2016 LOCAL HEROES

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PHOTOGRAPHS BY CHLOE BERK

Every year, Edible Communities magazines around the country ask you, our readers, to name Local Heroes in six food- and drink-related categories. Here in the Philadelphia region there is no shortage of worthy candidates for the title. Surrounded by some of the richest farmland in the United States (tended to by some of the most forward-thinking minds in modern farming), we have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to local ingredients. And the delicious stuff our regional chefs and food artisans make from this bounty is another point of Philly pride.

We are also lucky to have many places to shop that go beyond simply curating an inventory of distinctive foodstuffs to provide a genuine culinary education to interested shoppers. And finally, the local nonprofit organizations that spend their time working to solve food-related problems—including hunger and waste—inspire everyone who comes in contact with them to be more active in the food movement. So remember there are many, many more local heroes than the ones you’ll see highlighted here. The spirit of the Edible Communities Local Heroes award program honors them one and all. Featuring these food champions is one of our favorite things we do each year. Meet your Edible Philly Local Heroes 2016—and tell them congratulations next time you see them.

BEVERAGE ARTISAN

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Todd Carmichael, co-founder, La Colombe

“I was walking up Walnut Street
and I just felt like something big
was going to happen here.”

La Colombe

The words “La Colombe” are practically synonymous with coffee, especially here in Philadelphia, the city the coffee roaster calls home. For more than 20 years La Colombe has been producing remarkably flavorful, well-balanced brews. It’s ubiquitous in restaurants, cafés and stores. But in spite of the fact that La Colombe has been around for two decades, the innovations are still coming at a rapid pace. The still-new coffee shop/restaurant/distillery in Fishtown is among the most beautiful and noteworthy destinations in a city whose culinary scene has boomed in spectacular fashion in recent years.

La Colombe owner Todd Carmichael isn’t surprised at the other cafés and restaurants popping up alongside his Fishtown flagship and indeed all over the city. He saw it coming decades ago, when he traveled the Eastern Seaboard trying to choose a city to call home for the coffee business he had dreamed up. “I was walking up Walnut Street and I just felt like something big was going to happen here. I looked into a window and saw a guy welding a giant fish to a wall,” says Carmichael.

That was 1994. What he saw was the final touches being applied to Striped Bass, a restaurant that helped spark a new food revolution here in the city and revitalize restaurant row. “I was afraid I was going to miss it,” he says. He returned to the South of France, where he was then living, packed up his things, and started La Colombe that same year with his cofounder JP Iberti. He definitely didn’t miss the food boom just then starting. Turns out he has been one its most important players. Incredibly, more than two decades later, that surge of energy he sensed around local food and drink is still going strong.

Coffee is no longer the only beverage produced under La Colombe’s umbrella. Since 2014, the company has also been making a rum called Different Drum. “I went to Florida, got the best sugarcane, juiced it and distilled it, and combined it with coffee,” says Carmichael of the process. The result is a high-end sipping rum that has taken on the flavor nuances and aroma of coffee beans.

Another recent addition to La Colombe’s list of innovations is the company’s new approach to iced lattes. “I realized that what we were serving—what everyone was serving—wasn’t really a latte but more like a café au lait,” says Carmichael. The problem, he says, was one of texture.

A hot latte gets its character from the steaming of the milk; the texture becomes lighter, frothy, luxurious. The minute you add ice to steamed milk, it goes flat. The magic is gone. Carmichael’s ingenious solution to this problem was to put the milk under pressure with nitrous oxide. When the pressure is released, the milk fills with tiny bubbles, like foam. You can serve it cold, over ice, and retain the mouthfeel and texture of a hot latte. Though there’s no added sugar, the milk tastes sweeter thanks to this process.

Coffee beans, though roasted locally, are an imported product, and so is the cane that goes into the rum. You can’t get that stuff from around here. But when it comes to ingredients that can be locally sourced, Carmichael makes it a priority to do so. All of La Colombe’s milk, for example, comes from Balford Farms in New Jersey. Carmichael is so committed to working with that farm, in fact, that the size of the production run on his new line of canned lattes is determined by how much milk is available from Balford. It’s just one thing that makes La Colombe a local hero in our eyes.

