My theory had been that the beer-and-food craze is due largely to the number of chefs who learned the ropes as poor kitchen assistants. Once, these apprentices would've cooked with wine because, well, the PBR they were guzzling didn't exactly inspire thoughts of high cuisine.
But the latest generation grew up on microbrewed ales and lagers, which gave them a cheaper, even more flavorful recipe option.
I ran that idea past George Sabatino, 31, the chef who led South Philly's Stateside to its recent No. 1 ranking by Philadelphia magazine. Last year, he won the inaugural Brewery Ommegang Hop Chef competition that pitted some of the nation's top chefs in a beer-infused cook-off.
"To tell the truth," said Sabatino, now working the stove at Morgan's Pier, on Delaware Avenue, "until Hop Chef, I didn't have a lot of experience with cooking with beer. Mainly, I used red wine.
"I had a lot of experience with drinking beer, but not cooking with it."
Which, come to think of it, might be a better explanation for all the beer-inspired menus in town.
Sabatino said that Philadelphia is so focused on suds these days, chefs are almost forced by their thirsty patrons to come up with new dishes that are either made with beer or match the flavors of beer.
"It's just the way this town is with beer," said Sabatino. "I remember how excited people got four years ago at Barbuzzo [the 13th Street bistro where he formerly worked] when we started bringing in craft beer in cans. . . . Then, down at Stateside, we served this one dish - potato soup with short ribs braised in a smoked beer. I couldn't believe how many of those we served in one night."
Sabatino's most successful dish might've been his winning entry in last year's Hop Chef competition: smoked capon sausage with mustard, white beans and tapenade, which was paired with Ommegang Rare Vos, a mellow yet spicy amber ale.
The sausage and the white beans were infused with the ale, but it might've been the mustard that blew away the judges. He had reduced bottle after bottle of Rare Vos for hours, simmering it down till its caramel-like sugars mingled thoroughly with the mustard spices.
"It took plenty of beer to make that reduction," he said, "but the spice was just perfect for the weather, and I liked the way it played off the smoke of the sausage."
Not all recipes take so much time or beer.
"When you cook something like a beer-braised beef cheek, sure it's going to take four, five, six hours in the oven till the meat absorbs all the liquid," he said. "But sometimes it's better just to crack a can and let it do its own thing - don't mess with it too much."
Every chef has his or her secret to cooking with beer, naturally. And you can get a taste of some of the best at the Brewery OmmegangHop Chef preliminary round on Tuesday at Union Transfer (1026 Spring Garden St.).
Sabatino will be resting on his laurels as the event's "Culinary Ambassador," but there won't be any shortage of talent. The competitors include: Nick Macri, from Southwark; Yun Fuentes, of JG Domestic; Lucio Palazzo, of La Calaca Feliz; Pat Szoke, of The Industry; Eli Kulp, of Fork; and Mike Deganis, of Alla Spina.
The Philly winner heads to the finals against chefs from Boston, Chicago and Albany, N.Y., for a grand cook-off at Ommegang's Belgium Comes to Cooperstown, N.Y., festival August 2-4.
Tix to Tuesday's round are $53.50 and available online at Ticketfly.com.
Recipe: George Sabatino's House-Made Beer Mustard
4 cups Rare Vos beer, reduced to 1 cup
6 teaspoons Coleman's dry mustard
1 1/2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce
9 ounces sherry vinegar
1 teaspoon yellow mustard seed
1 1/2 cup honey
teaspoon kosher salt
9 egg yolks
Combine all ingredients in a metal bowl set over a double boiler. Cook over simmering water, whipping continuously but gently, until thickened. Do not whisk too vigorously, or it will become too frothy. Remove from the heat.
Transfer to a blender and puree until very smooth. Allow to cool completely. Can be stored in the fridge for up to a week.
"Joe Sixpack" is by Don Russell, director of Philly Beer Week. For more on the beer scene, sign up for his weekly email update at joesixpack.net. E-mail: email@example.com.