On Monday we got the drop on putting up menus for Square Peg — chef Matt Levin's high-end comfort food salon with Barry Gutin and Larry Cohen (Cuba Libre, 32 Degrees) at the one-time home of Marathon Grill at 10th and Walnut. The menus read like a delight, with all-day breakfasts, meatball sandwiches and meatloaf with smashed potatoes (both with Levin's own beef mix) and a daily plate selection including items Levin brought from Adsum, such as homemade pierogies fried chicken.
Now, we snagged Levin, who'll launch Square Peg with a series of soft-open dinners on March 21 (soft-opening lunch starts in April), for a Q&A. He's been busy this week playing with his brand-new fryer, taste-testing spiked-up milkshakes and getting his feet wrapped. You'll find out below what that means after the jump.
Last Thursday, City Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown heartened herself to Philadelphia barflies, night owls and don't-wanna-go-homers by introducing The Extended Bar Hours for Education Bill, which proposes that last call at local drinkeries be pushed back one hour, from 2 a.m. to 3 a.m., for the budgetary benefit of our struggling School District. The 10 percent taxation of alcohol raised approximately $42 million for schools in the 2010 fiscal year; Brown, Council's newly elected Majority Whip, estimates this idea could generate $5 million more.
The bill is in its infancy — it would still have to earn approval within the State General Assembly for City Hall to gain the authority to tweak bar operating hours, which are lorded over by the PLCB. But like anything in Philly involving the word "liquor," it's already garnered strong reactions. (Mayor Nutter, for one, is not a fan of Brown's proposal, per The Inquirer.) We touched base with Councilwoman Brown late last week to get some background on her bill and her honest take on its chances in Harrisburg.
In this week's CP food section, we told you about Forks Over Knives, a new documentary opening this weekend at the Ritz at the Bourse that advocates for a wholly plant-based diet as a means for Americans to combat chronic, widespread ailments such as diabetes and heart disease. Throughout the film, director Lee Fulkerson's two primary subjects, Drs. T. Colin Campbell and Caldwell Esselstyn Jr., discuss in great medical detail the research that's led them to this conclusion, and we meet multiple individuals who've turned their health around for the better by cutting animal protein and dairy entirely out of their lives.
Meal Ticket touched base with plant-based diet advocate Rip Esselstyn, author of 2009's best-selling The Engine 2 Diet and a featured subject of Forks Over Knives (he is Dr. Esselstyn's son), to gain some insight into the film and the movement in general. Rip, a professional triathlete who up until last year worked as a EMT and firefighter in Austin, Texas, currently tours the country with Whole Foods, "spreading the plant-strong message." (He's hosting a screening at the Whole Foods location in Plymouth Meeting this evening.) We caught up with Rip on the phone last week as he ate lunch.
Favorite Kind of Food: Grandma food. My mom-mom, your Nana, that guys Tete if a matriarch made it, thats what I want.You should also read her MT exit interview just for good measure, and sign up for her Weekly Yelp newsletter, too.
Philadelphia History Museum will host a panel discussion exploring trends in Philadelphia dining over the past three decades. The event, which will feature commentary from several of the city's top restaurateurs (Ellen Yin, Fork; Jack McDavid, Jack's Firehouse; Steven Cook, Zahav, Xochitl, Percy Street Barbecue), seems timely. With new restaurants opening weekly and interest in food at a seeming record high, we all might find it palate-cleansing, so to speak, to pause between bites and reflect on how much has changed. "Philadelphia dining now is light years ahead of where it was back in the 1980s, and mostly for the better,â says Michael Klein, columnist at the Inquirer and moderator of Thursday's event. The diversity of options has improved considerably, he stresses; Philly now has "much more depth and variety" across many types of cuisine. "Take Chinese," says Klein. "In the 1980s, we had some Hong Kong-style [restaurants], plus Cantonese and a rare Szechuan. I can count specialists from all over China now. We had ... a handful of sushi restaurants. Now we have hundreds.â He credits "the Food Network and its ilk for much of the progress in the mid-'90s. Food and cooking are very visual, and shows inspired kids and career-changers to seek a life in the kitchen.â From his perspective, the so-called ârestaurant renaissanceâ was largely an industry-driven transformation. It would be hard to argue that Americans were demanding sweetbreads and braised pork belly in restaurants before such delicacies became commonplace on TV and chefs began catering to expectations the burgeoning American foodie class was only beginning to know it had. Perhaps Klein is right. After all, it was the food-loving French who came up with the word entrepreneur.