La Colombe
1335 Frankford Ave.
267.479.1600
lacolombe.com

FARM

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Lancaster Farm Fresh

Back in 2006, two farmers pulled up in their trucks at the same time to the delivery door of a popular West Philly restaurant famous for its commitment to local food. It was the height of summer, and both had plenty of the season’s marquee produce: zucchini, eggplant, corn and tomatoes. The farmers were friendly with each other, their farms were near one another. They didn’t necessarily expect to see each other that day, but it wasn’t an uncommon occurrence either.

“What happened was, the restaurant bought zucchini and eggplant from one guy and corn and tomatoes from the other,” says Casey Spacht, director of Lancaster Farm Fresh Cooperative. “Both had spent the time and gas money to travel there separately and thought there was something we could do to get the farmers organized so that we could make the process of selling to restaurants more efficient.” The farmers looked to Spacht, whose background was in nonprofit management, to organize them and other interested farmers into a formal group that could work together to get organic, local food to the people who want it.

During the past ten years, Lancaster Farm Fresh has grown from the original seven farmers to the 150 member-farmers who make up the cooperative today. And they’re selling not just to a handful of hippie-ish restaurants but to the best and most influential chefs in the area, including those at Vedge, Fork, A.Kitchen, Urban Farmer and many others.

The farmers have an even larger reach through their CSA, which has thousands of members. The CSA program goes through all four seasons thanks in part to greenhouses. There are more than 50 pickup locations serviced by a fleet of refrigerated trucks. The operation has come a very long way from those two farmers whose pickups were laden with the same produce in 2006.

By banding together as a co-op and building a network to supply stores, restaurants and individuals, Lancaster Farm Fresh has given many farmers a lifeline, a way to reach their customers; lots of ways, in fact, they might not have had the resources to handle on their own. “If we didn’t have this co-op, a lot of our farmers wouldn’t be farming,” says Spacht. He knows he would never have started his own small farm without having the wind of the co-op at his back.

Spacht himself can hardly believe it when he thinks back to those earliest days. “The most amazing thing for me is when I think about the fact that fi ve of our farmers bought farms for their children. We’re reaching a second generation now,” he says. These are people he knows well, who were sullen teenagers reluctantly doing their chores a decade ago. Now they have farms and children, potential future farmers, of their own.

“There’s so much in society that can get us down, the environment especially, but when I see those kids now grown up and farming, I think to myself at least we have this community,” Spacht says. The community in his mind extends beyond the farmers themselves to everyone who eats the food they grow. “When I think about all these people eating this healthy food, I have to wonder, what can we do next?”

Lancaster Farm Fresh
lancasterfarmfresh.com

FOOD ARTISAN

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The kind of meat he’s talking about is the good stuff
—the best stuff. He sells pork, lamb, veal and
goat produced locally to the highest standards.

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Nick Macri, La Divisa Meats

Butcher and charcuterie whiz Nick Macri isn’t serving sandwiches, pâté platters or other eat-in food at his Reading Terminal Market stall. Though he is an accomplished chef, he doesn’t want to cook for you. He wants you to cook for yourself using local and sustainable ingredients—like the ones he’s proud to sell. “Being in a restaurant setting isn’t going to get anyone cooking,” he says. “Inspiring people to cook is important.”

Though Reading Terminal is well known as a tourist destination and a lunch stop for those working nearby, it remains at its heart a market, a place where many regulars do their grocery shopping. These are the people Macri is thinking about. When he opened La Divisa in January 2015, he expected the charcuterie part of his business to be more in demand. He is, after all, surrounded in the market by other butchers whose commodity meats are about half the price of what he sells. And after perfecting his skills on the job at restaurants including Southwark, he was well known among food lovers for his charcuterie. But, to his surprise, fresh meats account for 75% of his business.

“There’s really only one other option in the city—Kensington Quarters—to buy this kind of meat,” says Macri. And the kind of meat he’s talking about is the good stuff—the best stuff. He sells pork, lamb, veal and goat produced locally to the highest standards in terms of flavor, animal welfare and the environment.

The ethical meat consumer can’t have it all. “If you’re looking for 30 tenderloins,” says Macri, “we’re not for you.” The reason for that is simple—a pig only has two tenderloins and La Divisa is only dealing with one or two whole pigs at a time. That said, Macri says he can accommodate most specific requests if you call ahead. The charcuterie side of his business works well with his whole-animal policy; often what he makes is determined by the cuts that are left over from his fresh meat counter.

