Food spotlight to shine on Philadelphia next week

In a 2017 ceremony at Dobbins High, James Beard Award-winners (from left) Greg Vernick, Michael Solomonov, and Stephen Starr taste-test dishes made by students in the culinary-arts program.

Philadelphia’s standing as a national food and restaurant destination will be front and center over the next week.

On Sunday and Monday, Drexel University will host its annual Philly Chef Conference, which draws top names in food and restaurants to appear in panel discussions primarily aimed at the trade and students in its Center for Food and Hospitality Management.

Dovetailed on this, the James Beard Foundation will set up at Parc on Rittenhouse Square to announce the finalists for its annual chef, restaurant, and media awards in a ceremony Wednesday morning. The New York-based foundation moves its announcements from city to city.

Last year was Philadelphia’s year at the Beards, with locals winning awards in major categories including restaurateur of the year (Stephen Starr), chef of the year (Michael Solomonov of Zahav), and best chef in the mid-Atlantic region (Greg Vernick of Vernick Food & Drink). Further, Starr won the award for best new restaurant for his intimate Le Coucou in New York City. Sam Calagione of Dogfish Head in Delaware won the nation’s top award for “wine, spirits or beer” professional.

Philadelphia also was represented last year by other finalists: Rich Landau from Vedge (best chef, mid-Atlantic) and Zahav (for outstanding service; pastry chef Camille Cogswell was nominated for rising-star chef).

The Beard committee chose Philadelphia as the setting for the announcement because its scene “continues to transform and create buzz-worthy experiences for its city and visitors,” Anne Quatrano, chair of the awards’ restaurant and chef committee, said in a statement. The awards ceremony will be May 7 in Chicago. The Beard’s media awards will be handed out on April 27 in New York.

The foundation also will benefit from a private dinner on Tuesday at Osteria, hosted by its new owners, Jeff Michaud, himself a Beard winner, and Michael Schulson.

At Drexel, professor Michael Traud — a lawyer turned chef who founded the annual conference five years ago — has set up two days of programming that will cover such hot-button topics as “The Current State of Women in the Restaurant Industry” and “The Responsibilities of a Food Critic.”

Traud’s reach is extensive, and Drexel is flying in experts from all over. For Sunday’s keynote discussion of women in the industry, he booked Jen Agg (the Toronto restaurateur and author of the memoir I Hear She’s a Real Bitch) and Brett Anderson (the New Orleans Times-Picayune writer who blew the whistle on restaurateur John Besh’s transgressions).

Other topics Sunday are “GenZ Appetites” with food ethnographer June Jo Lee; “X-Ray Vision for Cooks” with culinary scientist Ali Bouzart; and “Food: A Tool for Change” by Lara Gilmore, author of Food for Soul and wife of restaurateur Massimo Bottura.

For Monday’s panels, Traud will import such names as Brad Kilgore of Miami’s red-hot Alter restaurant to cover “Familiar Ingredients in an Unfamiliar Form: Utilizing Dessert Techniques for Savory Dishes” and Rob Levitt (of the Butcher & Larder at Local Foods Chicago) doing a demonstration called “Chop Chop: Butchering for Curing,” in which he will break down a pig into traditional cuts for salumi.

Corporate sponsors also get on board. Acqua Panna and S.Pellegrino are contributing to secure the services of Mitsuharu “Micha” Tsumura, whose Maido restaurant in Lima, Peru, is ranked eighth on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list and first in Latin America.

“We thought it would be a neat idea to have the top Latin chef and the No. 1 James Beard chef collaborate on a dinner,” said Susannah Mauro, who oversees the Nestle water brands’ sales in Pennsylvania. “It just makes sense for them to cook together.”

Working with Dani Mulholland at Zahav, Mauro set up a now-sold-out collaborative dinner to link Tsumura’s Nikkei (Peruvian-Japanese) cuisine and Solomonov’s modern spin on Israeli cuisine. Tsumura and Solomonov also will sit on a Drexel panel on Monday called “Taking Cuisines Across Continents,” about the influence of travel on cuisine.

Tickets for Sunday’s program are still available, via Monday’s programming is sold out.

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