Feastival: Philadelphia’s Moveable Feast

Photos by Joshua Pelta-Heller

Philadelphia is finally getting its big moment in the culinary spotlight. From donut robots to Top Chefs to James Beard Award nominations, our fair city has evolved into a dining destination in recent years. Just last month, Esquire Magazine named Philadelphia as “The Late-Night Capital of the United States.”

But the driving force that has propelled Philadelphia to transform itself into a gastronomic gem isn’t the result of critical accolades or acclaim. Philadelphia isn’t a city that molds itself to outside opinion, after all. It is the close-knit community of hard-working chefs, simultaneously competing and working together, that inspires culinary magic.

Bibou Chef/Owner Pierre Calmels puts finishing touches on his masterpiece, Saucisson en Brioche with Sauce Madeira.

This show of competitive camaraderie is exhibited most prominently at what can be referred to as the city’s most culturally (and financially) rich event, Feastival. Founded by Audrey Claire, Twenty Manning; Michael Solomonov, Zahav; and Stephen Starr, Morimoto; to benefit the Philadelphia Live Arts Festival and Philly Fringe, Feastival is a dazzling extravaganza celebrating the art of performance and, also, the art of food and drink.

Having just completed its third run, Feastival 2012 hosted over 80 of Philadelphia’s best restaurants to showcase samplings of what their kitchens have to offer. Endless tables were lined with bite-sized masterpieces — Vodka-Cured Skuna Bay Salmon, Stateside; Saucisson en Brioche with Sauce Madeira, Bibou; Cardamom Custard with Walnut Streusel, Pumpkin; and so much more — waiting to be served by the chefs personally. And in between painstaking explanations of the detailed amuse-bouches, there was a lot of plate-trading between chefs, followed by appreciative nods of approval.

Sharing, however, begets comparison. Who had the best dish? How many guest lingered at this table in contrast to the one across the aisle?

Executive Chef George Sabatino presents Vodka-Cured Skuna Bay Salmon, specially cured at Stateside.

One of the more entertaining cross-aisle rivalries that unfolded was between Jason Cichonski of Ela and Nicholas Elmi of Rittenhouse Tavern, who had a brief Twitter exchange over whose dish was better. Rittenhouse Tavern’s Rabbit and Foie Gras Croustillant with Concord Grape and Cocoa versus Ela’s Diver Scallop Noodles? A tough call. Unassuming patrons caught between the cross-fire might mistake the banter for contention, but Cichonski and Elmi are in fact pals who share the same passionate enthusiasm for creating exceptional food.

The fact is that Philadelphia, a city praised for its culinary innovation, thrives on the relationships that bound the culinary community together. Most of the chefs in town have worked together in some capacity at one point or another. And while kitchen alums who graduate to new establishments or open up their own restaurants undoubtedly receive an outpour of support from the community, there is also the motivation to excel beyond anything they have done before. And that friendly competition, mixed with raw talent and an insatiable appetite for crafting good food, is what makes Philadelphia shine in the spotlight.

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