.
For a look at who's who on the dining scene, click right here for a nifty .PDF. To see a larger version of the graphic above, simply click on it.
Posted: August 25, 2011

When it comes to sharing the gastronomic wealth, Philly’s restaurant community is awash in culinary riches.

Thanks to a cadre of chefs and restaurateurs committed to staying in Philadelphia and passing on their talents to the next generation, our city is a strong player in the national dining scene, receiving attention at the annual James Beard Foundation Awards, earning out-of-town media raves and maintaining a loyal following from hometown appetites.

But for rabid foodies, sometimes it’s hard to see the forest for the trees. The rich culinary landscape we take for granted didn’t just seed itself. The restaurants we love, havens of deliciousness such as Barbuzzo, Amis, Tinto and Parc, are outgrowths of a talent pool with deep roots. We wondered: What would a family tree made up of Philly’s top chefs really look like?

A page from history

For a little historic perspective, 31 years ago, Inquirer restaurant maven Elaine Tait wrote about how upstart chefs such as Wally Callahan of the Coventry Forge Inn, Le Bec-Fin’s Georges Perrier and Steve Poses of Frog Commissary were making it “safe for the townsfolk to go out to dinner.” Once the mavericks, these and other pioneers have begotten a new generation, even two, of considerable talent.

According to the Center City District, all this brain trust translates into a growing downtown dining scene, despite the tight economy. In 1992, only 65 of what the CCD considers to be “fine-dining” restaurants operated between Vine and Pine streets and Front and 24th streets, and most were concentrated around Rittenhouse Square. By 2005, the number had climbed to 185, and today there are 278 fine-dining restaurants, a 328 percent increase since 1992. If you count cafes, takeaways and bakeries, and add South Street into the mix, there are 754 eateries, an increase of close to 35 percent in six years. Pretty impressive numbers, only possible with the driving ambition and hard work of a deep pool of talent.

“Running a restaurant is a team sport,” said Poses, who apprenticed under Peter von Starck at the seminal La Panetiere before opening Frog and The Commissary in the ’70s. Poses now runs Frog Commissary, an off-premise caterer, and his book Steve Poses at Home encourages readers to entertain in their own kitchens. “You can’t run a restaurant without a team of people who share your passion. Ultimately, they’re like your children. They grow up, move on and leave the nest.”

Movers and shakers

So who are Philly’s top influencers when it comes to culinary talent? They’re chefs such as Perrier or Jean-Marie Lacroix, whose commitments to Philadelphia are legendary and whose profiles are national and international. And founders of restaurant dynasties like Stephen Starr. And strong family restaurant cultures such as the DiLullos’, which mentored dozens of up-and-coming chefs.

It’s a given that Le Bec-Fin revolutionized dining in Philadelphia. Opened in 1970 by Perrier, the grand-père of Philadelphia’s fine-dining scene who was 23 at the time, Le Bec-Fin raised the bar, first at its original location — 1312 Spruce, now home to Vetri — and now on Walnut Street. Susanna Foo, whose late, eponymous restaurant is still mourned in Center City, was another chef-driven pioneer who put Philadelphia on the map. Same for White Dog Cafe, with Judy Wicks channeling Alice Waters’ farm-to-table movement way before it became a catchphrase.

Lacroix is another seminal figure, whose culinary prowess casts a giant shadow, inspiring a generation of chefs from the Four Seasons, and also at the dining room named for him at the Rittenhouse Hotel.

Arguably no single force has shaped the Philadelphia restaurant landscape more than Starr. The concert promoter-turned restaurateur emerged in the ’90s with radical ideas of high-concept dining as entertainment that shook everything up. With more than a dozen Philadelphia restaurants in his growing empire, which has outposts in Atlantic City, New York and Florida, Starr has been a major talent incubator, bringing chefs up through the ranks and ultimately rewarding many of them with a partnered top spot — Chris Painter’s new Il Pittore is a case in point.

Others, like Iron Chef Jose Garces, learned within the Starr organization, then stepped out, and up, on his own. “I feel very proud of that,” said Starr. “It’s the natural evolution of life. It’s like somebody starting in the mailroom at William Morris and then ending up being Steven Spielberg.”

Starr believes that his own success, and the success of his company, has inspired excellence beyond its own ranks.  “Not only have we hired people who have evolved with our company, but people who have never worked for us could say, ‘I could own a restaurant like that and be successful.’ ”

Other people with influential spots on our chef family may not be so obvious. Derek Davis, for example, now has a single restaurant. But there was a time when he was juggling six and mentoring the likes of Jennifer Carroll, now at 10 Arts, Chip Roman (Blackfish, Mica) and Guillermo Pernot, now a consulting chef at Cuba Libre Restaurant & Rum Bar.

Chefs, by their very nature, are moving targets. In trying to flesh out a Philly culinary family tree, we had some decisions to make. We started with nine major influences, and limited branches to chefs still working in restaurants in the Philadelphia area. This excluded Alison Barshak, for instance, and James Burke. We also had a few chefs who said thanks but no thanks when asked to take a spot.

At the end of the day, what we’re left with is a living thing that is constantly changing — branches breaking off and new ones sprouting. It’s a mighty oak, an impressive series of connections no matter how you cut it. And for us diners, who benefit the most from the constantly evolving gastronomic scene, we can thank our lucky stars that we live right here, right now — and that it’s almost time for dinner.

- Daily News Assistant Features Editor Laurie T. Conrad contributed to this report.

Beth D’Addono has been writing about food and travel for local and national publications for 20 years. Read more of her work at Unchainedtravel.com.

 

For a look at who's who and where they came from, click on the graphic below (.PDF)

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