The wood-burning oven at Kennett is immense; it takes up most of the restaurant’s small kitchen, a beast of reclaimed bricks, steel and concrete. For chef Brian Ricci, the weight of the thing is part of its charm. “If you want to imagine something really, really heavy, this is like the heaviest thing ever,” he suggests. Hyperbole? Sure. But certainly the oven is the centerpiece of Ricci’s work at Kennett, where he and his crew prepare everything from pizzas to variation on tandoor-style skewered chicken.
“This is the smallest kitchen I’ve ever worked in my entire life,” he says as he maneuvers around the oven’s steel and cement supports; he’s trying to get back to some cheese he was making by the sink. “I was going to do a mobile oven, and make pizzas.” That was before he joined up with Kennett owners Johnny and Ashley Della Polla: “We found out this space was available, so we sort of just married the two concepts together.”
Ricci was making cheese when I arrived—a ricotta-style fresh cheese to use with appetizers later in the day. His process combines the centuries-old technique of separating curds and whey with a MacGyver-esque use of whatever’s at hand. “If a proper cheese-maker saw this, their heart would be in their mouth, they’d be so upset,” he says with a self-deprecating laugh.
As with the oven, it seems like an unwieldy process for something that could be achieved in much simpler ways. Ricci could buy ricotta cheese. Kennett could have an electric oven. But when the chef hands me a piece of wood-oven-baked bread smeared with that fresh cheese and apricot jam, I understand why he goes to so much trouble. The oven’s intense heat gives the bread a light but crunchy crust, perfectly protecting the softness within. Due to its freshness, the cheese is incredibly light, still tasting of the milk it was born from.
For Ricci, being able to get his hands in and personally monitor everything from the cheese process to the working conditions is important. “Old school chefs will always tell you: Don’t complain about how crappy your equipment is. If you know your equipment really well, you can do anything you want to. That’s the sign of a good chef.” He laughs. “And I was always like ‘Pfffft, whatever.’ But there is a great truth to that. If you know how to work this oven, you can do whatever the hell you want with it. You can smoke [food] in here if you want to. On certain nights we’ll take cuts of lamb and we’ll skewer them up and serve cuts of lamb to order.”
He motions to the hulk of an oven, the makeshift cheese strainer, the deep fryer he inherited with the building that he and Johnny refuse to use. “A lot of this is just asking more of you as a cook.”
Asking more of yourself is what Kennett is all about. The restaurant is painstakingly green, as Johnny Della Polla will tell you: The furniture is all reclaimed, the cushion material recycled and stuffed with shredded blue jeans. The floor is steam-cleaned to cut down on solvents. The bricks that make the oven come from the wall that used to stand where it does now. The food is all locally sourced, which forces menu changes with the seasons—and means that some of the best food goes uneaten in the summer, when Philadelphia restaurant patronage is at its lowest. And all of this costs more money, which means the prices at Kennett are higher than some of the other restaurants in the neighborhood.
Ricci asks more of himself as a cook, and Kennett’s menu asks more of the patron. The result of this is the ultimate in subjectivity; it is literally a matter of taste. Not every customer to his table is going to appreciate that he made the cheese fresh that morning, or even care. But that may not be the end goal at all.
While every restaurant wishes to be successful, the motives behind Kennett run so much deeper. It’s clear that using a giant, wood-burning oven and steam-cleaning the floors each night is more of a personal challenge than anything else. Ricci uses cooking technology that is, in some ways, literally medieval. And as much as that is about taste, about the purity of ingredients, he also does it just to see if he can.
The staff at Kennett come away with a deeper understanding of their own skills, and how to best apply them. Yes, they could buy ricotta and use industrial solvents on the floors. But where would be the challenge in that?
Kennett, 848 S. Second St. 267.687.1462. kennettrestaurant.com
PW's Taste of Philly 2014