George Sabatino finds it hard to make things easy. It’s something he’s working on — but in the meantime, he still has to make the soup.
On many mornings and some late nights, you can find the 37-year-old chef deep down in the Monstro-size belly of the North Philly Federal Donuts, home to a commissary that serves both the coffee-doughnut-chicken chain and Rooster Soup Co., the civic-minded Center City luncheonette the FedNuts team opened last year.
One recent Friday, as Rooster soupmeister Ivan Bocardo tended to two bubbling 40-gallon cauldrons of chicken stock, Sabatino worked a few paces away, hovering over a much smaller pot of his own. The stock, wrought from the 500-plus pounds of necks, bones, and backs left after butchering whole birds for FedNuts’ six locations each week, is the base of Rooster’s mainstay matzo ball soup.
In Sabatino’s corner was something different: sambar-spiced sweet potato coconut curry, a new recipe he’ll later scale up to cauldron specs and stick on Rooster’s menu. He’s the not-for-profit restaurant’s new head chef — a position that’s required the Hamilton, N.J., native to rethink how and why he cooks.
Blessed and/or burdened with a creative streak that can take him in dozens of directions, Sabatino has a reputation among his peers for his ambition in the kitchen. Starting in his days under chef Marcie Turney, and continuing on through his well-received turn at Stateside to Aldine, the restaurant he recently left, he’s become well-known for a few things: high-end techniques, ornate plating, super-local sourcing, scratch-made everything.
At East Passyunk’s tiny Stateside, Sabatino found room to craft his own charcuterie, cheese, pickles, mustard, and preserves. In 2013, during a seasonal stint at Morgan’s Pier, he and his team shocked hamburgers in liquid nitrogen before deep-frying the patties and topping them with homemade American cheese and Thousand Island dressing from a nitrous canister. At the elegant Aldine, which he and soon-to-be-ex-wife Jennifer Conley Sabatino opened together in 2014, he suspended things in gelées and endeavored to make his own butter, bread, and mozzarella in-house, sous vide-ing, immersion circulating, and hay-smoking along the way.
But now, more than a month into his new job, Sabatino says he’s hit reset. It’s what needs to happen for him to align with Rooster’s mission: The Sansom Street sit-down donates its profits to the Broad Street Ministry’s Hospitality Collaborative, providing hot meals and community resources for thousands of homeless and food-insecure Philadelphians.
Because Rooster’s vibe by design is more homey than haute, Sabatino finds himself conversing with a new audience — one that is wider, and with different expectations. “I think it’s a really good thing to be able to edit yourself,” he says. “But it’s taking me some time to learn how to do that.”
After a bumpy start, Aldine has evolved into a well-regarded Philadelphia restaurant in more recent years, so word of Sabatino’s departure in early 2018 surprised some. The exit was a result of a personal, and not professional, change. The former couple, separated since March 2017, are in a no-contest divorce; Sabatino no longer has any stake in the restaurant. Conley Sabatino recently hired Pennsylvania native Chad Gelso, most recently chef de cuisine of the Michelin-starred Fiola in Washington, to take over at Aldine.
“I think I have one good idea a year,” said Zahav chef Michael Solomonov, who got to know Sabatino during his time at Stateside. In 2018, he suggested to partner Steve Cook that they talk to his free-agent friend about rejiggering the 50-seat Rooster, which, after some long delays, opened in January 2017 with chef Erin O’Shea.
“We had a lot of grand ideas before opening,” said Rooster sous chef Jarret O’Hara, a former Zahav cook who was part of O’Shea’s staff and who helped run the kitchen when she left in mid-2017 to open her own restaurant in Maryland. “Then, seeing the doors actually opened, we realized what we were capable of doing.”
The logistical challenges of the slight, narrow space — the big reason all soups are made at that Seventh and Fairmount commissary, and not on the premises — only served to amplify Cook and Solomonov’s larger concerns about Rooster’s performance and potential in its first full year.
The partners thought the food was good but could be better — especially because better food, given the gambit, would mean more money for Broad Street Ministry. (Cook says Rooster raised a figure “in the many thousands of dollars” for the ministry in 2017, but did not achieve the financial goal they set for themselves in year one.)
“Nobody gives you points for doing good things,” Solomonov said. “First and foremost, it has to be an awesome restaurant.”
“The mission is not enough,” Cook concurred. “At the end of the day, we’re trying to run a healthy business … that makes money.”
Though Sabatino certainly was qualified to take the job, both sides questioned the fit before taking the plunge.
“That was a concern we had going in. Is [George] going to be satisfied in the framework of Rooster? Are we going to be butting heads about vision?” said Cook, who tends to promote from within across their six concepts, and who has rarely brought in a chef of Sabatino’s prominence from the outside. Would the marked switch, from high-minded tasting menus to high-volume, inexpensive comfort food, appeal to Sabatino’s sensibilities?
After mulling it over for a week, Sabatino decided it would. Since starting on Feb. 15, the chef says, he’s allowed himself to be led by “forced simplicity” — the idea being that Rooster’s populist approach serves as a self-correcting tool when Sabatino’s right-brain proclivities begin asserting themselves behind the burners (the restaurant has just four). “Here, the last thing I want to do is cook food that isn’t relatable to people,” he said.
But that doesn’t mean the new-look Rooster is completely devoid of Sabatino’s touch. While he implements himself gradually, he’s found subtle ways to work his voice into the menu.
Butcher Heather Thomason’s Primal Supply provides Rooster with sustainably raised meats, like the pork shoulder Sabatino and O’Hara are braising in local beer, then shredding for a sandwich served with black garlic barbecue sauce and fermented cabbage. The sweet potatoes in that new Indian-inspired soup are coming from Green Meadow Farm in Gap; three varieties of local mushrooms make up the “meat” on a vegetarian cheesesteak.
A new chop salad comes garnished with his homemade ricotta; the yogurt used for the dressing is Sabatino’s from-scratch doing, too. Sandwich rolls are still outsourced, but he’s started baking a semolina bread to serve as the base for a tartine crowned with trout, cold-smoked in-house. Rotating dinner plates, like homemade pasta with clams and fermented chilies, have begun appearing on the specials board after 5 p.m.
Excluding the matzo ball soup, the Jarlsberg-topped cheeseburger, and several old-school desserts that aren’t going anywhere, Sabatino has carte blanche to revise Rooster’s menu how he sees fit, which has led to some disappointment among diners — one recent guest was heartbroken to learn the beloved grilled cheese got the ax. Cook, for his part, loved the decision. “I thought it was bit basic,” he says. “We can do better.”
That’s the idea. Among his cooks, Sabatino says, “The joke is we went from fine dining to fine diner.”