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With Frog’s kitchens closed, restaurant legend Steve Poses turns to politics | Craig LaBan

“I spent my whole career trying to create a good world by serving good food and a creating community around it with humanistic values.”

Steve Poses, restaurateur and caterer behind Frog Commissary, with his wife, Christina Sterner, who is president of the company, on the roof deck of their home in Philadelphia. Poses is retiring after half a century in the hospitality industry.
Steve Poses, restaurateur and caterer behind Frog Commissary, with his wife, Christina Sterner, who is president of the company, on the roof deck of their home in Philadelphia. Poses is retiring after half a century in the hospitality industry.Read moreHEATHER KHALIFA / Staff Photographer

Steve Poses is familiar with the buzz of nerves before a big event. Why would this Election Day on Nov. 3 be any different?

He felt jitters on that early-April day in 1973 when he opened Frog, the funky storefront bistro with mismatched chairs and blackboard menus that ranged from French onion soup to Thai curried chicken inspired by his Southeast Asian kitchen staff.

“I didn’t know you shouldn’t combine green curry with French béchamel, but we had no boundaries," says Poses, who remembers wondering: ”Would anyone come?" They would, indeed, as Frog famously helped jump-start Philadelphia’s restaurant renaissance with casual style and an embrace of international flavors that would reshape the city’s once conservative dining scene for decades to come.

Poses felt the same nervous buzz on Memorial Day in 1986, praying it would not rain over the massive jazz and blues festival called Jambalaya Jam that his then-thriving catering company was hosting to celebrate the opening of the Great Plaza beside the Delaware River. During the next three storm-free days, they managed to serve gumbo, po-boys and crawfish étouffée to 65,000 customers with just a field kitchen and some refrigerated trailers.

“We were ready because I’ve always taken pride in being a team leader that trusted and empowered people — not because I was breaking a sweat,” he said.

But the nerves associated with this Tuesday’s election are different.

Poses and his wife, company president Christina Sterner, closed Frog Commissary this summer after 47 years as a major force in Philadelphia restaurants and catering. The pandemic’s demolition of the events business, not to mention its impact on institutions like the Franklin Institute where Frog was based, hastened the end of an era in Philly food.

But Poses has “been working insanely 24/7” since April, he said. He’s in the home stretch of a two-year-long political mission to raise money to defeat President Donald Trump and the state’s Republicans to turn Pennsylvania blue. “I spent my whole career trying to create a good world by serving good food and creating community around it with humanistic values,” he said. “Trump is a total violation of everything I’ve worked for my entire life.”

After two years of yelling at his TV, Poses decided to make a difference the way he knew best: by coordinating big events like the Blue Plate Special food festival in 2018 and this fall’s Blue Bash, which morphed into a streaming online concert due to the coronavirus, which raised $750,000 in all to fund state-level campaigns through the Pennsylvania Blue Victory Fund.

“Trump is not a legacy that I want to leave for Noah,” he said, referring to his 33-year-old son, now executive chef at the Fulton, the Jean-Georges Vongerichten seafood restaurant in New York.

But the nerves are there again. “I will be devastated if we don’t beat Trump — and I don’t know what I would do.”

Perhaps it’s only normal that Poses, who recently turned 74, would be thinking about legacy at the end of such a long and celebrated career. His debut was so long ago, in fact, most Philly diners flocking to the stars of today’s vibrant and diverse dining scene have no inkling of the dramatic impact that Frog and the Commissary restaurants made.

Poses was an antiestablishment guy from the start, a Vietnam War protester with a stint in the Peace Corps. He came from Yonkers to University of Pennsylvania at the same time as Donald Trump (“but I got in honestly,” jabs Poses) then landed his first job as a dishwasher at Peter von Starck’s elegant French La Panetière. When he launched his own place less than two years later, his vision reflected the social restlessness and culinary awakening of the moment. He had a sociology degree, Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking on his bed stand, and an admiration for urbanist Jane Jacobs’ metaphor of the neighborhood candy store as the small business hub for communities to connect.

“I decided restaurants could create that sense of community, too, but with better food,” he said.

Frog’s service staff pooled their tips (“that was revolutionary,” says Poses), was among the first to sell wine by the glass, and was as unstuffy as the name itself, a translation of La Grenouille from French. Talented immigrant chefs like Kamol Phutlek brought the vivid Thai flavors that once spiced their staff meals at La Panetière onto the public menu at Frog. Although they were Frenchified for Western palates and served alongside quiche, paella, calf’s liver, and gingered carrot vichyssoise, this was among the first examples of fusion food excitement for a sleepy town long known for staid fish houses, red gravy, and overcooked vegetables.

