Here is an excerpt from Craig LaBan's online chat. This week he was joined by chef Marcie Turney and Valerie Safran, whose restaurant and retail empire at 13th and Sansom Streets includes Lolita, Bindi, Grocery, Open House, Verde. Their latest, Barbuzzo, recently earned a three-bell review.
Craig: Barbuzzo was a step up for you two, in terms of size. And it has a liquor license, a first for you. Has that changed the culture of the restaurant - given that you started with BYOBs (Lolita and Bindi)?
Valerie: It's difficult to open a small restaurant and be able to pay a chef, manager, etc., and not have the increased sales of having a liquor license. We also liked the idea of a full-service restaurant where we take credit cards, reservations, etc. It's been a good baby step to take before opening a larger restaurant in the future.
Reader: Can you tell us about your training and how you learned to skillfully prepare so many different ethnic flavors? And what's next?
Marcie: Cooking is a second career for me, after design. I attended the Restaurant School of Philadelphia many years ago and continuing culinary education has helped tremendously. I tell my sous chefs to save their money and travel, eat out, take a class.
Valerie: What's next? Buy a commercial building in Center City, renovate it, build our dream house on the top floor, garden on the roof and restaurant on the first floor. After that, a cooking/entertaining book and continue to develop products for our weheartphilly.com website.
Coming up with food/home product lines is an interest I have had since opening Open House eight years ago. I think that's a good part of our future plans. The everyday wear and tear of running restaurants is great for now, but not forever.
Reader: I am always fascinated to hear where chefs like to eat. I hear David's Mai Lai Wah is a popular one for late-night dumplings. Where do you like to go?
Marcie: I love Vietnam. In the Reading Terminal there is Sang Kee, they have a roast pork wonton soup with greens. Bitar's has the best falafel.
Reader: Did you draw inspiration for Barbuzzo from any non-Philly restaurants?
Valerie: About five years ago, we went to Avec in Chicago, a restaurant that was a very small space with an open kitchen and sleek design. We loved the setup.
Craig: Marcie, you don't seem to be caught up in much of the molecular gastronomy that many of your contemporaries are exploring now. What is it about food science and gear - the sous-vide machines, chemical emulsifiers, and deconstructed plates - that doesn't call to you?
Marcie: I love simple, rustic food. At Barbuzzo it is about cooking, preserving, etc., the old-fashioned way. That is not to say I have no interest. I wanted to possibly get a sous-vide machine for chocolate work.
Reader: We have seen many trends in food coming through Philly: burgers, cupcakes, now meatballs. What do you think will be the next hot trend?
Marcie: Great food trucks. Out in L.A. the food trucks were awesome, some of the best food we had out there. Mobile wood-oven pizza and homemade sausage, anyone?
Craig: What kind of business advice can you offer those just starting out in the restaurant business?
Valerie: Plan on working harder than you ever have in your life and save as much money as you possibly can right now. A restaurant always costs more than what you expect. For every right thing we have done in the past few years, we probably did the wrong thing first.
Marcie: I tell all my chefs that you better be ready for hard work and long hours. When the line is out the door, and you are tired . . . keep in your head that the customer just waited an hour, or made this reservation weeks ago. All these people are here to eat the food you are making.
Craig: Have either of you found that the restaurant business offers special challenges for women, in particular, or for that matter, any advantages?
Valerie: We try to hire as many female chefs as we can and they tell us horror stories about how they've been treated elsewhere. But if you are good, you're good. No one can deny someone who can cook.
There are not a lot of women who are running the show. I believe Marcie deserves a lot of credit for just doing her thing. We tend to have people who stay with us for a long time because of the respect they have for the both of us, but especially Marcie because she is always willing to give someone a chance and teach them.
Marcie: I think being a woman chef in general has its challenges. It's a big boys club out there. As a woman owner/chef I think you create a sense of family and unity.
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