This year’s James Beard Foundation awards nominations are, in some ways, a salute to a golden age of restaurants that’s in danger of no longer existing. Just a few months ago, Cristina Martinez, Nicholas Elmi, Rich Landau, Chutatip “Nok” Suntaranon, and Marc Vetri were cooking with such passion in their respective kitchens, that a jury of their peers and food journalists nominated them as among the best in the business.
Then came the coronavirus. And by the time the Beard Foundation announced its 2020 finalists on Monday afternoon — with coveted nominations for all five — the world’s dining landscape had been brought to its knees by a nationwide shutdown in response to the pandemic. Nearly two-thirds of the nation’s restaurant workforce is now unemployed — including more than 300,000 people in Pennsylvania — and forecasts for the industry’s revival are grim, with comebacks expected to be slow, partial and, in some cases, unsustainable.
And yet, amid all the fears and genuine concerns, many of Philadelphia’s talented restaurateurs have refused to quit cooking, including several of its James Beard finalists. If they’re not already doing takeout specials, meal kits, family-sized feasts, or pop-up specials to go, plans to do so are in the works.
"We’ve turned ourselves into the ‘Best Takeout of the Year!’” joked Suntaranon in a live interview on the Beard’s national awards show webcast, shortly before being named one of America’s 10 best new restaurants.
But she’s not kidding. I had the lucky timing to order a delivery meal from Kalaya (764 S. 9th St.) this past weekend, and while I missed the bustle and energy of the Italian Market BYOB, Suntaranon’s food reaffirmed why I named her my 2019 Chef of the Year. From the fiery duck laab salad laced with chiles and tangy herbs to a bountiful fried rice jeweled with huge lumps of crab, the essence of this beautiful Southern Thai food survived its transit across town — in Suntaranon’s own car, no less.
Cristina Martinez, a finalist for Best Chef Mid-Atlantic, has not paused since the pandemic, either, in continuing with husband Benjamin Miller to produce her weekend feasts of extraordinary Capulhuec-style lamb tacos at Barbacoa South Philly (1140 S. 9th St.). I ate one of my most memorable takeout meals of the past couple months from Martinez’s kitchen, highlighted by soulful lamb consommé, pancita offal tacos, and the best tortillas in Philly. A visit next door to her new Casa Mexico (1134 S. 9th St.) for daily-changing list of homey guisados remains high on my next-to-eat list.
Marc Vetri, a multiyear finalist for the nation’s outstanding chef award, who made it to the finals in this category also in 2019, has also embraced the new takeout normal with his signature alta cucina flair, creating deluxe eight-course meal kits for $95 from Vetri Cucina (1312 Spruce St.) with instructions for plating that goat ragù, sweet onion crepe, and rhubarb crostata at home. For more modest budgets, the fresh pasta kits and sauces to go from Vetri’s casual new outlet in the Italian Market, Fiorella, are absolutely worthwhile. Don’t miss the cacio e pepe or sausage ragù homage to the butcher shop by the same name that occupied the space previously for over a century.
Philly’s two other nominees for Best Chef Mid-Atlantic, Rich Landau of Vedge (1221 Locust St.) and V Street (124-126 S. 19th St.), and Nicholas Elmi of Laurel (1617 E. Passyunk Ave.), ITV (1615 E. Passyunk Ave.), and Royal Boucherie (52 S. 2nd St.), are among the many restaurateurs who decided to initially close their restaurants temporarily as soon as the city’s dining room shutdown was instated in mid-March. But there has been some movement.
No, Laurel’s vodka whipped cream caviar, frozen foie gras, and ethereal truffled gnocchi don’t have much of a chance of going the delivery route anytime soon. But the possibility of inventive cocktails to go from ITV, taking advantage of possible changes to the Pennsylvania state liquor laws, are likely soon, says Elmi, along with some tasty mocktails. Landau, meanwhile, has had a change of heart on takeout. With Philly’s dining room shutdown likely to last for several more weeks, and then reopen at only partial capacity, he conceded in a recent Instagram post that, “it’s time for us to get into the takeout game so we can cook for you again.”
That’s good news, especially for vegetable-loving moms. Vedge’s first foray into the takeout game will be a package for Mother’s Day this weekend, a plant-based twist on a “French picnic theme" with saffron cauliflower soup, smoked tofu Niçoise salad, a roasted maitake among other temptations. Landau and his partner and wife, Kate Jacoby, plan to offer a new menu menu weekly (see Vedge’s Instagram profile for details), with pick-up windows Friday and Saturday, plus “wine and bubbles options.”