Despite what you’ve seen on reality TV, working in a restaurant kitchen is anything but glamorous. Long hours in a hot room with a high risk of injury (lots of fire and knives are involved) — who’d want to do that for a living? Luckily for those of us who enjoy dining out, people who become professional chefs feel it’s all worthwhile.
Welcome to this month’s edition of Who’s Next, a Billy Penn feature presented by the Knight Foundation and Caviar that highlights some of the most dynamic young leaders in Philadelphia.
In the last year, we’ve showcased more than 200 of the city’s up-and-comers, from lawyers to artists to musicians to educators. Now, in alphabetical order, meet 21 young people who are the key to extending the impressive rise of Philly’s culinary landscape.
Title: Chef and owner, Stock; Chef and partner, Res Ipsa
Who’s Next because: After graduating from college, Tyler Akin tried law school, but it wasn’t for him. Instead, the Wilmington native moved to DC and took a job baking at the Bread Ovens at Quail Creek Farms. After resisting for two years, he followed his boss’ advice got a degree in culinary arts from L’Academie de Cuisine in Maryland, after which he began cooking on the line at Mediterranean spot Komi. He’d gotten a chance to explore the cuisine in depth while traveling through Southeast Asia in 2007, and in 2012 he went back to dig into it more, with the goal of eventually opening his own spot. He came to Philadelphia and, after gaining acclaim as sous chef at Zahav, launched Stock in Fishtown in early 2014. The Thai/Vietnamese BYOB has gotten great notice, and in late summer Akin will open his second venture, Rittenhouse cafe Res Ipsa, in partnership with the folks from ReAnimator Coffee. Eventually, he’d love to be running several spots — “Maybe Thai restaurants in America and American restaurants in Thailand,” he says.
Title: Sous chef and pastry chef, Neuf
Who’s Next because: He may live in North Philly now, but Malik Ali is all about South Philadelphia. That’s where he grew up, and it’s where he’s found precocious culinary success. Food played a big part in his childhood — no one in his family was a professional, but gatherings always centered around food. As the oldest of five kids, he was the one who helped his mom prepare the feasts, and in high school he worked at Burger King, gaining notoriety as the fastest cook on the fast food line. When he was getting his culinary degree at the Art Institute, he met Joncarl Lachman, who snagged the young chef and brought him on as a line cook at Noord. Ali eventually took on the additional role of pastry chef at the East Passyunk BYOB, and proved his mettle to the point that when Lachman was preparing to launch his North African-inspired Italian market restaurant, he tapped Ali to help him lead its kitchen. “I just cook straight from the heart,” Ali says. “It just comes naturally to me. I get a handful of ingredients and put them together in a good way.”
Title: Chef and co-owner, Poi Dog Snack Shop
Who’s Next because: She’s got a degree from NYU, a master’s in comparative literature from CUNY and a master’s in classics from Bryn Mawr, but most people know Kiki Aranita as the petite firebrand chef behind — and public face of — one of Philly most popular food trucks: The Hawaiian-inspired Poi Dog Snack Shop. Along with partner Chris Vacca, the Hong Kong native has grown a mobile operation into a catering business, and they also have figured out a way to spend winters cooking in Hawaii itself. Recently, the duo dusted off their classics degrees to teach a series of classes in the cuisine of Ancient Rome.
Title: Chefs and co-owners, Helm
Ages: 32 and 29
Who’s Next because: When buddies Kevin D’Egidio and Michael Griffiths opened their BYOB, they didn’t have much of a staff — in addition to preparing all the food, they acted as servers, managers and even dishwashers. Thanks to a heap of rave reviews, things are different now. The spot, which they opened for a grand total of $10,000 in an unassuming space on the edge of Kensington in 2015, is now buzzing and busy, with a staff of nearly 10 people. Though Helm was their first project as proprietors, both chefs have a wealth of fine-dining experience, with kitchens like Le Bec-Fin, Will, Ela and Lacroix, where they met, on their resumes. They weren’t looking to open a second spot so quickly, D’Egidio and Griffiths say, but an opportunity “fell in [their] lap” and so next week they will launch South Helm in the former First Ward Sandwiches spot in Pennsport.
