One of the great joys of eating in Philadelphia is that there is always a surprise to be discovered, a great dish to be tucked into, and a meal whose memory delights your palate in such a way that you crave more. Many of this city’s top chefs and restaurateurs are so serious about their craft and preparing the tastiest, freshest meal possible, that they’re digging deep, literally putting their hands into the dirt and personally growing fruits, vegetables and herbs that make their way into dishes guaranteed to wow foodies no matter the season. In fact, farm to table dining has done more to change the way we eat in America than any other trend in recent memory. The increased focus on quality and sourcing of ingredients, a renewed respect for the land and the men and women who coax great products from it, has combined to create a national dining culture of exceptional honesty and ambition.
Aimee Olexy serves up a steadfast dedication to using the best, most honest and sustainable ingredients available in all her restaurants—two of the region’s top: Talula’s Garden and Talula’s Daily on Washington Square with restaurateur Stephen Starr.
Over on East Passyunk Avenue, the passion behind the produce grown in Lynn Rinaldi and Corey Baver’s rooftop garden at Paradiso Restaurant & Wine Bar can be tasted in every bite of the dishes they cook there, and their Japanese spot, Izumi. No matter what cuisine style, and regardless of how unconventional the garden’s location, homegrown ingredients, it turns out, lift every meal they create.
Philadelphia’s very own Iron Chef Jose Garces is an accomplished, passionate farmer. From the start, his game-changing Amada has forced Philadelphians to reconsider Spanish cuisine—impeccably fat-streaked hams, perfect romesco sauces, bar-raising tortillas espanolas—and has shown great respect for the ingredients that comprise his plates. Now, Garces presides over additional standouts including Tinto, Village Whiskey, Garces Trading Company and JG Domestic, and with each one, his process for what makes it onto the plate grows evermore selective.
This type of commitment has led Oxley to grow her own herbs at Talula’s Garden, use hops coaxed to maturity by her Talula’s Daily Executive Chef Charles Parker and to offer the kind of market items at the Daily that customers can not just feel confident buying, but also downright excited.
The menus at both are inextricably tied to the season and its bounty, and to the ingredients that are available at any given moment of the year. At Talula’s Garden—with its expansive indoor dining areas and the loveliest outdoor tables in the city—Executive Chef Parker constantly changes up the menu to embody the season, and whether guests order a la carte or dive into a tasting menu, the cumulative effect is always the same: Wonderment and joy.
Some chefs are keeping ingredients local and are looking up—to their rooftops—to create their own space to grow fresh things. Rinaldi and Baver have had remarkable results at Paradiso’s rooftop garden, producing strawberries, raspberries, heirloom rainbow carrots, beets, herbs and more. The garden is also the site of beekeeper Don Shump’s hives, which means their restaurants have access to some of the best honey in the region.
Other chefs, who can’t cobble out some space in downtown Philadelphia, travel a bit further afield to grow their own ingredients. Prensky is among the most ambitious when it comes to growing and sourcing his own produce. During the high season, he is out visiting—and often pulling vegetables from—his two-acre plot at Blue Elephant Farm in Newtown Square. Likewise, Garces owns Luna Farm in Bucks County, PA, a sprawling, breathtaking property of 40 acres that produces organic fruits, vegetables, eggs and more, much of which, finds its way into his kitchen.
Sourcing fresh produce from local farmers is also an option. For Farm and Fisherman, Lawler grows herbs like bachelor’s button and borage, himself, and then gets other items from urban farmer Jack Goldenberg. Lawler has made it his mission to make the most of high quality produce that only hands-on farming and gardening can achieve. At Ellen Yin’s and Roberto Sella’s Fork and High Street on Market, Tom Culton supplies produce to executive chef Eli Kulp who takes the concept further, researching and choosing his own seeds, and acquiring plants for this year’s growing season.
Lawler says, “It’s very important, and a good concept. We get to grow what we have in mind. It’s profitable for the farmer, [and] by doing it this way, nothing goes to waste. If the farmer has an abundance of something at the farm stand, we take that fresh produce and put it to good use.”
Kulp points out that the benefits of growing your own food can be felt instantly in the overall nature of the menu as a whole, not just on the plate. “In this day and age, everything is done at hyper-speed levels, thank to Twitter and social media. You can see what everybody else is doing, so you have to set yourself apart. Customizing what you can grow is the future—it’s the best way to make [a] dish unique to you and to your restaurant.”