Interview with 2013 Philadelphia Rising Star Chef Josh Lawler
Caroline Hatchett: What inspired you to pursue cooking professionally?
Josh Lawler: My grandfather was a butcher. I loved to cook, and I started at 14. I went to Drexel University for hospitality and culinary. I studied abroad for a well-rounded education in London. It was the most fun six months of my life. I’ve not done much else except cooking.
CH: Why did you decide to move back to Philadelphia?
JL: I was chef de cuisine for three years at Blue Hill at Stone Barns. I have twin boys who are 3 right now. Stone Barns was the best job in the world, but I was sick of all the tasting menus. I was ready to get closer to family. I started with a small space and did all the work myself. I was in business in eight weeks. I didn't take a huge risk, and I’m growing a little more organically, with no outside investor money—I bought my freezer for $65 on Craigslist.
CH: What advice would you give to young chefs just getting started?
JL: Baby steps. Work at lots of different places, but give them a good year and work for free if you have to. But don’t let people take advantage of you.
CH: What’s your philosophy on food and dining?
JL: Quality sources for ingredients. The sum is greater than all the parts.
CH: What is your favorite interview question to prospective employees?
JL: I generally take [candidates] to a farmers market and judge their reactions to the produce. If they get inspired and excited, we move forward. If they are duds, I drop them off at home.
CH: What’s the toughest challenge you have had to overcome?
JL: We’re not set up for parking. The limitation of the space means there’s no waiting room or bar. It’s a fine line; people stay too long, and we need to honor the next reservation. That’s the main thing we go back and forth with. We’re as generous as possible.
CH: What’s your proudest accomplishment to date?
JL: Maintaining business, with loyal regulars. People who keep coming back are the best compliment as a chef. The first three months, you think no one is going to show up.
CH: Where do you see yourself in five years?JL: I'm still finding my cooking style. I can change the menu easily, and have people come in and are excited to try new things. I’ll work at this a little longer. There are a lot of spaces, but they're the same things that get regurgitated. Small or big, it’s hard to find 50 to 60 seats. We’ll have to move or keep this and do something bigger. It’s tricky because people have the idea that you’re a humble, 30-seat BYO guy. The neighborhood following keeps you in business.