His pâtés are meaty works of art, certainly not something that tastes like it was designed to absorb leftovers. “The pâtés we make here rival anyone else’s,” he says. Pork, pork liver, lamb and goat are pâté flavors in constant rotation at the stall. They are, in fact, superlative. His charcuterie is absolutely some of the best-tasting local food sold at Reading Terminal Market, or anywhere in Philadelphia for that matter. This is the handiwork of a craftsman who cares, not only about the end product but everything that goes into making it.

Macri’s relationships with the farmers he works with are paramount. For example, he routinely buys off-cuts of veal from Sue Miller at Birchrun Hills Farm or lamb from Jamison Farm. “I’ll say to them, ‘What’s more profitable for you? We’ll take the rest,’ ” says Macri. It isn’t entirely altruistic. Their businesses exist in an ecosystem; the whole local-food economy thrives or withers together.

In addition to his work behind the meat counter, Macri also teaches regularly, usually one class a month, at various venues around Philly. “It’s really important that people know how to cook and where animals come from,” he says. “I have an interest in people knowing how to cook so they’ll use me as a source. If people don’t know how to cook, where does that leave me?”

La Divisa Meats
51 N. 12th St.
215.627.2100
ladivisameats.com

FOOD SHOP

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Emilio Mignucci, owner, Di Bruno Bros.

“People think of Di Bruno Bros. as a place to
buy imported products, but the Italian and
European philosophy about fresh and local
foods, the way they value that, is a big part of
what we do here.”

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Di Bruno Bros.

As a defining place in the Philadelphia food landscape for 75 years, Di Bruno Bros. needs no introduction. Almost everyone has memories and associations with the venerable cheese shop. Some families have made shopping trips there a tradition over several generations; others came more recently to the Di Bruno’s fold through their Rittenhouse outpost, which offers high-quality prepared food and groceries to Center City office workers. Budding food enthusiasts in their late teens amble past the original Ninth Street shop saying, “That’s Di Bruno. It’s supposed to be amazing.” It still provides surprise and discovery for the curd-curious.

In fact, helping customers find new flavors is at the heart of Di Bruno’s mission, according to third-generation owner Emilio Mignucci. And helping cheesemakers and other food craftspeople, especially local and regional artisans, connect with customers is important to Mignucci, too.

“People think of Di Bruno Bros. as a place to buy imported products, and of course we carry those, but the Italian and European philosophy about fresh and local foods, the way they value that, is a big part of what we do here,” says Mignucci. He’s proud to carry the best American-made prosciutto alongside the best of traditional prosciuttos from Parma, Italy.

People have come to expect not just ingredients, but education when they come through the doors of any of Di Bruno’s locations. “They want to know how to eat, how to taste, how to source products,” says Mignucci. This thirst for knowledge that Di Bruno has cultivated in its customers positions it perfectly to introduce new local products to the people who will most appreciate them.

“For example, we just put Baba’s Brew on draft in the Rittenhouse store. We are a conduit for these great producers,” says Mignucci. (Read more about Baba’s Brew in this issue’s Edible Checklist, page 8). In addition to local kombucha, Di Bruno carries several brands of Pennsylvania-made chocolate, ice creams, snacks and honey, just for starters.

And of course there is no better place to go shopping for local cheese. “We have about 20 on offer at any given time, sometimes a lot more,” says Mignucci. And it isn’t just that Di Bruno sells these local cheeses; Mignucci mentors area cheesemakers as they create and refine their products. Once a month, the Di Bruno staff sits down to taste and evaluate new cheeses for their cases. Mignucci gives detailed, constructive feedback to the cheesemakers to help them improve and grow. In his role with the new Pennsylvania Artisan Cheese Guild, he helps set up workshops for local cheesemakers, too.

The result is better and better Pennsylvania cheese, the kind of distinctive wheels and wedges that give the whole local-food community a sense of pride. There is no better place to discover them, and the cheesemakers behind them, than by asking to taste a few local cheeses the next time you stop by Di Bruno. The cheesemongers there can’t wait to help you discover something new.

Di Bruno Bros.
multiple location
dibruno.com

NONPROFIT

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Jonathan Deutsch, Drexel Food Lab creator,
and Alexandra Zeitz, Drexel Food Lab manager

“Drexel is a research university;
we want our students to be involved,
hands on, in solving real-world problems.”

