PETER WOOLSEY should be thankful that acting chops were not a prerequisite when FringeArts came looking for a food guy to run the new restaurant inside its Delaware River headquarters.
Aside from appearing in a ninth-grade production of the musical "Gypsy," he doesn't have much experience as a thespian. But that hasn't stopped the chef/owner of Bistrot La Minette from buying into the unexpected parfait of food, drink, culture and entertainment behind La Peg, offering Philly's art and food communities something they've never seen before.
FringeArts, the nonprofit behind the long-running Fringe Festival, which returns for its 18th year Sept. 5-21, brings acclaimed international artists to the city in addition to curating work by local performers and troupes.
Long on the hunt for a permanent HQ, the organization found it in a vacant, 111-year-old Fire Department pump house at Columbus Boulevard and Race Street. The Fringe folks moved in last year, notching off portions of the cavernous 10,000-square-foot brick building, nestled in the dramatic shadow of the Ben Franklin Bridge, for offices, studios and a 240-seat theater.
Roughly a third of that interior square footage was reserved for a bar and restaurant - a logical move long in the works, according to FringeArts president and producing director Nick Stuccio.
"People come, they see a show. It's over and where do they go? A bar, restaurant, club or beer garden," Stuccio said. "And that's the 'fun' part of the evening. The art part is the preamble. The basic idea is, let's not send them away and turn the lights out. Let's keep them here."
Setting the stage
A series of conversations and introductions linked Stuccio with Woolsey, who's long been poking around for a second opportunity to go with his 6-year-old French bistro in Queen Village.
"I was very interested in doing something very different than what I've done before," Woolsey said. "I was looking for an opportunity to get rid of the rule book."
While Stuccio chatted with a number of potential tenants, he felt that the open-minded Woolsey - more than willing to explore the unorthodox marriage of high-concept performance and screaming-hot pans - was the best match for the Fringe crowd.
"We needed somebody to grow, mold, evolve and adapt with, to try new things and experiment with," Stuccio said. "We didn't want a pretentious, ornate, gilded look, the high-minded feel of the opera and ballet. We're in the downtown art world."
FringeArts got its wish, aesthetically and otherwise, in Woolsey's laid-back, not-fully-French brasserie, named La Peg, after Woolsey's nickname for his wife, Peggy. Original industrial touches from the pump-house days are preserved and scattered throughout the bi-level space, which has about 100 seats and a 12-seat bar. In the works is an outdoor beer garden that should be ready by the time this year's festival kicks off.
Brasserie with a twist
Open since Monday, La Peg offers a large but accessible menu overseen by chef de cuisine Nich Bazik. In true brasserie fashion, it's designed to appeal to multiple audiences, particularly those taking in shows in the adjacent theater. There's a raw bar and classic crowd-pleasers like steak frites, onion soup and beef tartare.
But since it's not bound by the bistro tradition the way La Minette is, the chefs are able to include dishes like pho consomme, a fanciful interpretation of Vietnamese beef noodle soup; and a "Fringe Burger," topped with bacon-onion marmalade, Delice de Bourgogne cheese and corn shoots.
Guests in the building for Fringe events will be able to order bottled cocktails from the La Peg bar to enjoy in the theater, as well as drinks, snacks or dessert before or after the curtain. To celebrate further the confluence of theater and dining, Woolsey's working on developing thematic tasting menus and even an interactive snacking option that might see you taking timed bites at critical moments during a show.
But those are just their ideas for the theater in the next room. La Peg actually has a small stage of its own right on the dining room floor, meaning that actors, dancers, comics and other talent will soon be integrated directly into the experience.
So far, they've booked such Philly talent as Martha Graham Cracker and El Malito for La Peg. Satirical rapper Champagne Jerry will be coming down from NYC, and magicians Elephant Room have been tapped for a future appearance, as well.
With FringeArts handling the curation of this side of the concept, Woolsey and Bazik are left alone to focus on cooking, though there is a good chance that staffers, guests and even Woolsey himself will get integrated into performances.
How will this closely intertwined relationship between food and art, never attempted in quite this manner in Philly before, play out? Will it be disruptive? Immersive? Confusing? Inspiring? Hunger-inducing? All of the above?
Bazik, who vows to stay in the kitchen and off the stage, doesn't know. But he's looking forward to finding out. "It's developing its own culture," he said. "Really, the only consistent things about the restaurant will be food and service. Everything else? We'll see."
The 2014 Fringe Festival will be held Sept. 5-21 at FringeArts, 140 N. Columbus Blvd. (at Race Street) and at locations around the city. Tickets and details at FringeArts.com or 215-413-1318. La Peg is open daily for dinner and late-night bar. 215-375-7744, lapegbrasserie.com
Drew Lazor has been writing about the local food scene since 2005. If you come across a chef, restaurant, dish or food-related topic that bears investigation, contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @drewlazor.