For Three Days, A Bunch of Philly Chefs Relived the Restaurant Trends, and Kitchens, of the 90s… on Twitter
I thought my Saturday night was over. Drinks at Il Buco Alimentari, dinner at Gato, more drinks at Pearl & Ash. It was past midnight, and I was fighting for consciousness in a taxi crossing the Brooklyn Bridge. What more could one ask of the weekend’s apex?
As it turned out, things were just getting warmed up: Checking my Twitter feed from the cab, I saw that Philadelphia chef Kevin Sbraga was engaged in a virtual romp down memory lane with some fellow whisks from the City of Brotherly Love. It all started with the following exchange.
That doesn’t seem like much does it, especially given the typo in the very first tweet, which should read “portion sizes and plating back.”
But that exchange sparked a spontaneous nostalgic combustion as Sbraga, David Katz, Justin Swain, Matt Levin, and Michael Falcone began listing a nonstop hit parade of trends, dishes, restaurants, and chefs from the 90s, much of it laced with inside cook humor.
I called Kevin yesterday and he explained to me that his first tweet was inspired by a dish he saw go by in a restaurant, “an eight-ounce portion of salmon, dry and overcooked, on lentils with beurre blanc. ‘Oh my God,’ I thought, ‘It’s the 90s all over again.'”
Before anybody knew what had happened, the rap session extended to more than 600 tweets over three days, with a few food scribes jumping in to participate or “favorite” some entries. The primary dramatis personae were, according to Kevin: David Katz, who’s “kind of out of the game now but sells Creekstone beef in the city; Matt Levin, who works for a catering company; and Justin Swain, who is a younger guy, a lot of fun, he was the first to jump in with the parsley. We all know each other. It’s a real tight-knit community here in Philly.”
Some of the tweets brought back memories both fond and funny, like old music videos that were cutting-edge at the time but now look a little dated. (It should also be noted that some of the cited themes actually pre- or post-date the 1990s.)
A few snippets:
In the next block, Francis Lam–he of the two JBF nominations and the Clarkson Potter editorial gig–jumped into the pool:
Somewhere in there, I got home and was sitting on the edge of my bed, laughing hysterically and reading the highlights of the thread to my wife, Caitlin. I emailed Kevin to tell him how much I was loving it. “Is this not the best?” he wrote back. It was the closest thing I’ve seen on Twitter to being out with a bunch of cooks just about falling out of their chairs with laughter. This next segment features my own meager contributions:
It was around this time that something happened that made me a little uncomfortable: Names of chefs and old television food shows started creeping in. I thought they were being posted in a mocking way, but after emailing with Kevin I was persuaded that he didn’t mean it that way and took down the chiding tweet I posted at the time. (I do tend to be a little oversensitive but I’m not sure a few participants weren’t being a little ironic with a few of the names, but so many irrefutable legends ended up in the mix–such as Jeremiah Tower in the next blurb, below–that I think the overall intent was one of respect/affection, and the evening ended with proclamations of, “We just named some great chefs” and “Glad they paved the road we now travel.”)
There were also some passing references to kitchen conditions (my favorite: “short ass apron, folded twice, mini-skirt style. And dirty.”) and to the tawdry side of kitchen life (not included below):
I asked Kevin if there’d been any criticism on the less savory bits. “No flack at all, surprisingly,” he said, adding that all the kitchen stuff was true to life at the time, and who could argue?
I discussed the spectacle with David Waltuck (of the late great Chanterelle, and soon-to-open Elan in New York City), and he offered some terrific context and perspective: “I actually like lobster mashed potatoes,” he said. “A lot of those things are good. Anything can get taken and become overdone because there are so many restaurants and so many people out there. Then it gets done poorly and gets a bad name even if the original idea was good or cute or delicious. For example, using vanilla in a savory dish; that was groundbreaking at one point. Had anybody done that before? Maybe, but I don’t think so. Then it became a cliche and next thing you know, it shows up on TGI Fridays menus.”
Sbraga takes his point, recognizing that some of today’s most beloved trends will no doubt be similarly dated in just a few years, such as “foams and jellies” and “raw juice of this and that.” (And let’s not forget the kale salads.) Others, he says, will become “classics that, no matter what, are still good, like lobster mashed potatoes. Some things were not so good to begin with, like mesclun on everything.”
Spraga also insists that he and his co-conspirators are dead serious about doing a 90s dinner as they discussed during the Twitter crossfire. “Absolutely,” he says. “We’re going to try to try to do it at the end of June or beginning of July. The goal is to do it at my restaurant.” There’s no set format yet, but, “one idea we threw around Wednesday was each person choosing an old-school dish and going from there.”