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Drexel Food Lab

As the director of the Drexel University’s culinary program, Jonathan Deutsch found himself—and his students—in demand by big food companies and start-ups that wanted their help. “Drexel is a research university; we want our students to be involved, hands on, in solving real-world problems,” says Deutsch, formerly a research chef himself.

In 2014, Deutsch created the Drexel Food Lab to formalize this arrangement. Since then the group has helped food companies tackle tasks including recipe testing and product development. Recently, they worked with local brand 1732 Meats to perfect its beer bacon. “They had the idea but didn’t know exactly how to make it happen. They gave it to us to figure out and we did trials and tests and we hit on something they liked,” says Deutsch.

It may not seem that the fusing of beer and bacon is the kind of work a nonprofit should be doing. But there’s a lot more to the story. “The Drexel Food Lab runs on a Robin Hood model,” says Deutsch. “We take the money we get from industry to support good food work, work that has a positive impact on the food system and doesn’t make a profit.”

So far, a lot of their efforts here have centered on food waste—an enormous problem. “About 30% to 40% of food is wasted, and we wanted to try an approach different than, say, food donation,” says Deutsch. The lab’s goal is to take food items that might otherwise have gone to a landfi ll and add value. For example, take bananas. Perfectly good ones are pulled from store shelves several times a day and trashed, according to Deutsch. How could they take these fruits and, for little or no money, turn them into something that could be sold?

“We came up with a smoothie base, banana and water blended and frozen into blocks,” says Deutsch. “This is a culinary solution. We don’t need a scientist to do this.”

That’s just one example—the lab’s efforts in the area of food waste are multifaceted and a major interest for the students. Food Lab manager Alexandra Zeitz says seeing students inspired by the topic and their own desire to help chip away at this difficult problem is one of her favorite parts of the job.

“One of our most talented students is working with food waste for his senior project, when he could be focusing on cooking dinner for his family and friends for it,” says Zeitz. “I think that is so cool! The students that come out of the Food Lab will have a huge impact on the food industry.” And maybe even the world.

The Drexel Food Lab
Drexel University Center for Hospitality and Sport Management
hsm.drexel.edu/du/foodlab

CHEF/RESTAURANT

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Chef Rich Landau with wife and partner Kate Jacoby

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Rich Landau, Vedge

Few chefs have had a bigger impact on the way restaurant-goers see vegetables than Vedge chef and co-owner Rich Landau. Together with his wife and partner Kate Jacoby, he has been serving vegetable-focused vegan food for an increasingly large segment of the general public for many years. But 2015 was a particularly significant one for Landau and Vedge. The food blog Eater’s influential restaurant critic Bill Addison published a list of the 38 best and most essential restaurants in America. Along with fellow Philadelphian Zahav, Vedge made the list, and Addison called it “the best meat-free meal in America—and a fantastic restaurant, period.”

“It was such an honor. He visited all the big names in Philly. We were floored,” says Landau about making that list. His longtime fans in Philadelphia were considerably less surprised. The bold, elegant plates he turns out at Vedge have won him a devoted local following, and not just among vegans. “I would say 95% of diners are omnivores,” says Landau. “Our take is that vegan isn’t a cult or a religion; at Vedge, we’re like, you aren’t doing this forever. It’s just tonight. You are eating a plant-based meal tonight.”

Those plants are very likely to have been locally grown, often harvested the same day you meet them on your plate. “In season, we get the majority of our produce from Lancaster Farm Fresh,” says Landau. His menu is driven by the seasons, he says, because it gives you a sense of time and place and what you’re eating. “If you’ve got delicious asparagus, you know it’s May. Sweet corn means July. And butternut squash tastes like October,” says Landau.

With the addition of V Street, a more casual sister restaurant that focuses on cocktails and meat-free plates inspired by international street food, diners have more chances to enjoy Landau’s seasonal cooking. It also gives the chef a chance to have more fun. “My bold, global dishes weren’t fitting into the modern fine-dining thing we have at Vedge,” he says. At V Street, there’s a more freewheeling style and spicier edge. But whether you are in the mood for a quick midday bowl of dan dan noodles from V Street, or a special night out at Vedge, Landau lets you relish eating out—minus the usual heavy doses of butter, cream, and meat. When you’re eating food this good, you never miss them. 

Vedge
1221 Locust St.
215.320.7500
vedgerestaurant.com

V Street
126 S. 19th St.
215.278.7943
vstreetfood.com

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