As the business day wound down at Material Culture - the former Germantown freight-train station that's now a showroom for furnishings from around the world - guests were just arriving for a Thursday-night feast.
Chef Aliza Green greeted many of them with hugs: These are relationships that go all the way back to Philadelphia's first attempt at a restaurant renaissance, in the 1980s.
Green was 27 in 1979, when she landed the job of executive chef at the trendsetting restaurant DiLullo's. She was a pioneer of farm-to-table cooking at White Dog Cafe, and was preserving lemons and making harissa at Apropos long before Middle Eastern flavors were trendy. She later worked as a food stylist and consultant before taking over at Material Culture's Baba Olga's Cafe & Supper Club.
Along the way, Green, of Elkins Park, authored 15 cookbooks. The most recent, The Magic of Spice Blends (Quarry Books), inspired the dinners, which will be held each Thursday through March, with regional menu and music to match. One, for example, was a study in Mediterranean spices: hummus with zhoug (Yemenite spicy pepper paste), halloumi with dukkah (an Egyptian blend of toasted seeds and nuts), and lamb with baharat (a Middle Eastern mix of mint, cinnamon, coriander, and cumin).
Green spoke with us about where she's been and what's next.
When you started, the food scene was very different. What was it like?
My first chef job was at Under the Blue Moon in Chestnut Hill. We're having the second phase of it now with all the BYOBs, but in the '70s, there were a lot of those places: low-budget, BYO, maybe with kind of countercultural types. That'd be me. I'm one of those self-taught chefs, of which there's quite a few in my generation, from Alice Waters to Thomas Keller.
I moved to Philly in the late '60s, and there was basically nothing other than private clubs in terms of really good restaurants. But the restaurant business was expanding so quickly there was a lot of opportunity and there wasn't the expectation that you would have gone to school.
Within five years of getting that first job, I became executive chef of Ristorante DiLullo, which was a really big deal. I worked with Marcella Hazan, who was the consultant there, and it had huge influence at the time. I don't think that path would be open to me now. Now, it's much more professionalized, and there are more walls up.
Being a woman in the kitchen back then must have been tough.
I was a pioneer. Before I got the job at Under the Blue Moon, I was going around answering ads, and people would just laugh at me. Later, there was a lot of resentment. Here I am this young woman, and I'm in charge of 20 people, most of them men. It took a lot to get them to respect me.
For years, I dressed unisex: no makeup, jeans and desert boots. I'd say that's one thing that's different now. Young women take for granted that they can do what they want to do.
But when I look around, I say, 'OK, 40 years has passed. How different is it?' Not that different. You can't name me that many really strong women chefs in the city. The only one that's really a financial success, I would say, is Marcie Turney. Most of the others, I think, are struggling.
When I think about a Jose Garces or a Michael Solomonov, that was investor money. Women don't get investors, so they're not going to be owners of restaurants. In many restaurants, there are no women in the kitchen. If there are, they're working in pantry or making the desserts.
You were there in the early days of farm-to-table. How has that evolved?
At DiLullo, I'd buy from a lot of the farmers, and I'd bring them seeds from Italy to grow things for me that I couldn't get. But it was hugely challenging.
One of my farms, Branch Creek Farm, was selling to health-food stores, which would stock a couple wrinkled heads of lettuce. So I called them and said, "I need eight bushels." They had only ever sold like two pounds at a time, so it was a huge difference for them. It was a partnership: learning how to take orders, pack stuff, do quality control.
Now, farms have learned how to work with the chefs. They had to. One of the big things I used to get were zucchini blossoms, and that took quite a while to figure out: He'd have to pick the blossoms while they were open before the sun came up, pack them in shallow cardboard boxes, and bring them in right away.
Going back to your book, why the interest in spice blends?
I did a Field Guide to Herbs and Spices as part of a series of field guides for Quirk Books, and it was just so much fun. The blends add so much dimension. It's the idea that it's more than the sum of its parts. And I see a lot more recipes with spice blends now. In America, our spice consumption has gone through the roof.
And it's not enough now to just buy a box of whatever it is. People are making their own preserves, butchering and curing meats. It goes along with that, and having more control over what you're cooking.
For home cooks interested in adding spice blends to their pantry, where's a good place to start?
There's adobo, which is used in the Caribbean and the Philippines. Goya sells adobo, but there's a lot of salt in there, so I'd say it's good to make your own. I roast sweet potato wedges with it, or mix it with chicken and grill it.
Or baharat: It's easy to make and it's excellent with meats. Rub that all over steak before you grill it and it amplifies the flavors. It comes from Central Asian nomads. I have a wonderful baharat container I bought in Turkey that was made for hanging on your saddle, so no matter where you go, you're ready: You slaughter a lamb, sprinkle it with baharat, and cook it over a fire.
Baba Olga's BYOB Thursday Night Dinner Parties: Feb. 25, Turkish Delights; March 3, Afro-Centric Cuisine of Bahia, Brazil; March 17, Food of the Greek Islands. Dinners are 7-10 p.m., and are $55. Reservations recommended at www.materialculture.com/thursday-night-dinners or 215-849-8030.