Culinarily speaking, Philly has always grown its own talent, and proudly so. Young chefs rise through the ranks, flourishing in this we-don’t-need-nobody-else vacuum of verve and grit. But as the national spotlight has found our city, so have chefs, emigrating from everywhere from Napa Valley to the Five Boroughs.
“The biggest draw to Philly for me definitely is that the chef scene is very supportive,” says Le Virtu’s Joe Cicala, who decamped here after cooking in some of D.C.’s and New York’s finest Italian restaurants. “It seems everyone wants everyone else to succeed, and as a young chef, I feel that I can make a name for myself on my own terms.”
Cicala is part of the circa-2010 first wave of immigration, which also includes Mike Santoro, another D.C. defector. He was chef de cuisine at Washington’s Blue Duck Tavern before opening Talula’s Garden and, a year later, his own place, The Mildred. Josh Lawler’s story is similar: He put Dan Barber’s Blue Hill at Stone Barns in his rearview to launch the intimate The Farm and Fisherman.
Vernick Food & Drink’s Greg Vernick, longtime lieutenant of Jean-Georges Vongerichten, hails from Cherry Hill. Karen Urie Shields, partner of John Shields, has family in West Chester; it’s one of the reasons the couple relocated here from Virginia’s acclaimed Town House. The Shields are planning a Philly project for 2013, as is Center City-bred Chicago transplant Joncarl Lachman. “I’m ready to come home and make my mark,” says Lachman, whose Dutch BYOB Winkel is on deck for January.
Some of these new chefs aren’t new at all, like Christopher Lee, who left Striped Bass in 2006 for Gilt in New York, where he earned two Michelin stars; he’s back to transform Salt & Pepper. Others, like Le Bec’s Walter Abrams and Fork’s new chef, Eli Kulp, have never cooked here, but have fallen under the city’s unusual spell.
“My wife and I started looking around the city and saw how livable it is,” says Kulp, who left New York darling Torrisi Italian Specialties. “Every chef I met was so happy here. It was such a positive vibe.”
That vibe is likely what lured Peter Serpico, former director of operations for David Chang’s Momofuku Empire, to town. In December, he’ll bring this percolating trend to a boil with Serpico, a Starr-backed South Streeter with 52 first-come, first-served seats. Serpico, who nabbed two Michelin stars while cooking at Momofuku Ko, has been cited saying he moved to Philly for a better “quality of life.”
With Serpico and comrades shaking up the status quo, no doubt ours is also about to improve, too.