Dining Trend: Chef Dinners
Usually, Michael Solomonov is the one making the ladies swoon at Zahav. But that duty belonged to a convincing Journey cover band’s Humpty Dumpty-shaped front man last Fourth of July weekend, when the Israeli restaurant transformed itself for a Jersey Shore-themed bash complete with trash cans full of iced-down beer, a fog machine and reimagined boardwalk fare from eight of the city’s best chefs.
HOW CHEF DINNERS GET STARTED
“We thought we’d do something fun, a little bit zany and wacky,” says Solomonov, who recruited Pierre Calmels (Bibou), Erin O’Shea (Percy Street Barbecue), Lucio Palazzo (Xochitl), Peter Woolsey (Bistrot La Minette), David Katz (Mémé), Terence Feury and Andrew Wood (Fork) and John Taus (formerly of Snackbar) for the boardwalk banger.
“It was more self-indulgent than anything else. I mentioned the idea to Steve [Cook, Zahav co-owner], and the next day he was online ordering $400 worth of mullet wigs.” The event, billed as “Down the Shore,” marked the third such gathering from Solomonov, Woolsey, Calmels and Katz, who kicked off the quartet’s collaborations with a pork-centric feast at Mémé the previous summer, followed by a modern, bistro-inspired feast (cheekily titled “Chefs Gone Wild”) at Bistrot La Minette last April. “This is an extremely stressful industry,” says Solomonov. “You just wind up becoming friends with other chefs, and these collaborative dinners are about us all hanging out and having a good time.”
South Philadelphia Tap Room chef Scott Schroeder, who does a collaborative farmhouse ale dinner every October, echoes Solomonov’s sentiments. “These dinners are fun. Generally, the other chefs are your friends or people you’re interested in cooking with,” says Schroeder, whose 2010 culinary cohorts included best-bud Gene Giuffi of Cochon, Southwark’s Sheri Waide and Nick Macri.
“It’s great for the diners because they get to see chefs out of their element, doing things they might not normally do at their restaurants. And you get more than one chef. Everyone wants to have the best dish, so we all have our A games on.” In the past year, collaborative chef dinners have gone from a blip in the Philly blogosphere to an all-out boom.
Jim Burke’s James hosted Blackfish’s Chip Roman—both are Vetri alums—this past September. Amis’ mega-popular Industry Nights have included Jose Garces, Pub & Kitchen’s Jonathan Adams and Kanella’s Konstantinos Pitsillides. Ladder 15’s David Ansill collaborated with Fish’s Mike Stollenwerk in November and Han Dynasty’s Han Chiang and Sycamore’s Sam Jacobson in December.
WHY PHILLY FOODIES ARE HUNGRY FOR AN INVITE
Just before Thanksgiving, Le Bec-Fin alum Calmels and veterans of both Le Bec-Fin and Lacroix at The Rittenhouse—Lee Styer, Jessie Prawlucki and Jason Cichonski—reunited at Fond, where Styer is owner and Prawlucki is chef-owner, for a five-courser involving pheasant boudin blanc, escargots and pumpkin profiteroles. Reservations were snapped up almost immediately, a testament to diners’ ravenous appetite for these limited engagements.
The inherently ephemeral quality of these dinners makes them extra-desirable, something for hard-core food geeks to collect like merit badges. Chefs can also be imported from elsewhere for collaborative dinners. Schroeder, for example, also invited baker Patrick O’Malley of New York’s Balthazar down to cook for the farmhouse dinner—“He’s an old friend of mine from when we worked together at ¡Pasión!”—giving Philly a chance to taste food by a chef they might not normally be exposed to. See also: Jonathon Sawyer (Cleveland’s Greenhouse Tavern) and Koren Grieveson (Chicago’s Avec) cooking with Jeff Michaud at Osteria, and Edward Lee (Louisville’s 610 Magnolia) cooking with Mitch Prensky at Supper.
Just last winter, Solomonov brought in Jerusalem chef Michael Katz for a one-time-only dinner, and the Zahav exec has plenty more collaborations in the works. “Chefs in this city can really throw down,” he says. “Get any group of us together, chances are the food’s going to be incredible.” We couldn’t agree more.
photographs by gene smirnov