Running a professional kitchen has never been easy. Long hours and tight quarters are the name of the game, along with a healthy helping of cuts and burns. Unless you’re a corporate bigwig, compensation rarely outpaces personal expenses. And now, a crowded field that sees new Philly restaurants open every week means making your food stand out is tougher than ever. But that hasn’t stopped a new generation of chef hopefuls from jumping in.
Every month, Billy Penn publishes an edition of Who’s Next, presented by the Knight Foundation, focusing on a different industry or field. Over the last two and a half years, we’ve written about more than 400 of the city’s up-and-coming leaders, from laywers to activists to artists to musicians.
Below are this year’s 15 honorees in the chef category, presented in alphabetical order.
Honorees’ hair and makeup by House of Clarity
At age 17, Bush got his first kitchen job — at a McDonald’s near Mount Vernon, NY, where he grew up. But he’d also grown up watching cooking shows with his mom, and he was inspired by greats like Julia Childs, Jacques Pepin, Mario Batali and Martin Yan to reach for more. After some time in DC managing various dining rooms, he came to Philly to get back on the line, and cooked for Jose Garces before finding a spot under Peter Woolsey eight years ago. When Woolsey branched out with La Peg, Bush took up the reins at the petite Queen Village bistro, which he still feels is somewhat underrated. “We are known as a fancy birthday and anniversary restaurant,” he said, “but we have one of the best happy hours in the city and an affordable prix-fixe menu. People shouldn’t feel like they need a special occasion to come.”
As assistant to pastry chef/co-owner Pat O’Malley, Cedrone’s days start early. Like 4:30 a.m. early. Fortunately, it’s not that tough for him, since his previous job was at the Lithe Method, where classes often began before dawn. This position is actually his first in the restaurant industry, although when he was growing up in Drexel Hill, food was big in his Italian-American family — at 80, Grandma “Mommom” Millie still cooks for a dozen every Wednesday night. Cedrone’s favorite thing about working in a professional kitchen, and what’s hooked him on this as a future career, is how rewarding it is to watch customers enjoying his creations. “There’s no better feeling the world,” he said, “than getting off a shift and being able to physically see people enjoying the pastries I baked that same morning.”
Northeast Philly native Patterson isn’t a vegan. Not by a longshot — he describes himself as a meat-and-potatoes kind of guy. But after cooking in several comfort food kitchens, from Green Eggs Cafe to PYT to the Yumtown food truck, he was entranced by the challenge of creating great meals without meat or dairy. After a couple of years working veg-only, he’s pretty much mastered that skill; he now handles all cooking for the Steve Lawrence catering company. One thing he doesn’t have is a desire for the spotlight, which is somewhat rare in the chef-worshipping culture we live in these days: “I much prefer to make good food back in the kitchen with no one ever knowing who made it.
DeMarco wasn’t always back of the house. She got her industry start at age 14 working the phones at Gaetano's of Willingboro, her hometown, then worked on and off there for the next dozen years, even commuting back and forth to Jersey after she moved to Philly. Her first taste of cooking came one night when they were short-staffed so she “got thrown” on the line — and fell promptly in love with the chaotic commotion of a busy kitchen. She once tried out for reality TV (“I did not become the next Top American Ninja Chef Champion”), but eventually found her groove, picking up skills at Little Nonna’s and then joining American Sardine as sous. When the chef left, she stepped up, then expanded her purview to oversee food at the company’s new brewpub, too. Which led her to realize what she thinks is the biggest issue facing the industry today: Not enough good cooks to go around.
Diltz knows first-hand the frustrations of trying to open a restaurant — his planned Fishtown BYOB celebrating Mid-Atlantic heritage, Elwood, has been stuck in bureaucratic limbo for some time now — but he still loves the industry and is in it for the long haul. He’s been cooking since he had to feed himself as a latch-key kid growing up in Hetlerville, Pa., and professionally has worked for Barbara Lynch in Boston and Jean Joho and Patrick Sheerin in Chicago. He returned to his home state to pursue the dream of his own spot, working at the Yardley Inn and running the kitchen at Farmicia for three years. Though he wishes he didn’t have to wait any longer, he does enjoy the scene at JB’s, because the owners “don’t just want nachos and chicken wings. They want really good food, not your typical bar fare.”
In Kurt Evans’ mind, chefs are more than just cooks — they’re what he calls “game changers,” with the power to use food as a platform for social justice and change how whole neighborhoods eat. That’s one reason he was thrilled to take over his Nicetown restaurant from a friend last year, so he could introduce the people he grew up with to fresh, never-frozen food that’s both healthy and tasty (his salmon cheesesteak is a customer favorite). He also still does catering, which he started as a creative outlet when working a 9-to-5 cooking job at an Aramark-run hospital facility. Having his own business allows him to do his favorite thing: Exceed expectations and watch diners faces as they enjoy his food.
Jenkins makes no bones about it: He got into cooking because he couldn’t afford to eat at fancy restaurants — “I figured I should just learn how to do it for myself.” He already had a solid base, learned from his mother when he grew up in Frankford, so after a short stop at Govinda’s on South Street, he made the push to get hired by Jose Garces. Turns out Garces Group was a fantastic fit; since starting at Garces Trading Company as a cheesemonger seven year ago, he’s stayed with the company. Positions have shifted as he’s moved around, but he’s always applied his philosophy that the best restaurant cooking combines multiple mediums and schools of thought (cultural, historic, physical) and solves the puzzle of how to put them all together as a cohesive whole.
