Philadelphia isn’t exactly a hotbed of New Orleans cuisine.
The city does, however, have a full slate of people entering the restaurant business.
Sean Nevins, 43, who years ago traded a budding culinary career for business school, will open Acadia, a Creole-Cajun restaurant, at 824 S. Eighth St. in Bella Vista on Saturday. He envisions Acadia, named after the French speakers from Canadian maritime provinces who settled in Louisiana after their expulsion in the mid-18th century, as a neighborhood restaurant. It will have a full bar serving Sazerac as well as beer, wine, and other cocktails, and its family-friendly vibe will include a kids’ menu and morning coffee and beignets up front.
And he will be the chef.
You certainly know that the restaurant industry isn’t a slam-dunk.
What’s your counter to that?
Well, if I came up with everyone every time somebody said, ‘You’re crazy,’ or, ‘What are you doing?’ or that kind of thing, I would have to say, ‘Yeah, you have to be a little bit crazy in the industry.’ You have to have a sense that what you’re doing is going to matter and resonate to people, that people are going to care about what you’re doing almost as much as you do. And I think that if we’re making food that has a lot of care and attention put into it, and we’re following traditional techniques and using really good ingredients, that people are going to want to come and try us and see what it’s all about. Every major metropolitan city has a really good Creole or Cajun restaurant. Philadelphia doesn’t. So I think that as we find our sea legs, that people in other parts of the city are probably going to be interested in coming down and checking us out.
How did you get here?
I grew up in western New York, making food for the tourists that would come down to the ski resort in the town that I lived in. I started off as a salad and appetizer person but quickly moved into sauté chef because I had a knack for it. And the thing I did particularly well was roux. So, I can do a roux basically any color, and I can do it consistently. Everything in southern Louisiana starts with a roux. So with the help of some natives and a lot of other people, I developed my recipes — and almost went to culinary school until the business school option came alone. Everybody said I’d be crazy if I didn’t go to business school, so that’s what brought me down there to Philadelphia.
With my Wharton degree, I helped large companies start new businesses. I’ve always been an entrepreneur at heart. I actually did that for a little while, and now when this opportunity presented itself, it was like, well — this is too good. It’s allowing me to kind of get back to what I love. I think that the neighborhood is something … basically when I graduated from school, I moved into the neighborhood and fell in love with it then. Then my daughter came along and, like so many other people, we had a two-story walk-up. With all the baby gear and whatnot, it became a little arduous. We went out to the suburbs and so that’s why when I was looking around and saw this in Bella Vista, I was, ‘OK. This is where I want to be for opening a neighborhood bar and restaurant.’
What do you like about this space? It’s been a few restaurants over the years, including Michael’s, James, the Mildred, and Coeur.
This space, to me, has good bones. I like what’s going on with the neighborhood. I like the diversity of the people that walk by. I really feel like this is the Italian Market but with a melting pot of people who are living and walking around here. I spent some time outside. I spent a lot of time just being in the space and thinking about how would the flow be, and what would the atmosphere be, and how could I take something that I was good at in doing southern Louisiana food and make it into a neighborhood bar and restaurant.
How do you do that?
You do it by cooking authentically good food; by serving it in a fun, lively atmosphere; and you do it in a way where the prices are reasonable where you’re getting value for your money.
Why don’t you think there is a lot of that food in this area?
I think that it’s very technical to aspects to the cooking. Either when you’re making a roux, it’s taking you all day to do it, or if you’re doing it quickly, which is what I do, there’s lots of room for error. I think that it’s not something that’s typically taught in a culinary school. Most of this type of cooking was passed down. It’s home cooking, really. It’s people’s grandparents who are teaching them how to do it. To be quite honest with you, these are the kind of people who taught me how to do it. Once I realized that the roux could be used for this wonderful cuisine — the gumbos, the jambalayas — I surrounded myself with people who knew how to do it. They would take the time to show me the things that their grandmothers showed them. How to take the time to do it. What color roux do you want it to be? How do you calm your roux down if it’s starting to get out of control on you? These types of things.
You’ve cooked in a restaurant?
I have friends who own bars and restaurants in New Orleans. I go down there to go into their kitchens to see what’s going on and to take how they’re doing it and seeing where their break points are to be able to serve the number of people that they serve on any given night. Then they’ve also come up here to work with me and my staff. They were just up here last week working with me in my kitchen and some of the staff I’ve hired. There’s a lot of support. A lot of back and forth.
I’m teaching our crew how to do everything. A lot of it is preparation. Like, in terms of the gumbo, you get everything together, and then you need everything to sit for a little while, you know? So we’ve got the time to do it. We’re only going to be open for dinner when we’re coming out of the gate. We have our eyes on maybe opening for brunch when the weather gets a little bit nicer. But opening for dinner will allow us to get our feet underneath us. We’re also going to be starting with a somewhat limited menu. Then we’ll see what people like and go from there.