Wedged between New York and DC, Philadelphians have a reputation for doubling down on their local pride. That pride is evident in the city’s culinary scene, which encompasses both global and classic American fare.
Symrise hosted a roundtable discussion with four of StarChef’s 2019 Philadelphia Rising Stars: roaster Evan Inatome of Elixir Coffee; Samantha Kincaid, Pastry Chef at Cadence; Matt Harper, Executive Chef at Kensington Quarters; and bartender Aaron Deary from R&D. Philadelphia mainstay and Iron Chef winner Jose Garces also joined the panel.
The talk quickly focused on Pennsylvania’s agricultural bounty. The state is a major producer of fruits, vegetables, grain, and dairy, all of which find their way into Philly’s restaurants. Local produce can work its way into bars, too -- Aaron Deary describes how the tartness of rhubarb can be the perfect complement to a gin and tonic or a martini, especially during periods when quality citrus isn’t readily available.
Matt Harper talked about a close two-way relationship with area farmers, driven by “forecasts and communication” about seasonal availability and consumer demand. He noted, “Every year they’re bringing new ingredients through the door and I feel like it’s our job to highlight those ingredients.”
Jose Garces also praises local farmers, particularly when it comes to novel hybrid offerings like caulilini -- a cross between cauliflower and broccolini that Garces grilled and served with garlic and lemon. Garces has even dabbled in farming himself, running a small operation on Pennsylvania’s rock and clay-filled soil; the experiment yielded bright, crisp lettuce that retained its crunch even after a day in the fridge.
Samantha Kincaid incorporates more than just local fruit and dairy into her desserts, pointing to “all these other secondary products coming out of Pennsylvania.” One such byproduct is malt, the dried grain product typically used to make alcohol. Kincaid uses the malt to add texture and complexity to Cadence’s menu: “We pull from all these different worlds in the area to create really dynamic dishes.”
From there, conversation turned to inspiration, with the chefs detailing their processes for devising menus and concepts.
Evan Inatome cited emotional appeal as a driving force, striving to create signature coffees and coffee drinks that evoke sensory memories. Inatome also described a general shift in the coffee business toward “special attention to detail, from sourcing to farming to producing to brewing and roasting.” This so-called “third wave of coffee” sees customers paying closer attention to the provenance of their beans and more adventurous when it comes to flavor profiles.
Harper relies on spontaneity to add veggie-centric touches to the nose-to-tail menu at Kensington Quarters. With a laugh, he even confesses to having created a dish on the spot for his Rising Star tasting panel. “You can tastes a brightness and an energy from something that’s created in the spur of the moment. When I’m implementing something onto the menu, I’ll take that energy and excitement and either rein it in for the constraints of making thirty of them a night or expand on it.”
Garces, meanwhile, takes a more studied approach. While travel and research are the impetus for dishes at restaurants like his Basque tapas spot Tinto, meticulous test kitchen trials determine his final menus. This “versioning” involves repeated tastings and platings anchored around key ingredients -- and even after dishes make it into the dining rooms of his eight Philadelphia restaurants, further fine-tuning is possible. Per Garces, “The fun thing is that we have a wide variety of cuisines and disciplines to work across.”
Finally, this talented group expounded on some of their favorite ingredients. Spring brings some earthy classics: Jose Garces sticks to fava, asparagus, and English peas and Matt Harper favors local lettuce and ramps. Although it isn’t in season for long, Samantha Kincaid steeps the medicinal, floral leaves of sweet woodruff to add depth to desserts like celery sorbet. They also mentioned some lesser-known elements like sake lees, the yeasty, floral sake sediment that Kincaid adds to purees, sweet ají dulce chilis, which Harper dries, pickles, and puts in hot sauce, and Paranubes, a brand Oaxacan that Deary advises should not be consumed neat.