Heart, full: This Northeast Philly native got into cooking in sixth grade, when his parents divorced and he decided he wanted his mom to return home from work to a hot meal on the table. He started working in restaurants proper during high school, then attended the Culinary Institute of America. He landed at Marigold under chef Rob Halpern, then worked his way up the ranks. When Halpern sold the West Philly BYOB, its current owners asked Krajewski to stay on, something he was happy to do because of the creativity he gets to express via the restaurant’s multi-course tasting menu. Eventually he might move on from small plates — if he opened his own spot, it would probably be something like an upscale diner — but for now, telling stories via interesting food is what keeps him going, despite the long hours.
Leveillee didn’t exactly move to Philly for romance — he came down from his native Rhode Island to study journalism at Temple, where he eventually got an economics degree — but his first serious restaurant job came about because he was enamored with a particular server at El Camino Real. He credits a short stint at Vernick Food & Drink with having the most impact upon his career, calling chef-owner Greg Vernick “one of the most amazing people I’ve had the pleasure of meeting.” At Whetstone, which Leveille describes as the most positive restaurant environment he’s ever worked in, he’s really come into his stride. “I love every little part of it,” he said. “The exhaustion, the stress, the creativity, the relationships. I think I might die without it.”
As top food person at the Hotel Monaco on Independence Mall, this South Jersey native has a lot on her plate. There’s the full-service ground floor restaurant, the swank roofdeck bar, the banquet and wedding events and the in-room dining to worry about. But despite the fact that she works 80-hour weeks, Mateo is having the time of her life. She’s put in time at plenty of independent kitchens during her decade-plus in the industry, with stops cooking under Georges Perrier and Marcie Turney, but appreciates the way Kimpton runs their hotels because of the freedom she has to play with new ideas and innovate. “There’s no corporate menus or anything holding us back,” she said. “I have full autonomy.”
McCormick found cooking through trouble. When he was 14 years old, some mischief got him confined to the house for the entire summer, so he kept himself busy in the kitchen and discovered he was good at it. He moved up from near Richmond to attend the Restaurant School at Walnut Hill College, then found jobs under some of Philly’s best chefs. He learned a lot from David Ansill (then at Ladder 15) and Chris Kearse (Will), and then also Nicholas Elmi, whom he first worked under at Le Bec-Fin. Elmi trusts him enough now to let him pretty much run Laurel’s sister bar on his own, after the pair comes up with and refines dishes together. The longterm bonds co-workers form are McCormick’s favorite thing about the industry, but he sometimes worries about the front/back of the house dichotomy. “I’d like to see a fairer distribution of money throughout the restaurant,” he said.
When he was two years old, Munguia’s family fled the war in Nicaragua, and he’s been in Philly ever since. As far back as he can remember, he would surprise his parents with homecooked meals — “They wouldn’t turn out well,” he remembered, “but I loved trying.” His first pro turn was at Caribbean-inflected Reef on South Street, where he started in prep and then ended up running the kitchen. He powered through kitchens specializing in a variety of different cuisines after that, from French at Stephen Starr’s Bleu (now Parc) to Italian at Melograno to comfort food at One Shot Cafe and Green Eggs. Though it’s something he feels is missing from a lot of young folks leaping into the industry these days, Munguia believes passion is a cook’s greatest skill, and he intends to keep pouring it into his relatively new position at Cinder.
Sometime during her Pattison, NJ, childhood, where she cooked with her grandmother, Sapp made the discovery that any given dish could be prepared via dozens of different pathways. Intensely fascinated, she realized cooking was how she wanted to spend her life. That her chosen culinary school, the Art Institute, had a branch in sunny Florida was a bonus. After graduation, she moved back north, and a position with Aramark brought her to Philadelphia in 2014. At the beginning of this year, she applied for the job at Jet Wine Bar because she wanted more of a challenge — and she found it. The kitchen at the South Street West restaurant is tiny, but Sapp immediately embraced it, and the complex dishes she put out — handmade ricotta gnocchi, housemade sausage flatbread — convinced proprietor Jill Weber to let her overhaul the entire menu.
It was music, not food, that brought Taylor to Philly. When he was a singer and guitar player in a Boston band, the drummer announced he was moving down, and he and his bandmates decided to come along for the adventure. He was working front of house at Wishing Well (now Bar One) to pay the bills when they suddenly needed kitchen help, so he jumped in. That was in 2012, and he’s been working the line ever since. After stops at Kraftwork and Sidecar Bar and Grille, he landed at Osteria, where he honed his fine dining skills. Compared to that kitchen, Alla Spina is a breeze, he said, with much more freedom to have fun and see creative ideas come to fruition.
This Bucks County native — who now runs and maintains the culinary research and development program at Drexel, her alma mater — has always been good at organizing things related to food. Viz her senior project in high school: A cookbook with more than 100 recipes, which she created with input from her Italian grandmother. Her co-op when at Drexel was baking under Alex Bois at High Street on Market, where she learned the value of heirloom grains and not being wasteful. She’s putting that experience to use now at the Food Lab, where much of the development works is concentrated on reducing food waste. “It’s a big problem — beyond restaurants,” she said. “We are having fun doing our part to help solve it.”