You know you just had a very good dish when your eyes close, your head nods, your lips curl and you go “mmm.”
That’s the reaction Philly-born Executive Chef Mark Tropea is serving up at Stir, the city’s latest eatery, located inside the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Operated by the Philadelphia-based Constellation Culinary Group, the 76-seated restaurant officially opened on Oct. 16.
“I think it's important that if you come to this museum you leave with a good impression of the food and that's part of your overall experience,” said Tropea, 38. “But I'd like it to be the type of place that people want to come just because they enjoyed it … not like, ‘Oh I'll go there when I go to the museum again.’ I want them to say, ‘I had a great time at Stir and I got to make a point to go back there as soon as possible.’”
Tropea hopes that Stir will be among the great museum restaurants, such as Untitled at the Whitney in New York. But in addition to the food, Stir marks a great architectural triumph.
Internationally famed architect, Frank Gehry envisioned and created Stir as well as the museum's new Café. The architect behind the Walt Disney Concert Hall and the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao plans to contribute more to the building’s future renovations as part of the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s Core Project.
Stir is Gehry’s only fine dining space on the East Coast.
The restaurant maintains the Gehry-look with the undulating ceiling, complete with lattice work that is referred to as “the nest.” Red oak floors contrast the Douglas fir ceiling, and the kitchen is open concept so diners can watch the chef at work.
Feeding off the architectural inspiration, Tropea created the menu’s Roasted Griggstown Chicken with butter braised green beans and chorizo ($23) as a reflection of the restaurant’s structure.
“Frank Gehry's design, it feels alive. If you look at undulating ceiling ‘nest’… I take that and I think about how can I work those elements in the plating,” said Tropea, a chef unafraid to take on “boring” chicken and make it into something special . “So if you look at the roasted chicken, we have a nest of green beans to cradle the roasted chicken.”
Bringing local and seasonal fare to the table, Tropea wants his plates to be clean, aesthetically pleasing and, above all, tasty.
A bonafide “foie gras guy,” Tropea presented to PW his favorite Seared Foie Gras, balance in flavor profile with mission fig carpaccio, saba and toasted brioche ($17). In addition, he showcased a very well-seasoned Seared Barnegat Scallops romesco, crispy potatoes, bacon and caper salsa verde ($29).
Tropea’s culinary prowess came about in an untraditional manner. At 16 years old and with “too much time” on his hands, the teen was caught stealing. As punishment, his mother put him to work as a dishwasher at the local pub where she waitressed.
“At first it wasn't about food, it was about the environment,” explained Tropea. “I just loved the back of house environment and the people that are in the restaurant business. And then eventually that grew into a passion for food.”
Even though it took Tropea a while to recognize, cooking is in his blood or spaghetti gravy, as they say. Growing up, he would watch his Italian grandmother make her own pastas, sauces and meatballs. Through osmosis, he learned how to “tweak the sauce” and other technical skills, but mostly he gained the cultural importance of hospitality.
“[It’s] about the connection, the hospitality the sense of togetherness. I try to portray that [in my cooking], that's my style. I'm a hospitality guy,” said Tropea. “I want every guest who comes in here to connect to the food and the environment and the hospitality that we offer.”
Tropea would soon leave his dishwashing gig for culinary school at The Restaurant School at Walnut Hill College. After working in the field, Tropea would eventually open his own restaurant, Sonata in Northern Liberties. Unfortunately, the BYOB closed after a little over three years in 2012.
“I opened my first restaurant when I was 29, and it was ambitious. I didn't know as much as I thought that I knew. I knew a lot about cooking, I didn't know a lot about business,” said Tropea. “I think it actually helped me because after that you can really do anything. That experience was a catalyst for everything that's happened since I hadn't done that I wouldn't have this opportunity today.”
After working in New York and Miami, Tropea is glad to be home. One day he hopes to open another restaurant in rural Pennsylvania for a true farm to table experience. But for now, he passionately works the tireless hours of his craft, rolls up his sleeves, turns on the stove and cooks.
“I'm inspired by the direction of food in this city. I feel like Philadelphia has some of the best cooks in the world and I think the direction of the Philly restaurant scene is world class,” said Tropea. “It's nice to come home and be part of something like that and also in a building as iconic as this.”