Who Will Become Philly's Next Hop Chef?

Four of the city's hottest chefs took a road trip to Brewery Ommegang as friends. This week, they'll become rivals in a beer-pairing cook-off.

By Brian McManus
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Jul. 3, 2012

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Cheers with beers: The chefs toast their impending face-off.

Photo by Jeff Fusco

There’s Scott Schroeder, 37, 5’10”, 240 lbs. Schroeder is executive chef at both South Philly Tap Room and American Sardine Bar. He’s a bear of a man with an outsized personality and laugh to match. He’s good-natured, has an incredible sense of humor (on display daily @foodsyoucaneat), and stress seems to genuinely be a foreign concept to the guy. He’s seldom without a smile, or without a funny quip. He is the Spicoli of the Stove, only seriously smart.

Schroeder has been cooking some 20-plus years, working stints in Brassier Perrier, Pasión, Royal Tavern, Southwark and Deuce. He’s got a giant tattoo of a freshly pulled-out-of-the-ground beet teeming down his left arm from his bicep to very near his wrist, and of a bottle of Tabasco sauce on his right forearm. He is partial, on this trip, to a woven porkpie hat and the Daniel Johnston “Hi, How Are You” shirt made famous by Kurt Cobain. “I’m a beer and food guy,” he says when weighing his chances in the competition. “This is what I do.”

“They’ve got an amazing beer list at South Philly Tap Room and American Sardine Bar,” agrees Joe Cicala , 29, “short,” 175 lbs. “I eat at both of his places a lot, and he’s cooked many off-menu items for me that are just ... they’re just incredible. We’ve been making lots of jokes—because Scott’s known for his sandwiches—you know, ‘He’s trying to figure out how to put beer between two pieces of bread.’ But he could win this thing, for sure.”

Of course, Cicala himself is a threat to win. A self-identified “wine guy,” Cicala apprenticed in Italy for two years at Ristorante Al Cenacolo in Salerno. He’s spent time manning the stoves in his native Maryland and in Washington, D.C., at Galileo and Café Milano, and Del Posto in New York. As executive chef of the much-lauded rustic Italian joint Le Virtu, which focuses on the flavors of central Italy’s Abruzzo region, Cicala, despite being the youngest, is the Yoda in the group. He is Philly’s new Salumi King, curing meats in the basement of his restaurant using the centuries old techniques of his Italian forefathers. When he talks his craft—good bacteria, bad bacteria, temperature control, airflow, science—the others listen. No bullshit, he cures some meats with the full moon, because: water ... the tide ... the moon ... faster cure. Guy’s a full-on fucking meat ninja, a walking, talking Farmer’s Almanac of food secrets.

He makes a mean bowl of pasta, too. “I only eat at his restaurant, what, like three times a week?” says Schroeder about Le Virtu, whose pasta, he says, approaches Vetri-like serenity.

Cicala is mostly quiet, and takes compliments with an earnest, under-his-breath “Thanks so much,” casting his eyes downward. He deflects the kudos by offering his own, and has many good things to say about George Sabatino , 5’11”, 145lbs. “That kid is turning out some beautiful food,” Cicala says.

“I can’t imagine how good he’ll be in 10 years,” agrees Schroeder.

The waifish Sabatino is 30 but could pass for 13 when he smiles just so. He learned the trade bouncing around kitchens at Doc Watson’s, Monks, Fork and Vesuvio for a couple years before lying his way into Marcie Turney’s and Valerie Safran’s Lolita, where he started at the salad station. There, he began to really learn the cook trade, moved over to now-closed Bindi and then on to Barbuzzo, where he was named Chef de Cuisine. In those three Turney/Safran properties clustered around 13th Street, Sabatino traveled the culinary world. Stateside is his first executive chef job, and with it he’s already generating tons of buzz. He’s got a sleeve of tattoos on his right arm and tiny gauges in his ears. He, like Schroeder, is deadly funny, but in a more subtle way.

Sabatino’s, Cicala’s and Schroeder’s restaurants are all down South Philly way, and they eat one another’s food often. None have yet eaten at Rittenhouse Tavern, the newly opened Center City spot of executive chef Nick Elmi , 31, 5’11”, 185 lbs. Elmi is, to put it mildly, allergic to bullshit. He doesn’t suffer fools gladly, has a 1,000-yard stare that could give a charging ox a heart attack, and is happy so long as things are in motion. He’s uncomfortable sitting still. He is no fan of dillying, and wants to strangle dallying in her sleep.

He also has little tolerance for someone stating the obvious. Like when the driver on the trip, Duvel Moortgat USA’s market manager Steven Cardello—whom the chefs take to calling “Gargamel” due to his startling likeness to the Smurfs’ nemesis—asks, “What the fuck is up with all this traffic?” early into the trip. Elmi’s reply: “Ummm… it could have something to do with all the Road Work signs we’re passing? Just a guess.” The quip speaks to Elmi’s dry sense of humor, which can sneak up on you. Nothing in the kitchen is more dangerous than a dull knife. Elmi is sharp.

Rittenhouse Tavern may be brand new, but it’s already earning kudos for its clean, modern American cuisine. “I drive that word—clean—into my cooks a lot. I want our food to be clean,” says Elmi, who graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in ’02 and has done turns at many a high-end kitchen, both here and in New York: Lutéce, Oceana, Le Bec Fin and Brasserie Perrier, where he worked with Schroeder.

Each of these men want to be crowned Hop Chef, which will earn them bragging rights for life, and a gaggle of super nice kitchen swag. “I don’t enter competitions to lose,” says Elmi intensely. Always intensely.

“These chefs are all at the top of their craft right now,” says Duvel Moortgat USA’s PA/NJ marketing manager, Megan Maguire, explaining why Ommegang recruited these particular guys for the competition. “They’re the chefs that are being talked about. Amazing creativity, total commitment, really competitive.” What’s more, she says: “They are all recognizing craft beer in each of their restaurant.”

The rules of the competition are simple. Cook two dishes, each with a different type of Ommegang beer. The chefs choose one; the second is chosen for them. The dishes the chefs create will be judged on two of the following five criteria (per each chef’s choosing):

1. Simple pairing: The direct interaction between food and beer, from taking a bite of the food and a sip of the beer.

2. Incorporation: Utilizing beer as ingredient in cooking or prep process, including sauces, vinaigrettes, brines and braising liquid.

3. Mimicking: Requires matching the flavor profile of a dish with the flavor profile of a beer.

4. Storytelling: Beer, like food, has a great history. Not just how it was made, but why. This pairing lets the story be tasted.

5. Experimental: Make the beer the main star of a dish. This is usually a result of the other aforementioned techniques.

Easy pickings for Philly’s hottest up-and-comers.

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