Sylva Senat's New York chef friends never used to ask about Philadelphia.
But they're calling now.
And they want to know whether the growing national buzz about his adopted home is true: Is Philly really the next great destination for up-and-coming chefs? Should they come, too?
"At least eight have asked me in the past year," says Senat, the chef at Tashan who grew up in Brooklyn and worked at iconic Manhattan restaurants like Acquavit and Jean-Georges before moving to Philadelphia four years ago.
The romantic notion of Philadelphia as the East Coast's land of opportunity for culinary ambitions, where the rents are fair, a sophisticated dining public is hungry for "honest food," and line cooks can actually afford to live, has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. The city's already vibrant dining scene - long nurtured by outsiders from Jean-Marie Lacroix to Jose Garces - is in throes of its biggest influx of high-profile culinary talent ever.
"We all want to be the great chefs we know we are in our heads," Senat says. "But in New York, where it's always a hurry and rush, that gets a little muffled. In Philadelphia, it's more open. It's not about making millions of dollars. It's about creating that beautiful dish and connecting with your guests."
One of Senat's conversations persuaded Leo Fourneas, a fellow New Yorker and colleague of Senat's at Jean-George and New York's Buddakan, who also helped open Sampan in 2009, to return to Philadelphia earlier this month to revamp the kitchen at the Twisted Tail.
"There's been so much change here these past couple years," he said. "I wish that I had stayed."
The most nationally watched arrival is Peter Serpico. The former culinary director of David Chang's Momofuku empire is gearing up for a spring South Street collaboration with Stephen Starr, who has a long history of bringing in big names to bolster his concepts.
In addition, Eli Kulp left Manhattan's red-hot Torrisi Italian Specialties to help hone the polish on Fork's three-bell sheen in Old City earlier this year. Christopher Lee, who says: "I got my start in Philly" at Striped Bass before star turns at Gilt and Aureole, recently returned to open Sophia's on East Passyunk Avenue. And Pub & Kitchen just announced that Eli Collins, a vet of Gayle and Supper, is coming back to town as its new chef from Daniel Boulud's DBGB in New York, where he was executive chef.
Nearly a dozen other chefs and restaurateurs, from Greg Vernick of Vernick Food & Drink (another Jean-Georges alum) to the Farm & Fisherman's Josh Lawler (Blue Hill at Stone Barns) and Joe Cicala of Le Virtù (D.C.'s Cafe Milano) - have arrived from other cities in recent years to make their mark in Philly. In some cases, they are returning home, much as Marc Vetri did 15 years ago after his travels to Los Angeles, Northern Italy, and New York.
The critical mass and notoriety of this latest group has drawn a wave of national attention in recent articles in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Travel + Leisure, and Bon Appétit.
"This is Philly's year," says Joncarl Lachman, a Center City-born chef who saw his 50th birthday as the impetus to move home from Chicago, where he still owns two restaurants, to launch a Dutch-inspired BYO called Noord off East Passyunk in May. "Although I find it funny that suddenly it's a trend. I've always loved the BYOB culture here, and I wanted to be a part of it."
What's different is the palpable sense of chef camaraderie and restaurant energy now pulsing in the neighborhoods beyond Center City, like Passyunk Square, where a friend took Lachman on a reconnaissance visit two years ago: "I was like, 'Wow!' There's such nice people down there, like Lee Styer [of Fond] and Cory Baver and Lynn Rinaldi [of Paradiso]. It feels like you're part of a village."
Lawler, of the Farm & Fisherman, agrees: "It seems like more has happened here in the past two years since I opened than in the nine years I was gone."
Our BYOBs, a thriving genre particular in its scope to Philadelphia, are emblematic of what makes the city so appealing to start-up chefs who see a manageable landscape of small spaces in welcoming neighborhoods with minimal financial risk.
"I put 50 grand into this place two years ago, and I've already paid back all my debt," Lawler says. "I can only do 70 [guests] a night. But I don't have to answer to any investors or have a giant nut hanging over my head freaking me out when I go to sleep. So I can do what I most want to do - which is cook and be able to take risks. When I walk into the dining room Wednesday night and it's full - mostly with people I know - it's one of the best feelings you can have."
At the root of that equation, both for BYOs and the thriving full-service restaurant sector alike, are real estate prices that are a bargain by East Coast standards. In Center City's well-saturated market, restaurant space ranges from $35 to $50 a square foot, and $25 to $30 is more common in rising neighborhoods like Fairmount, East Passyunk, Fishtown, and Graduate Hospital, says Jacob Cooper, vice president of MSC, which brokers retail and restaurants properties.
