It’s hard to determine whether Philadelphia chefs helped raise the city’s national profile or the city’s rising national profile put the spotlight on local chefs. But, whichever came first, there’s no doubt you’re seeing more Philly cooks than ever competing on TV competitions, smiling from the pages of glossy food magazines, hosting culturally rich documentaries or being interviewed by Anthony Bourdain. It’s an exciting time for these hometown chefs, who fortunately, are as culinarily talented as they are telegenic.
When Mario Batali says your restaurant is the best Italian spot on the East Coast, people notice. That’s what happened to Marc Vetri, one of Philly’s best known and most-acclaimed chefs. Since opening his eponymous trattoria in 1998, Vetri and his longtime business partner Jeff Benjamin expanded their company to include Osteria, Amis, Alla Spina, Lo Spiedo and Pizzeria Vetri, which is on a fast expansion track thanks to last year’s buyout of the empire by Urban Outfitters. Vetri (the restaurant) remains the exempt, and it’s where you can still find Vetri (the chef) cooking dishes like Swiss chard gnocchi, porchetta with stone fruit and seared scallops with truffled corn crema.
Michael Solomonov came up in the kitchen of Marc Vetri, but at this point you could argue he’s eclipsed his former mentor in name recognition (though Solomonov is too humble to ever say that). The chef of Israeli sensation Zahav is often rightly credited for igniting America’s new obsession for Middle Eastern cooking, along with his business partner, Steve Cook.
Solomonov and Cook now run a bunch of restaurants, including Abe Fisher, hummus hot spot Dizengoff, which just opened a location in New York and Federal Donuts, the fried chicken-and-donut shop also in expansion mode to Nashville. The duo’s cookbook, "Zahav: A World of Israeli Cooking," won 2016 James Beard awards for cookbook of the year and international cookbook, and Solmonov is currently the host of the new documentary "In Search of Israeli Cuisine."
Jose Garces stormed on the Philly dining scene when he opened Amada in 2005.
A former Stephen Starr lieutenant, the chef had a singular vision of Iberico ham, sangria and flamenco that resonated with diners and eventually led to a restaurant empire that encompasses restaurants in New York, D.C. and Chicago. Food Network projected Garces into the spotlight during a victorious turn on "Next Iron Chef." These days you’ll only see him on the channel’s "Iron Chef America" program in reruns, but that hasn’t diminished his luster with the national dining public who still crowd his restaurants.
Long before Jose Garces claimed the Iron Chef brand, there was Masaharu Morimoto, an OG Iron Chef from the Japanese version of the show.
Morimoto teamed up with Stephen Starr to open his first U.S. restaurant in Philadelphia; it’s still one of the best places in the city to indulge in a luxurious omakase. Since opening here, he’s expanded his brand into New York, India, Mexico City, Hawaii and even Disney World.
Philly is home to plenty of "Top Chef talent," but Kevin Sbraga is the original.
Jersey native Sbraga was cooking at Stephen Starr’s Rats restaurant in the Garden State while the seventh season of the Bravo hit aired. After becoming the unlikely champ and a household name, the chef opened his self-titled restaurant on Broad Street, followed by Southern smash the Fat Ham (credited with bringing Nashville-style hot chicken to Philly). Sbraga’s latest venture is a second Fat Ham at the King of Prussia Mall, which opened this fall.
A few years after Kevin Sbraga won "Top Chef," Collingswood, New Jersey resident and former Le Bec-Fin chef, Nicholas Elmi gave Philly a repeat victory. A dark horse in the competition, Elmi had opened his intimate restaurant, Laurel, on East Passyunk a few months before the show’s finale, leading to rabid speculation that he’d be crowned the victor.
Three years later, Laurel has gone tasting menu only and remains one of the most in-demand tables in town, and just this past summer Elmi debuted ITV next door. The wine bar, featuring a fantastic selection of offbeat bottles by resident sommelier Heather Thompson, is a joyride of a la carte plates like prawns glossed in yuzu kosho butter, dry-aged beef fat biscuits and hay-stuffed fried poussin.
Like his peers Kevin Sbraga and Nicholas Elmi, Jason Cichonski also enjoyed a dose of fame from his appearance on "Top Chef." (He actually competed against Elmi in the same season.)
Before Bravo, the Bucks County-bred Cichonski was pretty well known locally as a rising culinary star from his time at Lacroix at the Rittenhouse, followed by the opening of his own restaurant, Ela, in Queen Village, and then 1100 Social at Xfinity Live!.