"Three Decades of Dining in Philadelphia: the 80s, the 90s, and the 00s" | Thu., May 20, 6-7 p.m., Reading Terminal Market (12th and Arch streets) meeting area, accessed through Arch St. North side entrance. Seating is limited; call 215-685-4825 for advance tickets, $5.
Patty James is still learning a thing or two about what kids need to be healthy from her Shine The Light on America's Kids interview project. Traveling the country since January, James is touring one state a week, interviewing children with 25 questions to discover their true health habits. The videotaped interviews will then be analyzed by a university, with the results used to develop a program and a health center (or many health centers) where families will find the resources they need for life-long health -- cooking classes, nutritional and disease-prevention information. Meal Ticket spoke with James as she drove toward Drums, PA for school interviews. She gave us a look at the current state of Shine The Light five months in. Read the Q&A after the jump. Meal Ticket: What kinds of questions are you asking children on your tour? Patty James: We ask them, 'Are you healthy? Is your family healthy?' Some of the questions are very revealing -- When we ask 'What vegetables did you eat yesterday?' They often answer, 'Um, lettuce on my sandwich?" What I've been surprised to learn is what they're NOT eating -- vegetables and dietary fiber. MT: How much dietary fiber does a person need? PJ: You're supposed to be eating 30-35 grams of dietary fiber a day, and the average American is only eating 10-14 grams. These kids, they are just not eating vegetables. It's actually worse than I thought. Vegetables provide not just fiber but phytonutrients, vitamins and minerals. MT: What other answers have really surprised you? PJ: There's one question that every kid has answered 'yes' to, except one single child, and that is 'Do you think P.E. [physical education] should be mandatory? And every child except one said yes. They know they have to exercise to be healthy, and all of them, except this one kid, know they won't do it unless they are forced! Another shocking one is a question the kids answer 'no' to -- 'Do you think there is a connection between the earth's health and your health?' More than half of them say no, no connection. They don't know where their food comes from. It's a real disconnect, and lies at the heart of the obesity problem. You cannot solve it until you get to the source -- where the food comes from, what are you eating. MT: Do you think public policy, like corn subsidies, play a role in the obesity epidemic? PJ: Yes. A definite yes. When you look at childhood obesity, you see it really began in the 1980s and goes right back to sugar. Fructose, which is much cheaper than sugar, is metabolized like fat, and it wasn't common in foods until the 1980s. But the cheap filler stuff is just easier for people to hand to their kids. There is a distinct lack of vegetables, dietary fiber, whole fruits in these kids' diets... they are eating food that is just junk. MT: Many people say, 'My kids won't eat that,' about healthy foods, and vegetables particularly. How do you get kids to eat and enjoy what is good for them? PJ: In my cooking school, I'd be teaching kids to make quinoa pilaf or something like that, and the parents would say, 'Oh they will never eat that.' But if you make them part of the process, and give them ownership of it, they will want to eat it. Kids don't want to be unhealthy or overweight! But we have to get back to home cooking, to eating around the table. Kids who eat at a table get higher grades, are less likely to use drugs and alcohol and are more likely to go to college. We have too much cheap filler food and not enough good information.
Last night, Food Network aired an episode of the cook-off show Chopped featuring two local competitors Eric Paraskevas of terra (243 S. Camac st.) and Mackenzie Hilton of Mercato (1216 Spruce St.). We just touched base with both chefs to get their thoughts on the experience (spoiler after the jump, in case you haven't seen it).
Hosted by Ted Allen, the hour-long show involves four chefs and three rounds appetizer, entrÃ©e and dessert. Each chef is given a basket of random ingredients and 30 minutes to come up with a dish. It's cruel and unusual for professional chefs and usually pretty entertaining for those watching at home.