By comparison, New York space ranges from up to $200 per square foot in Midtown to $80 in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, says Kat Hwang of SKH Realty. Washington rates rise from "cheaper deals in the $40s" to a high of $200 around the East End, says Kelly Silverman of StreetSense.
The economic ripple effect is practical and a matter of culinary soul.
The city's "livability" has been a draw for top names like Serpico, Senat, and Lawler, and still-unknown talents like Erik Morgan, a recently promoted sous-chef at Zahav who moved here from D.C., where he spent nearly half his monthly line cook salary on rent.
"I totally want to have my own situation one day," he said, "and this is a place where I can do that."
Even more important for diners: Reduced rent pressure allows Philly chefs freedom to produce what Vernick calls "honest food."
"When I go out, it's clear other chefs' goals here are simply - delicious," he said. "There's no goal beyond that. And that's what gets me excited."
That's not always the case in Washington, where the expense-account-driven dining scene covets flash. Or in Manhattan, where brand-name chef empires and mega-restaurants dominate, and a Saturday night churning out 1,000 meals can be what Senat recalls as "one giant, long scream. After nine months, I was burnt."
On the flip side, what some chefs call an appetite for "honest" food has also given Philadelphia a reputation as a conservative town cool to the kind of cutting-edge cuisine, like molecular gastronomy, that often wins national note. One potential high-profile newcomer, John Shields, an avant-garde star who worked at Alinea, Charlie Trotter's, and Town House, recently chose to build his new restaurant in D.C. over Philadelphia.
"Had there been a couple more restaurants pushing the envelope a little more there," he said, "that might have convinced us."
In the two years he's been back, Lawler has learned how to keep his guests happy: "People in Philly don't care if it's new or never been done before," Lawler says. "They're spending their own money [versus expense accounts], and they want the food to taste good. That might sound obvious, but it has nothing to do with the level of refinement or sophistication. They want a pleasant meal and they don't want fluff. They want substance."
Chefs and owners who've come to Philadelphia recently, with their current restaurants and restaurant histories.
Joe Carroll, founder, pitmaster, and co-owner of Fette Sau Fishtown (Brooklyn: Fette Sau, Spuyten Duyvil)
Joe Cicala, chef at Le Virtù (Washington, D.C.: Cafe Milano; Galileo. New York: Del Posto)
Eli Collins, chef at Pub & Kitchen (New York: DBGB, Oak Room. Philadelphia: Gayle, Supper)
Nicolas Fanucci, new owner of Le Bec Fin (Yountville, Ca.: general manager, French Laundry)
Leo Fourneas, chef at Twisted Tail (New York: Jean-George, Buddakan; Robert @ MAD Museum; Silk Road. Philadelphia: Sampan)
Eli Kulp, chef at Fork (New York: Torrisi Italian Specialties; Del Posto; Casa Lever)
Joncarl Lachman, chef-owner of forthcoming Noord (Chicago: HB Home Bistro, Vincent)
Josh Lawler, chef-owner of the Farm and Fisherman (New York: Blue Hill at Stone Barns; BLT Steak; Telepan)
Colleen Lawler, co-owner of the Farm and Fisherman (BLT Market; Picholine)
Christopher Lee, chef-owner of Sophia's (New York: Aureole; Gilt; Huntington Social. Philadelphia: Striped Bass)
Sean McPaul, chef at Talula's Garden (Quince and Jardiniere in San Francisco)
Erik Morgan, sous-chef at Zahav (Washington, D.C.: Ripple; New Heights)
Michael Santoro, chef/co-owner of the Mildred (Washington, D.C.: Blue Duck Tavern. New York: Gilt. London: the Fat Duck)
Sylva Senat, chef at Tashan (New York: Acquavit; Jean-Georges; 66; Buddakan. Philadelphia: Buddakan)
Peter Serpico, chef and co-owner of forthcoming Serpico (New York: culinary director of David Chang's Momofuku empire, opening chef of Ko)
Greg Vernick, chef-owner of Vernick Food & Drink (New York: Jean-Georges; Nougatine; Spice Market)
Andrew and Kristin Wood, chef and pastry chef-co-owners of Russet (Boston: Radius. Chicago: Tru and Trio. San Francisco: Quince. Philadelphia: James, Fork)