Title: Chef, Federal Donuts
Who’s Next because: Matt Fein is Philly’s reigning chicken-and-donuts king, but his domain is about to get much bigger. When Federal Donuts expands later this year, he’ll be the one tasked with making sure the food stays good enough to become as much of a cult favorite in other cities as it is in its hometown. The Bucks County native got his first cookbook at the age of 10, but didn’t pick it as a career until after his first year in the premed program at the University of Connecticut. He decided the mountains of school loan debt he saw piling up wasn’t worth it, and instead got a degree at the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts. After bouncing around a few restaurants in Boston, he returned to this region and worked at Charcoal BYOB in Yardley. A birthright trip to Israel left him enamored with the cuisine, and on his return in 2012 he petitioned Michael Solomonov for a spot at Zahav. Nine months later, Fein was ready for something new, but Solomonov didn’t want to let him go, and instead put him on the FedNuts beat, where he helped launch the Center City location and eventually rose to corporate chef. This past February, he became a partner in the business.
Title: Executive chef, Sbraga Dining
Who’s Next because: When he was a junior in high school, Conshohocken native Greg Garbacz had to write a paper explaining what he wanted to be when he grew up. He had no question what the answer was: Chef. Starting when he was 15, he worked his way from dishwasher to prep cook at Sunnybrook Golf Club in Plymouth Meeting, then went to Drexel and graduated with a degree in culinary arts. After graduation, he got a job at Rittenhouse BYOB Audrey Claire, and moved from there through several other kitchens — Meritage, Pearl, Supper — until landing a spot as opening sous at Sbraga in 2011. He worked well with Kevin Sbraga, and went on to help the chef launch The Fat Ham, Juniper Commons, Sbraga & Co. in Jacksonville and, most recently, the Little Fat Ham at Spruce Street Harbor Park. Eventually he plans to break out with his own concept — BBQ is currently on his mind. “We recently went on a trip to the Carolinas and I was just blown away,” he says. “There’s not that much great BBQ in Philly yet.”
Title: Chef and partner, Royal Sushi & Izakaya
Who’s Next because: Though Jesse Ito was just 17 when he began learning knife skills on the line with his Osaka-trained father, Masaharu “Matt” Ito, it wasn’t until he was 23 that he decided he wanted to be a full-time chef. After getting a degree in business marketing from Rutgers, he returned to the family’s Haddonfield sushi restaurant Fuji and dedicated himself to the craft. Restaurateurs Stephen Simons and David Frank (Khyber Pass Pub, Royal Tavern, Cantina Los Caballitos) were regular customers and fans, and around 2.5 years ago pitched the father-and-son team on joining them to launch a spot in Philadelphia. The Itos sold Fuji to a longtime chef and are now working to open Queen Village’s Royal Sushi & Izakaya before fall of this year. Ito sees owning a restaurant as a well-rounded career. “I’ve always loved art, and I love managing, and I love food. This business encapsulates all of that.”
Title: Sous chef, Laurel
Who’s Next because: In 2008, Edmund Konrad achieved something he’d dreamed about as a kid growing up in Port Richmond: He got a job cooking at Le Bec-Fin, and rose to sous chef there under chef de cuisine Nicholas Elmi. When George Perrier shuttered the famed French restaurant in 2012, Konrad, who’d followed up his culinary training at Mercy Vocational Tech with an associates degree from Johnson and Wales University, departed for Manhattan and took the No. 2 position at Del Posto. His wife wasn’t much for NYC life, though, so the pair returned and bought a house in South Philadelphia — “I wanted to own a piece of real Philly before I couldn’t afford it anymore,” Konrad says. Elmi was thrilled to have his old colleague back in town, and quickly snapped him up to help run Laurel, the top-rated, prix-fixe-only, impossible-to-get-reservations-at East Passyunk BYOB, which is currently expanding with a bar next door.
