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Drexel plays host to the second annual Philly Chef Conference

Big names and up-and-comers in the Philadelphia culinary scene gathered in Mitchell Auditorium Jan. 11 for the beginning of the second annual Philly Chef Conference. Hosted by Drexel University’s Center for Hospitality and Sport Management, the conference offered discussions and workshops that exemplified the cooperative and civic nature of the city’s culinary community.

At 2 p.m., Jonathan Deutsch, the director of the Center for Hospitality and Sport Management, gave the opening remarks. Deutsch explained that the conference was suggested by two successful Drexel culinary alumni who saw a need for discussion between restaurant industry professionals in Philadelphia. He continued to emphasize one important goal of Drexel’s culinary school: Connect students with successful restauranteurs the minute they step on campus instead of when they graduate. Deutsch urged the audience to adopt this mentality in the professional world to feed the burgeoning dining scene in Philadelphia.

After the opening remarks, Jason Malumed of Chalkboard Wine + Spirits took the stage to moderate a discussion on doing business with the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board. The panel included two restauranteurs who work with the LCB, state Senator Chuck McIlhinney who is actively working on liquor laws and Joseph Brion, chairman of the LCB. The upshot of the conversation is something that we all already know: Pennsylvania liquor laws are a mess.

However, the chairman and senator did provide a glimpse at the efforts they are making toward modernization of the state’s liquor system that could soon be good news for businesses, consumers and even taxpayers. Some of these efforts include allowing restaurants to sell bottled wine and working towards proper wholesale relationships between the LCB and businesses (which would trickle down to a cheaper glass of wine for you!).

Next, a discussion called “Philly 2020: The Future of Dining in Philadelphia” was moderated by business and civic leader Sam Katz. Katz began by asking the audience to raise their hands if they wanted to open a restaurant, and about half of the audience responded. Then, a star-studded panel including Jeff Benjamin of Vetri Family, Kevin Sbraga of Sbraga Dining, Joncarl Lachman of Noord, Marcie Turney of Barbuzzo and Rob Keddie of Garces Group discussed what will make a successful Philadelphian restaurant in the near future. A few of the secrets they shared included understanding every part of the business, having an authentic vision and concept and ensuring that front and back of the house responsibilities are properly delegated.

Finally, chef Peter Reinhart delivered the keynote address titled “The Leaven Factor: Bread has a Story to Tell”. Reinhart, a James Beard award winning author and internationally renowned expert on bread and baking, explored the many reasons why bread is seemingly at the core of all cultures and religions. He stressed that bread is a symbol of transformation and that bread-makers (and by extension, chefs) share their soul through their creations.

Reinhart’s address marked the end of the first day of the Philly Chef Conference, though attendees were encouraged to stay for a happy hour at the new University City location of Zavino. An additional ticket allowed a select few to enjoy a dinner collaboratively prepared by chefs from Serpico, Townsend, Osteria, Volver and Bauhaus Schmitz.

The conference continued Jan. 12, but this day was only available to industry professionals. Day two mostly consisted of demonstrations such as fish and meat butchery, knife sharpening and cookbook development. These hands-on workshops provided experts the opportunities to share their hard skills with a new generation of Philadelphian chefs, while the talks served as a platform for them to inspire.

This discussion and reflection offered by the organizers of the Philly Chef Conference was a necessity to sustain the current growth of the Philadelphia culinary scene. Local foodies can expect to see the fruits of these conferences in the years to come.