Paraskevas was eliminated in the entrÃ©e round, for which the "secret" ingredients were tapioca pearls, carrots, fruit leather (yes, fruit leather) and rabbit. Judges chalked it up to an undercooked piece of meat. A third competitor, Dorchester, Mass.-based chef Chris Coombs (placed into the role of "pretentious villain") got the nod over Paraskevas, despite failing to plate a good portion of the meat in a loin/rack/liver rabbit trio.
Hilton made it all the way to the final round, where she and Coombs were asked to make a dessert with yucca, calimynra figs, hoisin sauce and red jalapeno peppers. The chef, who's been at Mercato since it opened in 2005, ended up winning the competition and a $10,000 purse with cinnamon zeppoles with hoisin chocolate sauce and fig yucca cream. On the show, she says the money will support her dream of opening her own restaurant, but she doesn't have any solid details to share on that project as of right now.
On how she ended up on the show: They contacted Mercato and told them that they were interested in having me apply for the show. I'm not sure how they got my name, but I had a feeling they were looking for more female chefs. This year they seem to be trying to get more diversification on the show, because it's been so male-dominated.
On the other guy who wasn't Eric: My competitor for the last round [Coombs] I've gotten a lot of messages, text messages, messages on Facebook, saying how everybody hated him. He was a little bit abrasive at times, but he was really, really, honestly a nice guy. We all had a great camaraderie that they didn't put on the show. For example, in the dessert round, we had all planned out ahead of time that whoever was left, we would just grab all the stuff that we needed and keep it between our stations, and communicate who's got what. "I'm grabbing the sugar, I'm grabbing the flour." They didn't show that at all. They wanted to make it a little nastier than it actually was.
By the time Chris and I got out of there, it was like 10:30 at night. We ended up grabbing a drink afterward. We'd spent this entire day together. Everyone [has been saying] this guy is such an asshole, but he's not. He's very accomplished for his age, coming up and really hungry in the industry. It was cool to meet more people like that, chefs on the same pathway as you.
On whether or not they encouraged her to play up a Mercato/terra rivalry: I didn't think of it as a rivalry. I was excited that Eric was there. It was a high-stress situation and Eric's a really cool, laidback, funny guy. He kept us really relaxed. He's not a stranger he was Marcie Turney's sous chef [at Lolita] when I was [Marcie's brother] Evan Turney's sous chef [at Mercato]. I liked the fact that he was there.
On whether she would do it again: No. It's so difficult, because you have to consider that they can take anything you say or do out of context and portray you possibly differently that you want to be. I felt like I had to be very calculating because I didn't want to say something that could be misconstrued. I can't imagine going through months of that like they do on Top Chef. I was really glad I did it, but they kind of make it hard to represent yourself well as a chef. You're in a foreign kitchen with completely foreign utensils, you don't know what's where, you're cooking ridiculous combinations. On every level they're kind of setting you up to fall on your face and look like an idiot.
On how he was portrayed: I have to say, I was pleasantly pleased with how I came across. I thought they made me look pretty good. ... [However], I was shocked at the sheer volume of space I took up. People always tell me I'm a big guy but I never really fully see myself. It was weird to see my whole body on camera ... strange to see how giant-esque I appeared.
On whether or not they encouraged him to play up a Mercato/terra rivalry: I did want to win. They used a "I wanted to beat the woman down the street" quote, but of course I did. I'm ultimately glad that [Hilton] won because that other dude [Coombs] was a choad. But they didn't make us play up anything. When we were competing, I could hear them mentioning that we were neighbors I imagine that's why we were both cast to be on the same show. I'm glad Mackenzie won and I'm glad they painted me in a good light.
On being eliminated: I was kind of mad about the decision. Obviously I was disappointed. Mackenzie put together a good-looking dish, but [the judges] said it was big and bulky. After hearing the faults [they thought her dish had], [Coombs'] food looked like a pile of blah. I didn't have a meat thermometer [for the rabbit]. I tried to make it happen, took a risk but failed.
On TV do-overs: The only thing that isn't scripted is the actual [cooking] time. Once you finally do open those baskets, the time starts then. [For other segments], they ask you to go back to certain things to talk about. They'll say, 'The judges said something, what do you think of that?'
On whether he would do it again: I would, I definitely would. It was a chance at victory. It was a one-day shoot. Ten Gs for one day of work even after taxes, that's $7,000 for one day of work. Why wouldn't you?
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