Title: Chef, A Mano
Who’s Next because: Positive reviews come with the price of being busy, this Michael Millon knows. Though he met a girlfriend at the Italian BYOB he runs for Townsend “Tod” Wentz, he hardly has time to spend with her — the Fairmount spot got three bells from the Inquirer and requires his constant attention, since the food is entirely his conception. The Lansdowne native landed at the top after starting as a dishwasher at a Delco spot called Tommy’s, and then working on the line at Davio’s in Rittenhouse. A friend introduced him to Wentz, who was launching Twenty 21, and after that closed he worked with Wentz at Manhattan’s A Voce. He returned to Philly to help Wentz open Townsend on East Passyunk, working there while the A Mano project came together. “Tod asked me if I wanted to be chef at his Italian place, and I was thrilled after being No. 2 for so many years,” he says, noting that Italian cuisine is his favorite to cook. “French is cool also, but it’s too precise.”
Title: Chef and owner, Girard
Who’s Next because: Brian Oliviera’s first cooking job was at McDonald’s, when, as a socially awkward 14 year old, he chose to work in the kitchen instead of interfacing with the public at the register. His family owned a luncheonette called Kelly’s Kitchen, so he also worked the line there and generally helped run the joint. He enrolled in the Culinary Institute of America and graduated in 2011, doing his senior externship at Bella Vista’s James under chef Jim Burke. After he got his degree took a position as a server at Parc — “Had to pay off all those student loans, and kitchens are necessarily the place to do that” he says. He still had the cooking bug, though, and started making and soups at home and selling them to co-workers. Eventually he realized he needed a real facility to do that, so he struck a deal with Tom McCusker at Honest Toms; Oliveria would help manage the West Philly shop, and in return he’d be able to use the kitchen as a commissary and host pop-ups. During those dinners he met Cristian Mora, and together the pair conceptualized and launched Girard, a Fishtown bruncherie that eschews tipping in favor of an automatically added service charge. Last December, Mora left the company, and Oliveira turned Girard into a daytime-only spot, a change that lets him and his employees “have some sort of life outside of the restaurant, and be an active part of society.”
Title: Head baker, Malvern Buttery
Who’s Next because: Her 4:30 a.m. daily call time has done nothing to dampen the enthusiasm Nicole Petrongolo has for baking bread. Her Malvern kitchen puts out seven types of loaves, all of which are made using natural leavening, and she’s currently developing new varieties that use 100 percent house-milled grains from Bucks County’s Castle Valley. Petrongolo wasn’t always a baker, though — the South Jersey native worked the savory side of the line for more than 10 years, both before and after after graduating from The Restaurant School at Walnut Hill College in 2007. She joined the opening team for 10 Arts at the Ritz-Carlton under Eric Ripert, and then helped Jose Garces launch JG Domestic. Stops at haute spots like Lacroix and NYC’s Eleven Madison Park followed, and she returned to Philly to work with Justin Bogle at Avance. When that shuttered, she took her first baking position at the Fishtown La Colombe, and fell in love with bread. These days, she intersperses her Buttery work with trips to Costa Rica, where she is a regular visiting guest chef at the Arenas del Mar resort.
Title: Baker and owner, Essen Bakery
Who’s Next because: Born in South Africa and raised in Israel, Tova du Plessis moved to the U.S. to attend the University of Houston, where she intended to study to be a doctor. After getting a bachelor’s in biology, she switched course entirely and enrolled in the Culinary Institute of America, where she earned a degree in baking and pastry in 2011. That degree was put to very good use: After helping CookNSolo launch kosher Main Line restaurant Citron and Rose, she became pastry chef at the 2.0 version of Le Bec Fin, and held the same position at Avance and then Lacroix at the Rittenhouse. Earlier this year, she launched her own spot, Essen Bakery, a petite East Passyunk shop that specializes in Jewish-inspired sweets. She sees the project as a test run — if the reception continues to be as positive as it has been so far, du Plessis plans to eventually expand with a larger location.