» READ MORE: Remembering Kamol Phutlek, unsung pioneer of Thai-French cuisine who shaped Philly food history

The Commissary opened in 1977 and took the revolution further, democratizing a global menu of affordable flavors into a sprawling 100-seat cafeteria with indigo blue tiles on Sansom Street. It featured pioneering made-to-order cooking stations with “plats du jour” salads and an omelet bar with an overhead show mirror where Ivy League-educated staffers like Geechee Girl’s Valerie Erwin, got their start. (“It was before culinary schools were a thing,” Erwin says.)

Regional American cuisine was championed alongside Indian raita dressings, vegetarian chili, and fresh pasta in a prepared foods market. There was a nonsmoking section amid the potted plants. And there were iconic desserts like the famous carrot cake lined with caramel nut filling and the strawberry heart tarts created by baker, test chef, and eventual general manager, Anne Clark, who cowrote The Frog Commissary Cookbook with Poses and Becky Roller that sold over 150,000 copies.

“When Frog ... and The Commissary was in its first years,” says Clark, “Steven sprinkled magic fairy dust on his employees and made us feel special.”

“He wasn’t a swaggering presence like a celebrity chef,” says former Inquirer food columnist Rick Nichols, once a regular at the Commissary’s omelet bar. “But he was a rock star in that new community of young mold-breaking people.”

The Frog moved to a fancier space in 1980 (with Philly’s first hardwood charcoal grill), making way for his 16th St. Bar & Grill to replace the original (now Monk’s Cafe). Then came innovative City Bites, whose mod space was featured on the cover of Interior Design, then the Eden mini-chain, which stumbled, and then...? By 1991 the Poses restaurant empire was gone. The baby boomers who fueled his rise had decamped to the suburbs with their growing families, and the recession that came with the first Gulf War had cost him millions.

But Poses found steady refuge in the world of catering, which he’d cultivated since early on: “Restaurants thrive on newness, ... which is impossible to sustain,” wrote Poses in his 2009 book, At Home. “Caterers are rewarded for experience and longevity.”

Poses, nonetheless, brought a restaurateur’s panache to catering, with a commitment to scratch-cooked basics and a creative streak, like the internationally themed food stands his team built as an added draw to concerts at the Mann Music Center. And the Frog Commissary’s hospitality impact remained vast, catering events for up to 90,000 people a year for several decades. The company grew over the past 10 years with Sterner at the helm, moving its headquarters to the Franklin Institute where it catered private events and also served 300,000 meals annually in the museum’s casual restaurants. Until this spring.

“We found ourselves in the middle of March with a contract renewal negotiation imminent and facing Armageddon in terms of the business model we had,” Sterner says of their decision to close, leaving 68 core staffers and 140 more part-timers out of work. “No one was able to host parties ... and some of these new habits we’ve put in place are not going to change. This was hard, but it was time.”

The Poses food legacy, however, has not disappeared. Steve’s son Noah, who got his start as a 7-year-old grilling lamb chops medium-rare at one of his dad’s catered house parties, has become a noted chef in New York, where he earned a glowing New York Times review in 2019.

“My dad always sends creative tips and tells me to add more acid to everything,” Noah says with a laugh. But he’s also absorbed the bigger lessons that growing up inside Frog and the Commissary taught him, an appreciation for community and the virtues of deliberate diversity and a warm camaraderie among a staff that, after training in more militaristic restaurants, he says, “I’ve tried to carry with me into my own kitchens.”

No wonder the senior Poses beams with pride: “It used to be that Noah Poses was my son, now I’m Noah’s father.”

That’s why Poses views this passing of the generational torch as one of his prime motivations for political activism, and he’s drawn on the vast network from his long career to marshal one more team of collaborators and donors to fund interns for the state-level candidates he sees as “the foot soldiers driving the turnout for [Joe] Biden."

But who knows if the blue wave will happen as he hopes? There are nerves.

“We were always too stupid to know what we couldn’t do,” he said, reflecting on Frog. “But fear is a terrific thing to keep you focused, because you’re only as good as your last meal. And it’s the meal coming up that we have to worry about.”

Poses has known the sting of failure, but also resilience. So, if Trump gets reelected, Poses does, on second thought, know exactly what he will do: "I will become a member of the resistance.”