The 2013 Philadelphia Rising Stars: Why They Shine

The 2013 Philadelphia Rising Stars: Why They Shine

By Caroline Hatchett with Antoinette Bruno

Shannon Sturgis

Just as Philadelphia served as the incubator of national independence, it's now a breeding ground for independent, chef-driven restaurants. The culinary landscape—once the sole purview of the restaurant groups—is shifting as the newest generation of chefs strives to make its mark on the city. These men and women are redefining what it means to eat at BYOs, beer halls, and soda fountains. They're letting Lancaster County farmers drive menu changes, and bringing renewed excitement to the city's landmark restaurants. Bartenders are slowly convincing just-beer drinkers to sip craft cocktails, and sommeliers are proving wine service can be brilliant and fun. Philly's culinary momentum is stronger than ever, and this year's Rising Stars winners are at the heart of the action.

In the last few months, we tasted savory dishes, desserts, cocktails, and wine pairings from more than 90 talented chefs, pastry chefs, mixologists, and sommeliers in Philadelphia. Only 19 earned the title of Rising Star. So what makes them shine?

Rising Stars have attributes that make them future leaders of the country's culinary scene. Put simply, they're not just surviving the Philadelphia restaurant industry; they're defining it with exciting cuisine, pours, and culinary concepts. So without further ado, our 2012 Philadelphia Rising Stars: who they are, why they shine, and how they're shaping the future of American cuisine.

Nicholas Elmi

Chef: Nicholas Elmi, Rittenhouse Tavern

Nicholas Elmi knows the power of understatement. His first solo restaurant, Rittenhouse Tavern, sits at the back of the Philadelphia Art Alliance like a subdued culinary exhibit. His dishes don't smack you with flavor; they invite you in with subtlety and layering. Elmi elevates ingredients both humble and exotic to their utmost potential, and as you begin to explore every drop of sauce or meditate on the texture of an ethereal burrata, you realize just how exquisite his culinary vision really is. It's all in the details and precise editing that make Elmi a quiet, inspired force on the Philadelphia restaurant scene.

Dishes that Clinched It:

  • Lobster Consommé, Tomalley, Poached Lobster, Sea Urchin, Razor Clams, Caviar, and Apple-Horseradish Marshmallow
  • John Dory Steamed in Cardamom Leaf, Black Walnut, Pine Mushrooms, Tarragon Blossom, and Kaffir Lime
Yun Fuentes

Chef: Yun Fuentes, JG Domestic

It’s the quiet ones you have to watch. While climbing the Jose Garces Group ladder from salad station at Amada to his current post as chef de cuisine at JG Domestic, Chef Yun Fuentes was stockpiling a heavy-hitting arsenal of technique and style. As versatile a chef as we met in Philly, Fuentes now serves fresh, impeccably executed dishes. Whether they draw from classic French cuisine, a Spanish pantry, or Americana, Fuentes pushes flavors as far as he can—all the while keeping his food familiar and comforting. Fuentes, like his dishes, may come off as unassuming, but there’s energy and passion beneath the humility. You may not yet know Yun Fuentes, but he’ll soon be a Philly mainstay.

Dishes that Clinched It:

  • Roasted Australian Lamb Chop, Sweetbreads, Fried Artichoke, and Sherry Jus
  • Butternut Squash, Leek-Poblano Cream, and Candied Pepitas
Chris Kearse

Chef: Chris Kearse, Will

After culinary school, Chef Chris Kearse mailed letters to 10 of America's greatest chefs. And he sent them again and again until names like Keller, Trotter, Achatz, and Boulud invited him into their kitchens—some for two days, others for a few years. From these storied teachers, Kearse picked up technical acumen and an abundance of inspiration, which he's now serving at tiny, fine-dining Will BYOB. Kearse plates the perfect balance of nature and modern technique. This intrepid chef isn’t afraid of hydrocolloids or serving a whole, simply grilled mushroom, and his presentation is unparalleled in the city. It’s Kearse's own will, determination, and bold experimentation that will one day push him to the heights of his mentors.

Dishes that Clinched It:

  • Roasted Maitake Mushroom, Smoked Ricotta, Madeira Jelly, Arugula Purée, and Wild Greens
  • Milk-fed Poulard Trio: Buttermilk-brined Tenderloin, Leg and Thigh Roulade, Pecan-Ancho Crumble, Lacinato Kale Roulade, Kabocha Squash Purée, Merlot Sauce, Kale Chip, and Caramelized White Soy Sauce
Eli Kulp

Chef: Eli Kulp, Fork

Eli Kulp isn’t afraid of bold flavors—or bold moves. Decamping New York’s Torrisi Italian Specialties for Philadelphia’s stalwart Fork, Kulp left behind one of the hottest restaurants in the country to make a name for himself and his food in the City of Brotherly Love. And he’s doing just that. Kulp’s food is laced with creative, unexpected flavor combinations and spiked with chutzpah and humor. But it’s all business for Kulp, who plans to make Fork one of the city’s preeminent dining destinations—not to mention serve the best sandwich in Philly at next door Fork Etc. Those are fighting words. But if drive, skill, and taste are any indication, Kulp has a fighting chance to make his mark on Philadelphia.