Title: Chef de cuisine, Brauhaus Schmitz
Who’s Next because: Henrik Ringbom speaks four languages and has cooked in nearly a dozen countries around the world, but he couldn’t be happier about being here. “I’ve visited everywhere else, and this is a great place,” he says. “I really love Philadelphia.” A native of Sweden, he learned cooking from his mom and grandmother, who used to prepare the birds he’d bring home after going hunting. His family moved to the Finnish Archipelago, where he attended a culinary boarding school called Åbolands Yrkesinstitut. During mandatory service in the Finnish military, he became an army cook, spending days tending a wood-fired cart at a forest campsite, preparing food for a troupe of 60 with a gun strapped to his back. At Stockholm’s Bistro Jarl he cooked French brasserie cuisine, and then took a job working on cruise ships that traversed the Atlantic and Caribbean. A Swedish couple he met enticed him to help open a restaurant on the island of Bequia in the West Indies, and while running it he met his wife, a New Jersey native there working for the Peace Corps. After getting married in Las Vegas — growing up in Sweden, he’d seen it in movies — they settled in Philly, and Ringbom worked at Osteria. After a year he took a position as sous chef at Brauhaus Schmitz, and eventually took over running the kitchen so chef Jeremy Nolen could concentrate on opening Whetstone and the company’s other ventures. While he hopes to one day launch a Scandinavian restaurant, he does sometimes catch a bite of his childhood cuisine by chowing down on those famous meatballs at Ikea.
Title: Co-owner and ice cream maker, Weckerly’s
Who’s Next because: Jen Satinsky loves making ice cream. “It’s fun to work with,” says the Western Pa. native. “I love the way the grassy taste of the cream — which we make from Seven Stars Dairy raw milk — reacts with other ingredients and flavors.” She first tried her hand at it in 2020, when she was working working under Judy Wicks at the White Dog Cafe. In 2012, when she was manager at West Philly’s Green Line Cafe, she decided to turn it into a business. Over the past four years, she and husband Andy Satinsky have grown their frozen treats operation to the point where they now supply around 40 wholesale accounts with pints and ice cream sandwiches. This August, they’ll launch a retail shop to go along with their production creamery, a Pa. Deptartment of Agriculture-certified facility in Kensington’s Globe Dye Works complex. Bonus: The Weckerly’s storefront will likely offer fresh-made cones to go hold the sweet scoops.
Title: Pastry chef, Capogiro and Capofitto
Who’s Next because: When Brooke Saylor and her husband, Who’s Next alum and fellow NYU grad Jon Geeting, decided pick up and leave New York City after 10 years there, neither of them had jobs lined up here. (Why’d they make the move? “We had a good feeling about Philly.”) Though she’d been working as an HR coordinator, Saylor took what she thought was a holdover job as store manager at Capogiro in 2013. Recognizing that the pastry selection at the gelateria wasn’t quite up to par with its world-famous frozen dessert, she convinced proprietor Stephanie Reitano to let her take on the task of improving it — and did such a good job that Reitano made it an official position. Saylor now makes up to 40 different pastries in the kitchen at Old City’s Capofitto, which are then distributed to the stores four other location. She also finds time to make specialty cakes for private events, and care for her 9-month-old daughter.
Title: Chef and co-owner, The Blue Duck
Who’s Next because: When Kris Serviss opened his 40-seat BYOB with longtime friend Joe Callahan, it was a homecoming for the Northeast Philly native. He started working in kitchens when he was 14, as a fry cook, and then attended The Restaurant School at Walnut Hill. An internship during college led to a position at an upscale Italian restaurant, where Serviss learned haute cuisine. He moved on to work for Iron Hill Brewery, but within a few months of being promoted to head chef, he found funding for to launch his own spot. The Blue Duck launched in late 2014, bringing modern, urban-style dining to a Rhawnhurst strip mall. Things are going well, so well, in fact, that Serviss is deep into planning his second restaurant, Blue Duck II — which will likely be located much closer to Center City.
