2/25/2013 10:06:00 AM

Earth to New York: Philly Ain't No Compromise

A busy evening at Fork Restaurant
Perhaps the acclaim has gone to our heads. Lately, there’s been nothing but glowing  praise in national publications for the growing Philly food scene. Long known for its plethora of tiny BYOs (the one good side effect of state-run liquor), our city has recently seen an influx of top cooking talent, raising the bar for Philly restaurants in general.

“It’s becoming the new wave here and I’m really excited and proud to be part of it,” said Michael Santoro, who came to Philadelphia last year to open The Mildred in Bella Vista.

Peter Serpico is the latest in a stream of renowned chefs to relocate here. A former top toque in David Chang’s Momofuku empire, he’s opening a restaurant on South Street with Stephen Starr. But despite the fast-approaching spring launch, no one had heard much of anything from the very private chef. Until last Friday’s interview with an NYC-based Bon Appetit writer, a piece that appeared to misinterpret our dining community.

“In Philly, there are those huge, big-box restaurants,” one question began. Um, what big-box restaurants? We don't even have a Cheesecake Factory yet (though one is planned). The writer later clarified on Twitter he was referring to Stephen Starr restaurants. He also noted in his article that he'd never eaten in Philadelphia - or even visited Philadelphia - until the one-night collaboration dinner Serpico put on recently at Il Pittore (which happens to be a decidedly non-big-box Starr restaurant, one designed around a chef with seating for just 80).

“Even the Stephen Starr spots - they are all chef-driven, at each restaurant there’s a chef that really cares,” Amis’ Brad Spence weighed in. “Twenty years ago that might not have been the case, but it is now.”

The Bon Appetit writer also refers to the Philadelphia as a city “that's not quite the ethnic melting pot that New York is,” and the question arises as to whether Serpico will have to tone down his food to be successful 90 miles south.

“I think [compromising your food] is the biggest mistake chefs make,” Marc Vetri said via email. “Look at the restaurants that flourish... it’s the ones that are totally new and innovative. Zahav, Bibou, Kanella and even Vetri. They’re creative not for the sake of creativity but for the passion of the chef. When I came to Philly everything Italian was red sauce. People walked in and said, ‘Where's the eggplant parm?’ and then left. We introduced them to something else. Do what you do best and do it with your heart and soul. Don't dumb it down, ever.”

Instead of compromise, The Mildred's Santoro talks about adapting. “As someone stepping into a new city I’ve found it important to find a baseline from which to work. Finding the local ‘flavor’ and working in that area first. However, we have an eight-year lease and are just beginning. Our R&D program is my main focus right now."

Eli Kulp is another recent transplant from NYC, coming off a stint running Torrisi Italian Specialties, one of New York’s hottest dining rooms. Now at Fork, he’s doing food that is not only innovative for Philadelphia, but for any city.

“An old colleague of mine came in for dinner the other day,” Kulp told us on a busy Saturday night, “He told me he wished they had something like this in NYC.”

Philly diners are so proud of all this chef-driven innovation that the Bon Appetit article produced some pushback. In general, the feeling seemed to be that we’re thrilled Serpico chose our city, but less than thrilled to hear about it first from an outsider who doesn’t seem to know much about the Philadelphia scene.

"New York looks at Philadelphia as their little brother," Rittenhouse Tavern chef Nicholas Elmi observed, "and they know that - in real big brother fashion - they can poke fun at Philly, if only to get an over-reaction from the media."

“If the [Philly] food scene has even one tenth the energy it's expended to argue with me...,” the New York writer tweeted over the weekend, “I'm excited about it!”

“It's a passionate bunch down here,” chef Kulp responded to him, over the course of several tweets. “Come down and we'll go on a proper food tour and let me show you what impressed me most about Philly. Welcome to the most dynamic new food scene in the the U.S. No compromises necessary.”

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