Dishes that Clinched It:

  • Raw Scallops, Fermented Parsley, Beet-pickled Turnip, Olive Oil, Lemon Juice, and Beet Pickling Liquid
  • Guinea Hen, Eight-hour Cabbage, and Mustard Oil-compressed Apples, Pears, and Plums
Josh Lawler

Chef: Josh Lawler, Farm and Fisherman

Josh Lawler worked at the height of farm-to-table cooking as chef de cuisine of Blue Hill at Stone Barns outside New York City—an influence you can taste in his masterful manipulation of vegetables and uncompromising devotion to Pennsylvania farmers. But if you strip away the glamour, tasting menus, and wine lists, and sit in Lawler’s self-constructed dining room, you get to see the true heart of Lawler and his cooking. At his BYOB Farm & Fisherman, Lawler treats product with reverence, marrying local ingredients so the sums are greater and bolder than their humble parts. It’s rustic, refined, and wholly authentic to Lawler and his farmers and fishermen—and arguably the future of farm-to-table cuisine.

Dishes that Clinched It:

  • Bloody Beet Steak, Beet Pan Jus, Yogurt, Amaranth, and Aged Balsamic
  • Roasted Squab, Turnips-Fall Snow Pea Stew, Pickled Rutabaga, and Quince Purée
Greg Vernick

Chef: Greg Vernick, Vernick Food & Drink

After opening restaurants for Jean-Georges Vongerichten across the country, Greg Vernick came home to Philly to make his food. At namesake restaurant Vernick Food & Drink, he serves mature, honest plates—food you want to eat every day. But don't let the big-format dishes and Motown music fool you. There's serious technique and R&D packed into every morsel of roast chicken and crispy fried egg. Vernick has fine-dining chops with none of the fuss, and he's more than primed to become the country's new casual dining standard bearer. He shares food and a sense of home we believe in (and can't stop thinking about).

Dishes that Clinched It:

  • Smoked Salmon Belly, Golden Egg, and Parmesan Vinaigrette
  • Wood-roasted Sea Bream, Shaved Fennel, Oranges, Roasted Romaine, Fried Potatoes, and Shishito Peppers
Will Zuchman

Chef: Will Zuchman, Alma de Cuba

In a big restaurant group, hidden behind a brand, maintaining status quo is a temping proposition. A lesser chef could get caught up in making signature dishes and pleasing unadventurous diners. Not Will Zuchman. This Alma de Cuba executive chef has fire in his cooking and a drive that far exceeds his ego. He develops original techniques, and to keep himself challenged, he recently reconfigured his savory menu to be gluten free (save for one pesky appetizer). His passion for Latin cooking shines through in every dish and pushes him to constantly dig deeper into a heritage he shares only in the kitchen. Whether he climbs the corporate ladder or strikes out on his own, the culinary world is there for Zuchman's taking.

Dishes that Clinched It:

  • Sea Scallop, King Crab-Corn Quinoa, and Merken Vinaigrette
  • Duck Breast, Smoked Currant Sauce, Creamy Yucca, and Duck Confit Vigoron
Peter Scarola

Pastry Chef: Peter Scarola, R2L

Peter Scarola runs one of the most robust pastry programs in town at Daniel Stern’s R2L, crafting everything from mignardises and elegant pre-desserts to hamburger buns and chocolate chip cookies. Scarola respects classic French pastry, but he’s not afraid to explore modern techniques or serve an all-American comfort home run. What drives him is flavor: building it and never letting taste take a backseat to form. Just as he manages to wow guests (and us) with dishes both nostalgic and boundary-pushing, Scarola serves as a leader in the kitchen. He acts as mentor to a tight group of R2L pastry cooks, ensuring Philadelphia’s pastry community will only grow and sweeten in the years to come.

Dishes that Clinched It:

  • Pumpkin French Toast Sticks, Oatmeal Ice Cream, and Maple-Root Beer Foam
  • Fennel Parfait, Green Apple, Tarragon, and Grapefruit
Andrew Wood

Sustainability: Andrew Wood and Kristin Wood, Russet

Husband and wife team Andrew and Kristin Wood’s work and restaurant embody sustainability. Even the name Russet connotes a return to a simpler way of living. With charcuterie and pastas to rival any restaurant in the city, the Wood’s menu centers around his growing network of local farmers. Bumper crops of berries become jam at brunch, and whole animals get broken down and lovingly served—every nasty bit. The couple sources flours from the longest-running grain mill in the country and produce from native, heirloom seed stock. But it’s not just their farm-to-table menu that makes the Woods leaders in sustainability. They designed every aspect of the restaurant to minimize their environmental impact. From water filtration and reclaimed wooden tables to chemical-free cleaning supplies and a future rooftop apiary, the Woods are making good food and good stewardship their inseparable mission.

