Meet Thrillist Philadelphia's Best Chefs of 2016
Locals will proudly claim that Philadelphia's dining scene is the greatest secret culinary gem on the Eastern seaboard -- though it’s tough to say how much of that is really a secret anymore. Many neighborhood chefs note that the city’s tight-knit restaurant community is a major reason why they call Philadelphia home. It’s the existence of this camaraderie, even as some of our restaurants garner more and more national attention, that makes our local industry a great representation of our city as a whole: It’s a big, innovating city with a small, personal feel.
In 2016, the Philadelphia dining scene saw a mix of brand-new concepts and reinventions of older ones, and our chefs of the year represent both sides of that spectrum. Here are four of our favorites, who each brought a formidable range in specialty, cuisine, and experience to the table to earn the title of Thrillist Philadelphia’s Chefs of the Year.
There are many facets of Double Knot to explore, but by far the most unique, exhilarating experience is in the restaurant’s bottom floor. It's where Chef Kevin Yanaga creates what he calls “izakaya cuisine for the 2016 diner.” The result: a melding of traditional cuisine, which Yanaga knows well from growing up in Kawasaki, Japan, with modern Japanese fare.
Yanaga's first gig after moving to the U.S. in the late ‘90s was as a sushi prep cook in Salt Lake City, which inspired him to work toward becoming a sushi chef himself. He made the move to Philly in 2009 where he became a chef at Morimoto. As he continued to hone his culinary expertise, Yanaga met famed local restaurateur Michael Schulson, who landed Yanaga a job working at Izakaya at the Borgata.
Yanaga describes meeting Schulson as his big break, and working with him to create Double Knot, which opened in February, proved to be a massive project. “It was a big deal,” Yanaga said. “Designing that menu was a big undertaking, and there are so many items we serve.” The concept goes beyond sushi and sashimi (though there is plenty of that); there are more than 40 grilled robatayaki items, including (real) kobe beef, lobster tail and claw, lamb, octopus, chicken, and just about anything else you think would taste good grilled.
“There was always a master plan that consisted of doing something unique and different in downtown Philadelphia, which led to Double Knot,” Yanaga said. The restaurant audience immediately responded, almost palpably, to Double Knot after it opened. His ambition has paid off in droves, fully cementing the izakaya trend in the city's dining scene.
Now well established in Philadelphia, Yanaga’s appreciates being part of the tight-knit restaurant community. He also admitted there is another component to his restaurant plans that go beyond Double Knot. “A part of that master plan is another concept we are working on, but that’s our secret.” For now.
After we tasted Harp & Crown’s chocolate cake, which is topped with spikey marshmallow meringue and flecks of sea salt, it came as no surprise that Chef Karen Nicolas’ entrance into the culinary world was because of her interest in pastries.
“I took jobs as a teenager in restaurants and found myself enjoying the energy and the lifestyle,” Nicolas said. “I was curious about baking different desserts and used to watch Great Chefs of America and was always inspired by watching the chefs cook so many different foods that I was unfamiliar with.”
After attending culinary school, Nicolas moved to Las Vegas in the hopes of working for heavy hitter Chef Charlie Palmer. She landed the gig after a day doing a stagiaire in one his restaurants. She returned to Philly, her hometown, after a stint in Vegas and many years in New York.
Today, Nicolas has created an acutely seasonal menu accented by global cuisine at Midtown Village’s new Harp & Crown restaurant. “We call it ‘New American,’ and it’s really a mix of flavors and techniques from various cultures by way of what’s fresh and vibrant each season,” she said. “It’s easy, simple food with a bit of refinement, perfect for both a casual meal or a special night out.”
Nicolas mingles subtle flavors to make fresh and complex versions of classic dishes, such as the farro pasta with spinach pesto, ricotta, and small pieces of crispy ham. The hanger steak, with shiitake, charred shishito, and lime leaf butter, may be one of the best in the city, and there’s no better way to eat octopus than on a pizza with broccoli, mozzarella, and chilli flakes.
Part of what makes the restaurant special is the unique space it’s housed in, designed by Michael Schulson and Nina Tinari-Schulson. Vintage portraits, exposed brick, and tufted booths evoke a feeling of classic turn-of-the-century charm and romance.
“Opening a restaurant as the chef is always a risk,” Nicolas said. “You are under a lot of scrutiny. You really have to have a strong backbone to open a high-end restaurant that garners a lot of hype and expectations.”
But Philly can be a warm, encouraging city when you do food as well as Harp & Crown does. And the affordability and (considerably) less stressful atmosphere compared to New York's made her eventual transition back to Philly a welcome one. The restaurants here didn’t hurt either.
