The classy bistro was called 10 Arts by Eric Ripert, so there was little question who the star was on the glittering opening night in the rotunda of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel back in the spring of 2008.
It was, of course, Eric Ripert, the legendary chef from New York's four-star seafoodery Le Bernardin, meeting and greeting tout Philadelphia, trailing in his wake an attractive but decidedly un-legendary young chef named Jennifer Carroll.
Yes, she'd worked in Ripert's Manhattan kitchen and he'd picked her to run the Ritz property. It was a coup for Carroll. But with a question mark: Who was she? Did she have the chops?
It turned out Carroll, now 35, was a Philly homegirl, through and through. And if you hadn't known that already, the appearance of warm, soft pretzel bites (with creamy cheddar, jalapeño jam, and Dijon mustard) on the menu was a broad hint.
Then suddenly last August, it was Jennifer Carroll's turn to star.
Rick Nichols: With the recession still hurting 10 Arts last summer (especially higher-end dishes like the wild striped bass, $34, with baby vegetables), Bravo began showing Top Chef, the reality kitchen show you competed in. Any impact from that?
Jennifer Carroll: The summer was really bad for business; we were scared. I thought the Top Chef exposure might help us. But it was amazing!
R.N.: How amazing?
J.C.: We just got a whole new energy. Business started to boom after the first show. We quadrupled our dinners.
R.N.: Has that changed things for you personally?
J.C.: Well, I can't take the time to go out into the dining room constantly. So we have the servers do kitchen tours, bring the customers back to the kitchen . . . they can take pictures and they can see that I'm actually working, so they're good about that.
R.N.: You grew up in Somerton, in Philadelphia's Great Northeast. Was that a rowhouse neighborhood?
J.C.: No, we lived near Byberry and Bustleton in a single-family house down from Comly Playground. Grade school was St. Christopher's; high school Mount St. Joseph's, the private girl's academy in Flourtown.
R.N.: Did you have an interest in food as a kid?
J.C.: One Christmas I got an Easy-Bake Oven. I bet I burned enough lightbulbs in it making chocolate cakes to light a city!
R.N.: Was that it?
J.C.: No, I had a Snoopy Sno-Cone Maker, too. Then in high school I worked at Bob's Lemonade on the boardwalk in Ocean City. I made more strawberry lemonade, house-cut fries, and funnel cakes - I love funnel cakes - than you can believe. But I never thought of food as a career.
R.N.: Eventually, you did opt for a food career. After a flirtation with law school, you went to the Restaurant School in Philadelphia, got gigs in San Francisco, and worked at Sonoma and Arroyo Grill in Manayunk. You hit your stride in the kitchen at Bernardin. Was it odd to come back to Philly?
J.C.: There was a little culture shock going from a free-standing, four-star restaurant to a corporate dining setting. But learning the Ritz's ways has been great.
R.N.: What about the everyday life in the kitchen?
J.C.: Our kitchen is very family-oriented. Most of my guys have been here since we opened. We look after each other and take care of each other. But we laugh and have fun.
R.N.: You've got obviously French influences on the menu - the rabbit paillard and bouillabaisse in a saffron-tomato broth and a soulful ratatouille. So what's up with the creamy mac and cheese with bits of ground ham?
J.C.: Eric [Ripert] had his version of mac and cheese. But my mom made her own version every year for my birthday. She always put ham in it while I was growing up. So I added a few touches that reminded me of that.
R.N: What about you? Where do you end up for a good meal?
J.C.: I live at 20th and Chestnut, so there's Jose Garces' Tinto right nearby, and Village Whiskey. I love the fried squab play on fried chicken. Meme is one of my favorites, and Zahav, and the banger sandwich at Pub and Kitchen, and I like Fork: Terence Feury [the chef there] was at Bernardin right before I was there. James [the restaurant] is awesome, and Bibou, too.