Dishes that Clinched It:

  • Pappardelle, Pig's Heart Ragout, Crème Fraîche, Chanterelles, and Leeks
  • House-cured Pancetta, Pickled Beets, Mizuna, and Olive Oil
Joe Cicala

Artisan Chef: Joe Cicala, Le Virtù

For Artisan Chef Joe Cicala, it all starts with culture. He bathed his meat room with pig’s blood, vinegar, and red wine to develop just the right mix of bacteria to cure his extensive repertoire of Italian salumi. And the culture of the Abruzzo region drives all of Cicala’s menu inspiration at South Philly’s Le Virtù. Like the best artisans, Cicala adheres to tradition and demands quality. He’s the type of chef who refuses to use pink salts. He dictates the diet of his Yorkshire pigs, and he seeks out and master forgotten Abbuzi flavors and techniques. But Cicala is more passionate than dogmatic. He pushes to move his craft forward with new salumi types and ingredient combinations, all while keeping his food solidly grounded in artisan culture.

Dishes that Clinched It:

  • Charcuterie Board: ‘Nduja, Ventricina Teramana, Goat Cacciatorini, Lamb Cacciatorini, Pancetta, Guanciale, Capicola, Culatello, Bresaola, 6-month Spalletta, Peperonata, Onion
  • Maccheroni alla Mugnaia: Hand-pulled Single Strand Pasta, Garlic, Extra Virgin Olive Oil, Hot Peppers, and Pecorino
Sara May

Artisans: Sara May and Davina Soondrum, Franklin Fountain and Shane Confectionery

Fading is the generation who knew candy bars as an occasional treat or sat at a counter for sodas. But a special corner at Market and Letitia Streets—and a special duo of artisans—is re-introducing Philadelphia to hand-crafted, turn-of-the-century confections. The vision of owners Ryan and Eric Berley and the sweet playgrounds of Pastry Chef Sara May and Confectioner Davina Soondrum, Franklin Fountain and Shane Confectionery are paradise for both your inner child and serious food inclinations. At Franklin, May dreams up sundaes, sodas, phosphates, and pastries. She jerks the oldest soda fountain in the United States and makes everything—from cones to ice creams and syrups—from scratch. Soondrum runs Shane Confectionery, where she’s mastered an artisan’s collection of buttercreams, marshmallows, caramels, toy glass candies, and chocolates. And though she’s working with the original equipment and recipes, she still manages to innovate with fresh, addictive flavor combinations. Together, May and Soondrum are re-imagining the authentic American pastry experience one ice cream soda and chocolate at a time.

Dishes that Clinched It:

  • Ladies’ Choice Ice Cream Soda: Raspberry Soda, Peach Ice Cream, Whipped Cream, and Raspberries
  • The Whirly Berley Bar: Soft Chocolate Torrone, Dark Chocolate, Caramel, and Cocoa Nibs
Jeremy Nolen

Concept Chef: Jeremy Nolen, Wursthaus Schmitz

Chef Jeremy Nolen is out to change America’s perception of German food. He first introduced Philadelphians to modern German cuisine at beer hall and restaurant Brauhaus Schmitz. He’s now taken that concept and boiled it down to a charcuterie and take-out counter in the bustling Reading Terminal Market. At the newly minted Wursthaus Schmitz, Nolen and his team are feeding the masses traditional German sausages, sandwiches (can you say fried bologna?!), smoked meats, killer sides, and to-go schnitzel. It’s comfort food few Americans have explored outside the context of swilling beer—for now at least. With a cookbook deal in the works and Wursthaus primed for expansion, Nolen is setting himself up to be standard bearer of German food in America.

Dishes that Clinched It:

  • Bavarian: Smoked Bauernwurst, Bavarian Cole Slaw, Horseradish Sauce, and Fried Onions
  • The Lyoner: Fried Bologna, Muenster, Dill Pickle, Horseradish Sauce, and Raw Onion
Kevin Sbraga

Community Chef: Kevin Sbraga, Sbraga

Kevin Sbraga is changing the way Philadelphia eats. Whether it’s making fine-dining more accessible through his four-course, $49 prix-fixe menus at namesake Sbraga or getting food to people who are truly hungry through charity dinners and benefits, he’s on a mission to feed Philly. Sbraga is the chef who helps rally his peers as Taste of the Nation chair; he’s the chef who host dinners in the after-math of hurricane Sandy. And even with the national attention of a “Top Chef” win, he’s a hometown culinary champion, serving Eagles fans signature “Sloppy Jose” sandwiches at Citizen Bank Park, going on fishing trips with local chefs, and serving as the Twitter mouthpiece of Philly chef love. Sbraga makes a difference—as a tastemaker, friend, and advocate—through food.

