Philadelphia’s food and drink world is filled with prominent members who earn mounds of flattering press, but there are just as many individuals whose abilities are not yet fully realized, at least in the public eye. From chefs and coffee roasters to bartenders and bloggers, these hard-working personalities will surely earn marquee status in the near future — but why not meet them today? Here are my picks for the 10 most promising industry talents on the rise in Philadelphia.
1. Mark Corpus and Mark Capriotti, ReAnimator Coffee
“Our first foray into coffee was diving head-first into it,” says Mark Corpus, who in 2010 founded ReAnimator Coffee in his basement with Drexel buddy Mark Capriotti. Just two years later, 20-plus local cafes, restaurants and shops carry ReAnimator beans, and the partners have successfully steered a Lucky Ant campaign to fund a 2,000-square-foot Fishtown space that’ll serve as the brand’s new HQ. ReAnimator stands out thanks to its dedication to single-origin sourcing; Corpus and Capriotti are drawing raw beans from nations like Ethiopia, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Indonesia, prepping them on a shiny 12-kilo Probat (pictured) that Corpus describes as “the Rolls-Royce” of roasters. The plan for the facility is to trick it out as a production floor and cupping center, with eventual plans to integrate a sit-down café into the operation. It’s an ambitious checklist, but Corpus has the time to execute it — he recently left his day job in corporate finance to focus solely on ReAnimator. “I’m glad to be doing what I’m passionate about 100 percent of the time,” he says.
2. Side Project Jerky
“Jerky for gentlemen” is a catchphrase that’s been tossed around by masticators of fine artisanal meats ever since Side Project Jerky came onto the scene this past summer. Now there’s even more reason to chant that mantra from the dehydrated-flesh parapets: SPJ, founded by Marcos Espinoza and Mark Novasack (center, right) and branded by art director Dan Olsovsky (left), is now a fully local snack, made with beef from Lancaster County via Plymouth Meeting’s Carl Venezia Meats. While the roster of base flavors (Original, Mongolian, Southwestern) has remained un-messed-with, the jerky boys are branching out in an innovative fashion, teaming up with chefs to develop signature one-off flavors. They hope to drop their first, a pho-inspired entry developed by Sean Magee of Time, later this month, and we hear a number of other prominent knife jockeys are intrigued by the opportunity. Meanwhie, SPJ has expanded its retail reach, earning placement in shops like Art in the Age, COOK, The Foodery, Green Aisle and the new West Elm Market.
3. John Ihlenfeldt, Chef/Owner, The Tamale Cart
John Ihlenfeldt (right) is a native of Bucks County, but his cell’s got a Cali exchange — he was stationed there during his time in the Army, and it’s in that state that he first discovered the power of husk-wrapped masa. “I had these tamales in Palm Springs that knocked my socks off,” says Ihlenfeldt, who’s coming up on a year running The Tamale Cart, a modest mobile operation dealing in you-know-what. Recognizing a lack of tamale providers in Philly, Ihlenfeldt schooled himself on the art of the temperamental Spanish-speaking specialty, developing a menu based around three varieties — pork and green sauce, chicken mole and vegetarian chile en rajas — plus sandwiches and sausages. “Tamales are portable food, and they’re really perfectly suited to the niche that a food cart serves,” says the one-man show, a frequent event/festival vendor who will soon have a permanent sidewalk spot in University City. “I want tamales to be default lunch choice, up there with cheesesteaks and soft pretzels. That’s what they’re made for.”
4. Christopher Kearse, Chef/Owner, Will BYOB
While debuting along the city’s buzzing Restaurant Row 2.0 doesn’t hurt, Christopher Kearse earns his up-and-comer slot thanks to sheer skill and plated personality. Kearse, who opened Will on the southern end of East Passyunk Avenue this past August, is quietly cultivating a following thanks to his knack for showcasing crystal-clear flavors in an artistically exacting format. It’s still early going for the ambitious alum of French Laundry, Alinea, Tru and Charlie Trotter’s; Philly should look forward to what other innovations will come out of his small-but-surgical South Philly kitchen.
5. Becca O’Brien, Chef, Green Aisle Grocery
It’s a little surprising that the chef behind Green Aisle Grocery’s line of housemade products has been on her canning grind for less than a year. But Becca O’Brien is a quick study, thanks in large part to her restaurant experience. Working in kitchens in Houston and Nashville before coming to Philly, O’Brien cooked at Barclay Prime and Beau Monde before taking a part-time position at the South Philly food boutique in late 2011. Originally tapped to work the store and rep GAG at farmers markets, O’Brien soon began contributing much more to Adam and Andrew Erace‘s shop — prepared foods and proprietary goodies made with local, seasonal and organic ingredients. ”I read everything I could possibly read on canning, developing my own ratios and percentages,” says O’Brien. It didn’t take her long to get it down to a science. Every Monday, O’Brien spends between 12 and 16 hours cranking out the batches that fill the shelves. For the holidays, she’s working on a house granola blend, scratch-made mustards, spiced hazelnut spread, an array of preserves and take-home sides like scalloped potatoes and butternut squash soup. O’Brien relishes the fact that her unique setup with GAG will allow her to continue producing the line regardless of what future projects she takes on. “Cooking fulltime is my ideal life,” she says, “and [Green Aisle] doesn’t ever have to come off the table. The sky’s the limit.”