Title: Sous chef, Broad Street Ministry
Who’s Next because: TC Shillingford has a degree in philosophy, but he never expected to be a philosopher. (“I’m just very, very good at arguing,” he says.) He went to Temple needing a change after four years working for AIG — he was there when the financial crisis went down; the day he was let go, the firm also fired 60 of his colleagues. The Wayne native had grown up with a family big into cooking — people were always begging his dad to open a restaurant — so he picked up a cook’s job at Broad Street Ministry. Along with chef Steve Seibel, he prepares several hundred free meals each day, making sure that the food is as good as a regular restaurant even if there are no paying customers. Shillingford’s next move will be to start a baking program at the nonprofit, and in the next few weeks he’ll start making all bread from scratch. He’s also looking to buy a house somewhere outside of Center City, he says — maybe Port Richmond.
Title: Chef and co-owner, Grateful Plate
Who’s Next because: By the age of 13, Beth Kaufman Strauss had decided she wanted to be a vegetarian. Her mother took her to a soy cooking class that the Cheltenham native credits with changing her life and setting her on her current path. She got a job at a health food store and began leading vegetarian cooking classes herself. At the Natural Gourmet Institute in NYC she became a certified natural foods chef in 2003, and then returned to Philly to work at vegan catering company Organic Planet. After going back to school to get a degree in hotel and food management, she worked at Max and David’s in Elkins Park for five years, then decided to go out on her own and launch a food delivery business in 2009. Last year, her husband joined her in the venture and they expanded and rebranded as Grateful Plate. The operation services has hundreds of regular clients and services around 40 different households each week, providing easy, ready-to-eat meals that are healthy, filling and nutritious.
Title: Chef, Jose Pistola’s; chef and partner, Sancho Pistola’s
Who’s Next because: Within a year of being hired by longtime friends Joe Gunn and Casey Parker to spruce up the Mexican food at Center City’s Jose Pistola’s, Adan Trinidad had convinced the duo to partner with him on a second location. Sancho Pistola’s launched in 2014 with a menu inspired by Trinidad’s native Puebla, elevated with modern ingredients and techniques. He’d immigrated to the U.S. with his family when he was 14 years old, and eventually found his calling in the kitchen, working his way from the Capital Grille to Alma de Cuba and then El Vez, where he stepped in after Jose Garces left to start his own empire. Trinidad absconded to NYC to cook in high-end restaurants for Richard Sandoval, but Philly was in his heart, so he returned in 2013 to join his buddies in the bar biz. What’s next? Don’t count out additional restaurants added to the growing Pistola’s family.
Title: Principal, Jen Zavala Staffing and Consulting; private chef
Who’s Next because: What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger. That could be a life motto for Jen Zavala, who was so disheartened when she discovered there was another Philly woman on Top Chef with her (Jen Carroll) that she lost all confidence and was cut after just one episode. But the Connecticut native has plenty of resilience — she’s been supporting herself with restaurant jobs since the age of 16, when she got inspired to cook after taking a server job at Middlebury vegan/macrobiotic spot It’s Only Natural. After moving to Philly so her son’s father could look after an ailing relative, she helped conceptualize and launch El Camino Real in Northern Liberties in 2008, and then worked as sous at then-CookNSolo-run Xochitl on Headhouse Square. She left to help launch a food truck called Cherry Bomb Bus in 2011, but that partnership dissolved after a legal dispute. Zavala found a niche for herself as what she calls a “kitchen mercenary,” covering shifts for other chefs if they needed an emergency night off. The connections she made during that time led to her current business, which helps kitchens find good staff. She also maintains a catering business, doing private dinners and small affairs.
Correction: This article originally reported that a partner of Zavala’s “stole” a truck the pair operated together; in a subsequent lawsuit, courts sided with the former partner, who disputes Zavala’s account.
Hair and makeup for Who’s Next headshots provided by Odyssey Hair Studio in Washington Square West.