Fountain did better than ever in the 2013 Philadelphia Restaurants Survey, sweeping the first-place rankings in Food, Decor and Service. While Logan Circle’s iconic Swann Fountain is gorgeous, a great view does not an excellent restaurant make. To find out what does lead Philadelphians to love the Four Seasons’ in-house dining room, we went behind the scenes for a look at what makes both the service and the food click. The big surprise? It’s all about having a good time. Read on to see how the chef, manager and staff at Fountain turn fine dining into “fun dining” (their term), with great results.
In the Kitchen
“Stress kills creativity” is the first thing out of chef William DiStefano's mouth. Approximately once a week, he and his staff find a meeting spot outside the kitchen - a hotel conference room, his home - to brainstorm and come up with new ideas. When the seven-person team is in the kitchen, however, it’s game on. At the daily pre-dinner meeting, the chef runs through the entire menu (which is split into á la carte and prix fixe tasting sections), shouting out every single ingredient, sauce or garnish in each dish. The sous-chefs and sauciers are ready with answers. Shouts of “Got that, did it yesterday!” or “It’s simmering now!” are fired back as quickly as items are mentioned.
Everyone’s on their toes, and although “the kitchen is very intense, because the food has to live up to its reputation,” the general atmosphere is relatively relaxed. “Yes, sir!” replies notwithstanding, DiStefano is not a drill sergeant. Younger cooks ask questions and even make (very brief) suggestions for future dishes. The sous-chefs and sauciers also get to design and choose the soup, vegetarian dish and canapés of the day. “If cooks get bored and don’t have a chance to express themselves, they’ll never grow. You can chop all day and you’ll learn great technique, but these guys are beyond that. They need challenges.” Challenges come by way of the modern menu, which has moved beyond traditional French cuisine, incorporating flavors and techniques from all over the world.
Chef DiStefano has worked at Philadelphia’s Four Seasons for over 23 years, but his tenure is dwarfed by the front of the house. All six servers we met during our visit had worked at Fountain for over 27 years (the longest for 29 and a half). These guys know the dining room like the back of their hand, and can read guests like an open book. Each table gets an average of 30 visits from up to six to eight people during the course of a meal, but diners will likely only notice a third of those. “We know when to chat and when to stay quiet,” veteran server Jim Miller told us. “If it’s a birthday party, we’re there, front and center. If it’s a business meeting, well, we don’t even exist.”
What’s changed over the past three decades? “People are much more sophisticated about food now, everyone’s a gourmet. Diners want to know where ingredients come from, if they’re organic,” Miller says. “We love talking with guests about the dishes, and if they want substitutions, because of allergies or something else, we already know what the chef can do - usually the answer is yes! He’s not a food Nazi.” Instead of being adversaries, the front- and back-of-the-house teams are actually friends, and it translates to better service.
We observed this firsthand at the servers’ pre-service briefing. At some top restaurants, such as NYC’s Per Se, this is a hallowed event, ritualized and formal. Not so at Fountain. Though servers are busily scribbling down notes about new or changed menu items, there’s also quite a bit of joking around - after confirming the soup of the day contained mussels and lobster, one waiter deadpanned, “So guests with shellfish allergies should be fine with it. Got it.” That’s opposite what actually happens, of course, thanks to a detailed list of every table reserved for the night with notes about likes, dislikes, names, special occasions and relationships. Despite its location in a hotel, more than half of Fountain’s guests are locals who return time and again, and it’s easy to see why.