6. Lucio Palazzo, Chef, Taqueria Feliz
Lucio Palazzo doesn’t sound like the name of a guy with a mean mole poblano. But that’s the precise niche the Italian-American chef has carved out for himself at Fairmount’s La Calaca Feliz, a role that will expand once Tim Spinner and Brian Sirhal open Manayunk’s Taqueria Feliz in 2013. Raised in the Friuli region of northeastern Italy, then Upper Darby and Downingtown, Palazzo’s first Philly cooking job was at Zahav; he was later tapped for the opening team at Percy Street BBQ. Though he was always an admirer of Mexico’s “big, bold flavors,” he had no formal experience with the food until he took over the kitchen at Xochitl. “It’s a complex and rich cultural cuisine that varies greatly region by region,” says Palazzo. Though Taqueria Feliz will start with a simple menu approach, Palazzo will grow more ambitious as he gets his feet. “Once we get everything into place, we can start to refine what we’re doing, experimenting with more traditional stuff,” says Palazzo, citing examples like birria de chivo, a hearty goat stew, and a pressed pig ear preparation that plays on chicharones. “My idea is to look at something that’s traditional to a certain region but might not be known here, then updating it in a way that encourages someone who hasn’t tried before to take a risk on it,” he says.
7. Christina Rando, GM, The Franklin Mortgage & Investment Co.
A former punk-rock tour manager, Christina Rando does not characterize herself as a lifelong spirits geek. “It fell into my lap,” says the Philly native, who now, thanks to a serendipitous combination of curiosity and killer timing, runs the premier cocktail bar in this shot-and-beer town. In 2008, Rando answered a Craigslist ad for a server position at Apothecary, the ahead-of-its-time cocktail destination at 13th and Drury. It was so busy that she began piecing together her own orders, discovering she had a knack for the craft. After Apothecary’s closure (“Philadelphia wasn’t ready for it,” she reasons), a former coworker brought her into the fold at The Franklin, where she progressed from server to GM. In addition to her day-to-day duties, you can find her developing drinks for the ever-evolving menu, like the Fevre Dream, a swizzle combining Tanqueray, Cocchi vermonth and Pernod absinthe with autumnal elements like cinnamon, apple and cranberry. “You have to do a lot of reading, be a big nerd,” says Rando of the studious approach demanded in the cocktail field. “We don’t do this because it’s a big moneymaker. This is what we do because we love it.”
8. Yehuda Sichel, Chef de Cuisine, Citron & Rose
There was no need for Steve Cook and Michael Solomonov to launch an extensive search for the right lieutenant to run Citron & Rose, opening in Merion on November 7. Growing up in an Orthodox Jewish home in Pikesville, Md., former Zahav sous Yehuda Sichel is the exact fit for chef de cuisine at C&R, which will both honor and reinterpret glatt kosher cuisine through a modern Eastern European lens. Sichel, who’s of Hungarian descent, was educated in Israel and Philly and cooked at Philly’s Brasserie Perrier and Rae as well as at Neal Fraser’s Grace in L.A. before entering the Zahav orbit. In the development process for C&R, Cook and Solomonov took the chef to Budapest to research — and eat — their way through the country. “They just feed you till can’t eat anymore,” says Sichel of the experience, at once illuminating and belt-busting. The approach at C&R will take many of the dishes the trio uncovered during the journey and augment them with contemporary technique and presentation. See their spin on sholet, an ancient Sabbath stew updated with duck confit, kishke (a grain-stuffed sausage) and haminado, a Sephardic slow-cooked egg. Sichel also talks up their treatment of kreplach, made here with veal to adorn a celery root soup. “The flavors are going to be familiar, just more refined. We cook with a lot of love,” says Sichel, who’s quick to point out that the restaurant, while strictly kosher, will cater to diners of all disciplines. “Jewish or not, observant or not, anyone who’s into food is going to want to come out here.”
9. Albert Stumm, Editor, The Passyunk Post
An assistant city editor at the Philadelphia Daily News, Albert Stumm works nights, leaving his days free to do what he does best. “I’m nosy, so I’m always peeking in windows,” says the South Phillyite, who purchased a house on Camac Street in 2006, well before nearby East Passyunk Avenue exploded. He’s parlayed this natural curiosity for his surroundings into The Passyunk Post, a city blog covering the goings-on in his ever-booming neighborhood. Between real estate news, business updates, construction scoops and bar/restaurant openings (The Garage and Noord sit atop his most-anticipated list), Stumm stays busy updating the Post, and doesn’t see the area’s development leveling off anytime soon. “It speaks to a national trend of people wanting to be able to walk everywhere,” says Stumm of EPX’s popularity. “This is such a walkable neighborhood. And people who have always lived here are looking to the neighborhood to open up businesses, too.”
10. Robert Toland, Pastry Chef, Stateside
Stateside chef George Sabatino took both the local and national rounds of this summer’s Ommegang Hop Chef competition, but you probably haven’t met his sweet-tooth Weapon X: Robert Toland (right), who’s not technically trained as a pastry chef at all. The Frankford High graduate, who studied at the Art Institute, logged savory time and Parc, Oyster House and Bar Ferdinand, but didn’t start pursuing pastry seriously until his post at the latter restaurant. Coming on at Stateside, Toland says, granted him full latitude to hone his personal sweet-stuff philosophy, which he characterizes as “old-school technique with contemporary style.” Take the dish he put together for the Ommegang cook-off, inspired by the Cooperstown brewery’s Three Philosophers — cherry and beer pearls set with agar, apricot and beer worked into a gel-like sauce, a light beer cake, pannacotta flavored with crushed cherry pits … and espresso Pop Rocks to mimic the effervescence of the bestial Belgian-style quad. “I bring a lot of different perspectives to the table,” says Toland of how his savory background influences his approach to dessert. Right now at Stateside, look out for his smoked chocolate tart, a rich ganache paired with torched from-scratch “fluff” and housemade graham cracker crunch, a deceptively simple play on s’mores.