ONCE IN a great while, too many cooks in the kitchen is a good thing.
Earlier this month, a gaggle of South Philly chefs showed up, knives in hand, to work in the line at Lynn Rinaldi's modern Italian restaurant and wine bar, Paradiso. And, though their culinary styles and cooking proclivities pinged multiple points on the map, they shared a straightforward goal: satisfying a sold-out room full of diners celebrating Rinaldi's 10th year in business on East Passyunk Avenue.
The menu of 10 distinct dishes (a course for each year, of course) featured unmistakable touches true to the chefs in play - hearty clams and cabbage from Joncarl Lachman, of Dutch-Scandinavian BYOB Noord; an elegant mushroom-taleggio crespelle with aged balsamic from Jersey Shore chef Luke Palladino, who will soon open an Italian steakhouse on the 1900 block.
But it was three particular members of the crew - Franca DiRenzo, of Tre Scalini; Rinaldi; and Jessie Prawlucki Styer, of Fond and Belle Cakery - who quietly represented another element of the avenue altogether.
In lockstep with its evolution into the most talked-about restaurant corridor in Philadelphia, East Passyunk has also become a proving ground for female food professionals making serious strides in every aspect of the business - front of the house, back of house, kitchen, ownership. It's a community within a community, and it just keeps growing.
'Something in the air'
The Avenue always has been a high-energy thoroughfare, dating back to Colonial times. For years, it was a largely Italian-American commercial strip serving the huge immigrant population that settled in the area. But in the past decade-plus, the focus has shifted to new retail and restaurant blood, thanks in large part to the East Passyunk Avenue Business Improvement District, overseen by executive director Renee Gilinger.
Seventy-eight percent of the people who own buildings along the avenue live within a few blocks of their properties, according to Gilinger, and nearly all of them are located within a few hours. This has helped maintain a level of neighborly familiarity - a sensibility that was in place long before anyone cut the tape on East Passyunk's current dining era.
"There's something in the air, and I think you pick up on it pretty quickly," said Cathy Lee, who owns Le Virtu and Brigantessa with her husband, Francis Cratil-Cretarola.
Maria di Marco, chef and owner of Mamma Maria, was wary about purchasing a property on Passyunk in 1992, the first year her restaurant was in business.
"I didn't want to buy," she said. "I fought with my husband about it all night."
But, wisely, she did, cementing her as a spiritual nonna of sorts for subsequent waves of female restaurant pros on Passyunk.
A native of Monteroduni, in Italy's Molise province, Tre Scalini's DiRenzo is another owner who's put her time in. She has been in her bilevel space on the 1900 block for eight years but has cooked in the neighborhood, in a previous location up the street, much longer.
Despite this prolonged success, the thought of a woman running a restaurant kitchen has been difficult to grasp for a certain contingent. "About six years ago, we had a client come in," said DiRenzo's daughter, Francesca DiRenzo-Kauffman, who runs the BYOB with her mother. "He said, 'I don't believe your chef's a woman, that's impossible.' I brought my mom out. 'Here she is!' He said, 'Well, I'm impressed that the food's that good.' "
Out of the weeds
The DiRenzos, who laugh about the insult now, recognize that such incidents are much rarer than they used to be. But Rinaldi (see her Carne Cruda recipe, below), one of just a handful of female students in her class at The Restaurant School at Walnut Hill, remembers how palpable such attitudes once were.
"[Male cooks] would try to do something to put you in the weeds, or just tell you you shouldn't be in the kitchen," she recalled of her early cooking days. "If you interviewed for a job as a female - I don't care what you knew - you were the least considered [candidate]. Now, it's completely different."
As gradually as it may have happened, there's hard evidence of this progression on East Passyunk.
"Lynn, Franca and Maria - they really paved the way," said Lee, who's also quick to point out the high number of female-owned retail businesses along the corridor.
There's also pastry chef Angela Ranalli, who handles the sweet side of Lee's Le Virtu and Brigantessa. Vernana "V" Beuria recently expanded her Chhaya Cafe to a larger location. Prawlucki Styer co-owns Fond and Belle Cakery.
In the front of the house, managers like Alice Tran, of Laurel; Jen Delva, of Will; and Lauren Harris, of Townsend, run the show. Other Avenue bars, restaurants and food businesses, including Lucky 13, The Bottle Shop, Pollyodd, Vanilya Bakery, Ms. Goody Cupcake, Noir and Mr. Martino's Trattoria, are either female-owned or feature female chefs.
They collaborate, too, on a level more intimate than average, cultivated by the close-knit mentality most local owners make a priority. "We all know the amount of work we put in," said Rinaldi. "We are all connected."
"It's nice to have that support - not just as a small business, but as a group of women," said Laurel's Tran. "This is my first GM position, so there's been a very large learning curve. I know I can ask any of those people for help, and they'll willingly open their arms to me and answer any of my questions."
As much as this network of East Passyunk women encourages a rising tide, many of its members also hope that their accomplishments, in the kitchen and out of it, can stand on merits that don't consider gender, one way or the other.
"Men chefs or women chefs, I don't think there's any difference," said di Marco. "If you can do it, I can, too."
"I never think of myself as a female chef," said Beuria. "I just think of myself as a chef."