Philly honors top chefs, recognizes upcoming talent at Murrell Dobbins high school
The city of Philadelphia officially honored three restaurant owners who won the highest awards in their industry.
Two weeks ago, the coveted James Beard awards went to Steven Starr (best restaurateur), Michael Solomonov (best chef), and Greg Vernick (best chef, Mid-Atlantic region).
All three came to Murrell Dobbins high school in North Philadelphia to receive an official city proclamation from Mayor Jim Kenney, and to lend their support to the next generation of chefs.
"I was surprised we were even invited," said Vernick, who owns and operates Vernick Food and Drink. "We got the email, and we're like: 'Really? The mayor wants to see us? Absolutely!'"
The mayor presented each of them with a proclamation, and a desktop Liberty Bell.
"These award-winning chefs make our restaurant scene in Philadelphia the high-caliber scene that it is," said Kenney. "We are really cooking with gas in our restaurant scene."
Murrell Dobbins has a robust culinary department, training high school student to cook as a vocational skill. The program is funded in part by the new soda tax pushed through by the mayor.
The three-year program attracts 10th, 11th, and 12th graders. About 90 are currently in the program. According to teachers, half of them enter as sophomores expecting to be TV celebrity chefs.
Stephen Starr urged them to ignore the cameras.
"My advice to all of you who want to be chefs, get good at chefs," said the owner of a 31-restaurants empire in Philadelphia, New York, Atlantic City, Washington, D.C., and Florida. "Finish your schooling. Work in restaurants. Learn food."
Kenney used the podium to recount his own history in the restaurant industry. He started as a dishwasher at Dante & Luigi's in Queen Village, worked his way up to busboy, then bartender. He said he marveled at the way a restaurant can hum like a well-oiled machine.
"There's a certain time in the course of the night, where everything works like clockwork. The kitchen is running perfectly, the wait staff is running perfect. It's the dinner rush. It's a beautiful period," said Kenney. "That almost symphonic coordination of everything that goes on in a restaurant that makes it work perfectly. Because there are times when it seems nothing runs perfectly."
Much of the advice dispensed at the event was was about bouncing back from failure. The chefs' careers have been pocked by failures, large and small, which they have learned to roll with.
"The best advice we have for them is recovery — how you recover from things is what defines you," said Vernick. "It's not all positives. It's how you recover from the negatives. As a chef, you make a lot of mistakes."
The three of them tasted the students' creations, including manicotti, chicken parmesean pasta shells, and an invention by seniors Dawud Brown and Donte Abney, a cheeseburger dip.
"We're going to college. Most likely I'm going into the food industry," said Brown. "I got two dreams: I want to be an actor and a chef."
Solomonov, owner of Zahav restaurant (among others), heard the students at Murrell Dobbins explain a plan to create The Spot, a cafe operating as a community space and after-school hangout, housed inside the school.
He said he wished he had had the focus and determination these students have, when he was a kid.
"When I was their age, I would be in the parking lot skipping this class," said Solomonov. "I was getting into trouble. I was not doing what they are doing. This is all their own drive, to get to this point."
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