Dishes that Clinched It:

  • Meatloaf, Carrots, Hazelnut Crust, and Mushrooms
  • Octopus Piri Piri, Green Beans, and Tapenade
Jonathan Cichon

Hotel Chef: Jonathan Cichon, Lacroix at the Rittenhouse Hotel

Jonathan Cichon is one of the hardest working chefs in town. And for a guy who has to run banquets, private parties, a 24/7 room service crew, and one of Philly's greatest culinary institutions—on seemingly little to no sleep—Cichon somehow finds a way to weave nuance, elegance, and culinary brilliance into each of his dishes at Lacroix. Sure, he nails technique and beautiful plating, but what's most exciting about Cichon's food is eating it. And by eating, we mean devouring every bite. This hometown chef breaths new life into a dwindling fine-dining scene, and he serves guests the full potential of Rittenhouse Hotel's stacked kitchen and luxurious pantry. No doubt Cichon will become a Philadelphia institution in his own right.

Dishes that Clinched It:

  • Poached Ocean Trout, Parsnip Purée, Tangerine, Trout Roe, Fried Red Quinoa, and Black Tea Vinaigrette
  • Tapioca and Shellfish Porridge with Mussels, Crab, Oyster, and Sea Urchin, Toasted Pumpernickel, Cruciferous Leaves, and Fennel Pollen
Michael Solomonov

Restaurateur: Michael Solomonov, Zahav

Evident in each bite of his growing empire—including Zahav, Percy Street Barbecue, Federal Donuts, and Citron & Rose—is the soul and passion Michael Solomonov puts into his cooking. Having surrounded himself with a solid team, including business partner Steve Cook, Solomonov has the luxury that few restaurateurs share: time in the kitchen. He understands that when food and service are off the charts, customers can’t help but fall in love and his staff can’t help but share his loyalty and excitement. So while there are easier ways to make money than working for team Solo, few are as rewarding. And it’s that heart and enthusiasm that are fueling Solomonov’s growth in the Philadelphia market and (soon enough) beyond.

Dishes that Clinched It:

  • Spiced Eggplant, Harissa, Beluga Lentils, and Garlic Tehina
  • Hummus Masbacha and Laffa Bread
Brian Kane

Sommelier: Brian Kane, Zahav

Although we’re pretty sure it would be fun to work with 2013 Rising Star Restaurateur Michael Solomonov, pairing wines with his bold Israeli dishes would be a challenge for any lesser sommelier than Brian Kane. Kane’s pairings not only sing, but there’s magic (and fun) in his philosophy. Stuffy wine service wouldn’t feel at home at Zahav, and Kane takes his wine knowledge and packages it into an approachable beverage program. Want about a cocktail with your first course or a bottle to complement mezze? Geek out on Israeli wines and Chateau Musar? He’s got you more than covered. Kane excels as a somm’s somm with esoteric bottles and a practical man of the dining people. It’s drinking after all, and at Zahav you do it well.

Pairings that Clinched It:

  • Whole-roasted Lamb Shoulder, Pomegranate Molasses, Braised Chickpeas, Crispy Persian Wedding Rice, Mint, and Parsley paired with Pinot Noir, Golan Heights Winery, Katzrin, Israel
  • Roasted Brussels Sprouts, Whipped Feta Cheese, Brussels Sprout Babaganoush, and Sumac paired with Scheurebe, Louis Konstantin Guntrum, Nierstein, Germany, 2010
Al Sotack

Mixologist: Al Sotack, Franklin Mortgage & Investment Co.

Franklin Mortgage and Investment Co. put Philadelphia on the map for modern cocktails. And behind each drink is the vision and leadership of Mixologist Al Sotack. Sotack runs the beverage programs at Franklin and sister bar Lemon Hill, training bartenders, giving Philadelphians potent liquid courage, and making drinks that are as smooth and drinkable as they are complex. But it’s not just drinks that set Sotack apart. He’s mastering the less glamorous, business side of bartending, priming him to take on the national scene. Sotack’s work would be notable in any market, but in Philly Sotack is a tastemaker, a man who’s introducing this beer-drinking city to the beauty of a well-crafted drink.

Drinks that Clinched It:

  • Ocelotl: Ocho Tequila, Luxardo, Pernod, Green Apple Syrup, and Dandelion-Burdock Bitters
  • Demon Tied to a Chair in My Brain: Wray and Nephew Overproof Rum, Clemente Creole Shrub, Maurin Quino, Lemon Juice, and Flamed Orange Peel