New Sofitel chef explores Reading Terminal to give his cooking a Philly accent

Posted: July 11, 2014

YOU WOULDN'T expect that a French-trained executive chef in a French-owned hotel chain would have boyish charm and a Midwestern accent that could cast him in an episode of "Fargo." Yet here's Justin Perdue, who arrived from Chicago this spring to take over the kitchen at Hotel Sofitel Philadelphia, on 17th Street.

Originally from Wisconsin, Perdue, 33, trained in Manhattan at the French Culinary Institute and worked under fellow FCI alum Bobby Flay at Bar Americain.

Perdue eventually moved to Chicago, working at several places before becoming sous chef at the Michelin-starred Sixteen under chef Frank Brunacci. He then joined Hotel Sofitel Chicago, also as sous.

"Brunacci taught me that each dish needs sweet, sour, crunch and salt," Perdue said. "For example, right now I have a scallop, corn [and] cherry ragu with tomato jam on the menu. You get crunch from the corn, sweet from the cherry and honey in the jam, sour from the vinegar and a finish of salt."

Perdue's wife, Serena, and their two dogs, Scarlett and Mavis, are also new to Philadelphia. The couple are easily recognizable walking in their Northern Liberties neighborhood as the large, mixed-breed pooches weigh 125 pounds and 70 pounds, respectively. Serena Perdue is also a chef, and the city will find her contemporary American influences in a nearby kitchen at some point. Right now, she's enjoying her time volunteering at a neighborhood urban garden.

Recently, on his daily bike ride into work, Perdue took a detour with the Daily News to explore our city's food culture as expressed at Reading Terminal Market. A good sport who's game to try anything, Perdue got a taste of some of our regional foods, as well as a bit of our homegrown attytood.

Perdue hit DiNic's stand just as a flatbed cart filled with bags of Sarcone's rolls was wheeled in. He introduced himself and, though protesting that it isn't breakfast food for him, ordered a roast pork with provolone to try a bite. His query on how the meat was prepared was met with a cold shoulder . . . that wasn't pork.

Chef may need to understand that, in this city, an overstuffed sandwich with hot peppers is the Breakfast of Champions, and manners are a contact sport.

The cheesemongers at Fair Food farm stand and Valley Shepherd Creamery were more gregarious, eager to talk about their products. Perdue found the variety of cheeses, all sourced within about 150 miles of the city, impressive.

He was especially interested in the handmade cave-aged cheeses from Valley Shepherd Creamery, in Morris County, N.J.

He got into an animated discussion with cheesemonger Zeke Ferguson about the recent FDA kerfuffle over the safety of aging cheeses on wood. Ferguson said that the FDA has since backtracked and that the wood has beneficial bacteria for the cheese.

Despite his Wisconsin roots, Purdue had never tried raw milk. Unlike in Pennsylvania, the retail sale of raw milk is prohibited in Illinois and Wisconsin, so, when Perdue saw raw milk in the Fair Food dairy case, he bellied up to the dairy bar.

"It's good," he said and then, as though he were a sommelier, added, "I was expecting something grassy and a little barnyard-y."

Perdue definitely needs a trip to Lancaster County to complete his education on the Amish dishes that are fairly common around here.

Shoofly pie and whoopie pie? "I thought they were the same," he admitted.

Chef did appreciate the array of beef jerky flavors, almost a dozen on casual count, at Smucker's stand. "I haven't seen this much jerky since I've been in Wisconsin."

And he discovered at the Fair Food farm stand that the Amaranth Bakery gluten-free products he uses at the hotel are made in Lancaster.

Perdue's first bite of an authentic Amish soft pretzel from Miller's was revelatory. "It's a good pretzel," Perdue said. "This is a lot different than what I've had so far . . . softer . . . it's fantastic, maybe with a little aioli."

His reaction to his first bite of scrapple remains to be witnessed. He took a wary look at the gray mass next to the jerky in the Smucker's case and listened as the ingredients - mostly grains and pig parts - were described.

"I've heard of it. I'll have to try it," he said. "Is it like Spam?"

Perdue declined to make food-scene comparisons between Chicago, a city showered in Michelin love, and our currently starless town. He did note that, compared to the Chicago French Market, Reading Terminal surprised him in its variety and popularity.

"This place is constantly booming," he said.

So, how might diners at the Sofitel see Philadelphia influences on Perdue's menu?

There will always be French influences in technique, so while you may see locally sourced meat you will never see a slab of meat with a bone on the plate, he said. "If you can't eat it, I don't want it on the plate. The bone will get used in stock."

Perdue's summer menu will include a Foie Gras Creme Brulee with a local mix of both sweet and sour cherries balanced with a hit of flavored vinegar. Local beets will star in a salad with fromage blanc, candied pecans and orange-infused olive oil.

The hit of his Reading Terminal shopping trip, Perdue later reported, was the double smoked bacon from Fair Food that made its way into a BLT sandwich. "Fantastic bacon," he said.

It remains to be seen if we'll get him to try scrapple.


Lari Robling is the author of the cookbook Endangered Recipes: Too Good to Be Forgotten. Follow her on Twitter @larirobling.

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