It's the perfect showcase for Krall, a former cook who's built a busy career around drawing the food he loves to eat.
The family way
High-end graphics and lowbrow grub don't immediately sound like cultural bedfellows, but Krall's background splits the gap between visuals and vittles. The Jenkintown native, 35, comes from a family fixated on both disciplines. His father is a former art director; his mother, a prolific home cook, has worked as a teacher, painter and food stylist.
Krall's maternal grandparents both taught at the University of the Arts. Benjamin Eisenstat, his maternal grandfather, was a respected illustrator well-regarded for his depictions of Philadelphia architecture.
From an early age, Krall - his first name is James, but he's always gone by his middle name, Hawk, a nod to his dad's "vaguely Native American" background - was fascinated by the food of everyday America. He remembers leafing through Jane and Michael Stern's Roadfood tomes, putting knowledge into practice during car trips his parents - coaster- and carousel-obsessed "amusement park aficionados" - would take in the summer.
"That travel aspect of it influenced me," said Krall, who's covered the country documenting and downing source material.
After high school, Krall moved to Brooklyn, N.Y., to study illustration at the Pratt Institute. Though frequent visits to Coney Island shaped his bright and direct on-canvas approach, he didn't nail down the specifics of his artistic identity until senior year. Up to that point, it was his ambition to become "an underground cartoonist, like Dan Clowes or Peter Bagge."
As a sign of meals and deals to come, his first published work featured "girls eating giant hot dogs" in Screw, the Al Goldstein-founded "porn Village Voice" long considered a ground for cutting-edge illustrators.
On the line
Returning to Philly in 2001, Krall took a gig designing window displays at the now-defunct Daffy's, but cooking soon came calling. A friend, luring him with the promise of "free beer," got Krall a spot in the kitchen at Fairmount's North Star Bar, where he soon became de facto chef despite only having worked at Pizza Hut. After he got his bearings cranking out munchies for music lovers, another friend encouraged him to take on a second job at Stephen Starr's Angelina, under current Il Pittore chef/owner Chris Painter.
"I thought, 'I can't cook at a real restaurant!' " said Krall. "But on my background of being chef of the North Star, I got a job there. I didn't know what I was doing."
He soon figured it out, enough to move on to the line at Brasserie Perrier, where he worked until about a month before its 2009 closing. "I loved it, but it was brutal," said Krall of his five-stint run. "Sort of disorganized and organized at the same time. At Angelina, all the recipes were written down. At Brasserie, every sous chef had them in their little book, but they were all different."
He used his free time to promote work of a different sort, earning placements in Philadelphia Weekly, Baltimore City Paper and New York Press. (He's still quite active in the print world, but he's also been commissioned for projects by restaurants like Hot Diggity! and Pizza Brain.)
It wasn't long before Krall, who already had a habit of sketching out ideas for dishes, married the two. "When I would do recipes, I would draw them, because it's just the way I think," he said. "I thought I should just turn these into illustrations."
He started with "fancy food," but it didn't catch on. "I guess I just thought that to make a career out of it, I had to go the fancy route and draw wine glasses and Italian cured meats."
Krall's food-focused art began veering toward the experiential - his raunchy, hilarious "Dirty Dish" comic series focuses on tales from kitchens past - and the edible, via exploratory columns for the popular site Serious Eats.
Such fare, with all its colorful geographic quirks, harmonizes with Krall's vision. The diagram-like renderings that double as the menu of South Street forcemeat emporium Hot Diggity!, for example, rely on exaggerated colors and an air of cartoonish familiarity to break down every topping, layer and obscure add-on.
He's also conscious of his hand, tweaked with each item's heritage - Vietnamese-influenced lettering for the Saigon Fusion or taqueria-like text for a Tex-Mex Fiesta Dog. "I make sure the lettering matches the design and culture," said Krall.
Though most of his pieces are done on printmaking paper with gouache, an opaque watercolor paint, then digitally polished in Photoshop, Krall is going a new-but-old direction for this weekend's sandwich show.
He's hand-applied every bite, from Lombardi's Italian hoagie to the fry- and slaw-covered Pittsburgh cheesesteak served at the Sardine, on planks of wood, a shoutout to the scratch-crafted signs hanging in the diners, rest stops, smokehouses and street stalls that create the food he spends his studio days re-creating.
"In my parents' generation, if you were doing Coney Island-style illustration, it was sort of like you were a hack," he said. "Now it has this retro appeal.
"One thing my parents always taught me: Go out and draw from life, so you're not just copying other people," said Krall of what he keeps in mind when he picks up a brush. Lucky for us, he's followed through so much on this lesson that we'll actually be able to eat his art - many of the sandwiches stuck to the Sardine Bar walls will be available on the menu for the duration of the show.
American Sardine Bar, 1800 Federal St., 215-334-2337, americansardinebar.com. Opening reception 7 p.m. Saturday; show continues through Jan 7.
Drew Lazor has been writing about the local food scene for more than six years. His twice-monthly column focuses on unexpected people doing unexpected things in Philadelphia food. If you come across a chef, restaurant, dish or food-related topic that bears investigation, contact him at email@example.com.