Philly's James Beard winners redefine city's national image as a culinary destination

Michael Solomonov, Greg Vernick, Stephen Starr, Sam Calagione

Philadelphia's culinary stars, too long overshadowed, stepped into the spotlight Monday night to achieve a major cultural breakthrough on the national stage in Chicago at the James Beard Foundation Awards.   They convincingly asserted the city's claim as a major restaurant destination as the names of our brightest talents rang out not once but several times for major national awards: best chef, best restaurateur, and best "wine, spirits or beer" professional. Plus best chef in the Mid-Atlantic region. 

“To the great city of Philadelphia, I am so grateful to bring this medal back home to you,” Michael Solomonov beamed from the stage, where the modern Israeli master behind Zahav (and Dizengoff, Abe Fisher, and Federal Donuts) was named the most outstanding chef in America. Think about that for a minute. There are 14.7 million employees in the restaurant industry nationwide, according to the National Restaurant Association. To be named the single best of any part of that world is a very big deal. He graciously shares that award with business partner Steven Cook.

America's best restaurateur? That would be Philly’s Stephen Starr, who, after many years as a “just-honored-to-be-nominated” finalist in that category, with an empire of 32 restaurants, also scored the prize for the nation’s best new restaurant, the exquisite Le Coucou in New York. Greg Vernick won best chef in the Mid-Atlantic region. The Cherry Hill native's Vernick Food & Drink last year earned four bells and my nod as the city’s best overall restaurant. Sam Calagione of Delaware’s Dogfish Head, meanwhile, won the nation's top award for “wine, spirits or beer” professional.

“The first keg of beer I ever sold outside of my state was to Tom Peters at Copa Too,” he said. “Dogfish Head would have gone bankrupt if it wasn’t for the city of Philadelphia in the late '90s.”

 Yeah, we're most outstanding at a lot of things — including drinking beer. So in the Twitterese of local chefs: BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! BOOM!

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

 Of course, the wins are especially gratifying after years of frustration, watching the city’s top nominees leave empty-handed in a dry spell dating to 2011. If you’re a Philadelphian, you’ve mastered the underdog pose.

That undeniably deep sense of pride in who we are, whom we cheer for, and also what we eat and drink, has always been tempered by the gnawing sense that we’re forever misunderstood, underestimated, and underappreciated by the national media. How many times can we tell the world we are more than just Santa-booing cheesesteak eaters – though we do love our cheesesteaks -- before the country believes it’s true?

Well, the message has finally begun to resonate in the most delicious way. The six-year period after 2011, when Solomonov took home the best Mid-Atlantic chef award (not counting the awards he and Cook took home last year for their 2015 cookbook, Zahav), has been the greatest period of growth and maturity in dining talent and diversity that Philly has ever seen.

“I think we all got better, and we all worked harder,” says Starr, who likened the awards to the Phillies' winning a championship.

In a way, it’s even better, because good sports seasons come and go. (Do I need to elaborate?) But the success of our restaurant scene is a more enduring result of two decades of steady growth, built on the shoulders of pioneers like Georges Perrier, Jean-Marie Lacroix, Marc Vetri, Jose Garces, and the latest winners moving forward.

“It’s not like last year we all of a sudden just became James Beard-level restaurants,” says Vernick, 36, who got his start as a kid scooping water ice and scrubbing hot dog rollers in the shadow of Lucy the Elephant in Margate. “Inside our city walls we know that we’ve always been this good. But people are coming up to me here saying, ‘Whoa! Philly’s on the map!’ It’s just a perception thing.”

The Beard awards are voted on by members of the national food press  as well as by past winners. (Full disclosure: I am a voting member.) But it nonetheless remains a mystery as to what it takes to win, not just regionally, where power centers like Philly can end up splitting votes among multiple semifinalists,  but on the broader national level traditionally dominated New York, L.A., San Francisco, and Chicago, which draw a wider circle of destination-dining tourists. Officially, judges can vote only for restaurants where they’ve eaten.

Starr and Solomonov have clearly benefited from taking their brands national. Starr’s successful expansion into New York and Florida has been widely covered. Solomonov and Cook’s expansion to Manhattan – and soon Miami with a Dizengoff and Federal Donuts, plus Nashville next year – has had the added boost of a hit cookbook and recent movie, In Search of Israeli Cuisine, documenting Solomonov’s eating adventures in Israel. If you didn't ever think hummus could change your life and a city's dining landscape, Solomonov (and the many proteges to emerge from Zahav) is proof to the contrary.

But Solomonov suspects the national food zeitgeist simply has a roving obsession with various regional pockets beyond the obvious N.Y.-L.A. poles: “The South has had such a huge decade. Then Portland, for whatever reason. And I think Philly in this scope has been a little less marketable. But this [last night] feels ... good!”

Perhaps that lens is finally turning our way to discover a city dining landscape that goes well beyond the cliches with fiercely independent and creative restaurants, visionary entrepreneurs, a rare sense of down-to-earth hospitality, and surprisingly cosmopolitan menus that run the gamut from pomegranate-braised lamb shoulder (Zahav) to vegan innovations like a smoked carrot reuben (Vedge), to the avant-garde wonders of Serpico or the farm-to-table spirit of Talula’s Garden (two of Starr’s best).

To me, the win for Vernick is the most telling about Philly’s progress, in part because what he does is so difficult to define. With a menu that ranges from marvelously simple pastas to grilled seasonal toasts, sea urchin with warm scrambled eggs, and the perfected comfort of the ultimate roast chicken, there’s no easy niche or concept (like modern Israeli) to conveniently categorize Vernick’s daunting quest to redefine modern American cuisine. It’s fluid. It's naturally multicultural. It's never flashy. But it's always sublime.

“Greg’s just a great chef who makes great food,” says Solomonov.    

Coincidentally, Vernick accepted the award on the fifth  anniversary of the day he opened Vernick with his wife, Julie.

“When we opened, all the PR companies and writers needed a line defining what the restaurant was – and we struggled to do that. Five years later, I still struggle with that dance but don’t care anymore. Just come experience the restaurant and define it for yourself.”

Clearly, the Beard Foundation’s voters did just that – and helped redefine Philadelphia’s image as a culinary star in its own right along the way.

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