“There is a great culinary scene here. We are the underdogs,” Nicholas said. “I like to try different restaurants all the time -- mood depending.” Among her most memorable dinners in Philly are Vernick, Serpico, and High Street on Market, though her ideal dining experience isn’t confined to one cuisine or concept. “Many times the best dining experiences are because of the people around you -- great conversation and great food.”
Savona is not new to the Philadelphia area -- far from it, in fact. The Gulph Mills mainstay made a name for itself 19 years ago on the Main Line from its first iteration as a strictly high-end, white tablecloth (and pricey) restaurant. Old school menus even included a price-blind version for women. When the recession hit, however, Savona revamped the menu by offering its high-end options as well as a more affordable, casual menu. Now, after months of an inside-out renovation earlier this year, the new Savona has emerged.
“Over the summer, we completed a big renovation at Savona, which included a new kitchen with a custom built kitchen suite and wood fired grill,” said Andrew Masciangelo, co-owner and executive chef at Savona. The renovation was to help make way for Savona’s modernized entry into its 20th year of existence, leaving behind the more traditional white tablecloth options that old school fine dining has come to be associated with, instead focusing on one menu of ingredient-driven regional Italian cuisine.
Masciangelo grew up in a small town where he sat down for dinner every night with his family. “We cooked together, ate together, and spent time together in our family kitchen. When I got my first kitchen job, I felt the same atmosphere in a restaurant setting and I never looked back.” He entered a professional kitchen at 16 years old, later attending culinary school. Eventually, he worked under Chef Eric Sarnow at the Hummingbird Room in Spring Mills, PA.
Masciangelo moved to Philadelphia in part because of family ties. “I am not from Philadelphia originally but my parents are. We used to travel back here to visit my grandparents for the holidays and I always loved the area,” he said. “I started to look for jobs in the Philadelphia area because I knew I wanted to be close to a big city -- and my grandmother had an extra room.”
The city has treated him well, though Masciangelo never takes his success for granted. “I don’t really know at what exact point I had a ‘big break,’ or even think there was one singular moment,” he said. “I believe that becoming a good cook takes repetition, practice, and an unachievable pursuit of organization and cleanliness. After a certain point you get so efficient it gives you an opportunity to support the people around you; at this point, when you are taking care of your kitchen team, is the start to becoming a chef.”
As Savona continues to serve from its new menu in the renovated space, Masciangelo’s favorite tasks are typically either making pasta or butchering fish. Some Savona staples that remained in the new, revamped menu include veal and ricotta meatballs, baby brick chicken, and dover sole.
“This concept is really me,” Masciangelo said. “It’s what I know best; it’s what I love to cook and eat.”
Kristol Bryant was an 18-year-old single mother of two when she received a pamphlet in the mail from the Opportunities Industrialization Center about culinary arts. “I always knew I wanted to be either a lawyer or a chef,” Bryant said, “but I didn’t have the time or resources to go to traditional culinary school.”
Instead, she earned her certificate in culinary arts while studying under the likes of Marc Plessis at XIX Restaurant, where she became part of XIX’s opening team in 2006. By 2012, she was named Chef de Cuisine and promoted to Executive Sous Chef a year later. “Two years later, I was promoted again to Executive Sous Chef at the Hyatt Regency Atlanta, one of the Hyatt’s largest hotels.”
Today, Bryant is the Executive Chef at Sonesta Philadelphia Downtown Rittenhouse Square, where she oversees all corporate catering and the menu at ArtBar. She is also the first female African-American Executive Chef in Philadelphia’s hotel industry.
In addition to cooking, Bryant calls art and fashion two of the great passions of her life, so it makes sense that a key tactic for her reinvention of traditional plates is aesthetic. “At Sonesta, we believe in a ‘Food is Art’ concept. Everyone eats with their eyes first, so the food needs to be visually appealing and presentable to get someone to try it.”
For example, Bryant is currently designing a new presentation for the traditional shrimp cocktail. “I am quite literally creating a ‘shrimp cocktail,’ which will be a bloody Mary, black pepper cocktail in a martini glass with the shrimp skewed on top.”
Since the spring, ArtBar has made waves to reintroduce itself with a new menu and new vibe, including expanded outdoor seating, live music, and an overhaul of traditional plates and cocktails that Bryant says is still underway.
“I am currently in the process of revamping the entire ArtBar menu to bring in new flavor profiles, inspired by new international cuisines,” Bryant said. “I tend to get inspiration from five different cuisines: American, French, Asian, Italian, and Middle Eastern. Each dish I create usually mixes at least two of these cuisines. My favorite would be creating American dishes with a Middle Eastern flare.”
Though Bryant’s work at Sonesta allows her make every plate a work of art, when it comes to feeding herself her tastes are much more simplistic.
“All things pork,” Bryant said, describing her ideal dinner. “Cooked any style. No sides. Just the pork.”
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