It was a bit of a surprise all around last fall when Martin Hamann showed up in the sprawling kitchen of Philadelphia's old-line Union League. The accomplished chef, a product of Morton, Delaware County (where his father ran a bakery specializing in Danish and after-church pastries), had spent fully half his 50 years at the classy Four Seasons hotel, working his way up from apprentice to top chef. He'd ascended to that post in 2001 when his friend and mentor Jean-Marie Lacroix stepped down. But last year Hamann said that he felt he had one more act in him, and that upgrading the Union League's standard fare would get his juices going. He is a big, robust man, salty and serious - a chef's chef. The surprise from his end? When he took a tour of the club's subterranean kitchen, his first reaction was: "Whoa! It's old. It's big!"
Rick Nichols: Just how big was it?
Martin Hamann: You could fit probably three or maybe even four of the Four Seasons' kitchens into the one in the club.
R.N.: What makes you think the members want different food? They served oysters and chicken salad at the first organizing meeting in 1862, when they vowed to back Lincoln and the Union. And it has been on the menu ever since.
M.H.: Well, that's a traditional Philadelphia dish. But right now it's very plainly done. I can see it as a chicken-leg confit salad with vegetables, and maybe a lighter panko-fried oyster, and a green peppercorn remoulade.
R.N.: Speaking of tradition, the members-only club was all-male until 1986, when women were admitted. Has it been odd working at a private club after 25 years at the Four Seasons?
M.H.: In one way, it's the same clientele. But actually here it's a little more down-to-earth compared to the Four Seasons. It's their club. You're not dealing with someone from Maine or Ohio or New York. You know the likes and dislikes. So you have an advantage.
R.N.: You once said your first job would be to create a soup without any roux in it. Any other menu changes?
M.H.: In the Marble Room buffets, we recently put on an omelette with Gruyère cheese, fingerling potato salad, and our own pork belly - a play on bacon and eggs. There's a grilled salmon with tricolor couscous and jumbo asparagus spears with a lemon nage. And we've got a chicken paillard with tuxedo orzo, risotto style, and a reduced chicken jus. We're trying to bring things to a fresher place.
R.N.: How's the response?
M.H.: The total count for lunch today was 480. I don't know if Secretary's Day had anything to do with it. We've also had some members who'd left rejoin.
R.N.: Any decor changes in store?
M.H.: One of the dining rooms is going to be completely redone. In October, it'll be reopened as "1862 from Martin Hamann."
R.N.: What about changes in your own life in the kitchen?
M.H.: I've been more hands-on in the last five months than I had been for years. Not as many marketing meetings. You're cooking, trying things out. Trying to make it better.
R.N.: Did last year's foie gras protests get on your nerves?
M.H.: You know, they were protesting outside the Four Seasons so loud that I was forced to take it off the menu. I tried to fight that. But I lost. Then I'd get home [he lives at 23d and Mount Vernon Streets] and I'd hear them killing the crew at London Grill [a block away].
R.N: Where are you getting ideas for the food?
M.H.: I've seen some old menus. One from 1965 was the Chef's Jumbo Frog Leg Special, frog's legs sauteed with a Provençal sauce. Call me crazy. But I could see a throwback thing like that. I can see pepperpot soup, for instance, recast as a sauce.
R.N.: Do you ever have time to cook at home?
M.H.: I try to cook if I get two days off in a row. I'll grill a piece of Norwegian salmon from Whole Foods and my wife and I will have a salad. Or a really good steak . . . or shellfish and pasta.
R.N.: Have you had time to eat out?
M.H.: I've been to Del Frisco's and Union Trust. Steak houses aren't exactly my cup of tea. But the oysters at Union Trust were great. Oh, I also went to Parc [the French bistro on Rittenhouse Square] with Jean-Marie [Lacroix].
R.N.: Had time to vacation at all?
M.H.: I went on a damn cruise. I'd never been on a cruise. I was with my wife and my 9-year-old daughter, and there were like 900 kids on the ship and the pool area was so small, like going to your bathtub. I was hoping the Somali pirates would come and get me out of there!