On Thursday night, when an eclectic mix of Philadelphians—artists and hipsters, politicians and techies, young and old—gather at FringeArts to eat the food of our city’s best chefs in support of the Fringe Festival, it will be a helluva party. But it will also be the latest proof positive that a generation of restaurateurs are no longer waiting for the same-old, same-old crowd of elected officials to try and make Philadelphia all it can be.
Once upon a time, dining out in Philadelphia was strictly a utilitarian affair. Even during the city’s first restaurant renaissance, in the 1970s, and as recently as the early aughts, diners were seeking a meal, not a communal experience, while restaurateurs were by and large engaged strictly in commerce. Who could blame them? Their business is really, really hard; a popular axiom is that 8 of every 10 ultimately fail.
In recent years, though, something has changed. Now, as tried and true institutions of community have fizzled and frayed, (Organized religion? Newspapers? Bowling leagues?), restaurants have become our meeting places—and restaurateurs have joined the ranks of our civic leaders.
Look no further than Feastival, which is the coming together of some 80 kick-ass chefs in the cause of helping to make Philly world class. For the 7th consecutive year, it will benefit the Fringe, whose chairman, Richard Vague, once proclaimed that “the better the arts, the better the city.”
But Feastival is just the latest example of restaurateurs stepping up as citizens. Stephen Starr has donated to Philadelphia schools and raised funds from his patrons for the cause. Rob Wasserman, owner of Rouge, has sponsored the annual Burger Brawl in support of literacy programs. Marc Vetri and his partner Jeff Benjamin are well on their way to making the hair-netted lunch lady obsolete by bringing fine dining culinary principles to school cafeterias. Soon, we’ll have the long-awaited Rooster Soup, the Michael Solomonov, Steve Cook and Reverend Bill Golderer joint that will steer its profits to Broad Street Ministry’s Hospitality Collaborative, Golderer’s erstwhile venture that services the homeless population with the same type of hospitality as at elite restaurants. “What if you could help someone who really needed it, just by eating lunch?” is their simple but provocative tagline. And, here as elsewhere, there are the experiments in no-tipping restaurants that pay a living wage, like Girard Brasserie & Bruncherie and William Street Common.
In recent years, something has changed. Now, as tried and true institutions of community have fizzled and frayed, (Organized religion? Newspapers? Bowling leagues?), restaurants have become our meeting places—and restaurateurs have joined the ranks of our civic leaders.
Feastival is the mother of all foodie civic ventures, and it’s grown largely thanks to the commitment of Audrey Claire Taichman, owner of Twenty Manning and Audrey Claire’s in Rittenhouse Square. I caught up with her last week to ask: What changed? What energized the restaurateur community to so collectively widen the aperture of its lens and take action on so many pet causes?
“Oh my God, how can you not?” she responded. “I mean, if you’re a good person and you’re successful, how can you not help? How can you not give back?”
Back during the sexual revolution, it became popular to proclaim that “the personal is the political.” Well, over the last decade, what we consume has become the political, as what we eat, and how we produce what we eat, has taken on deep meaning throughout America. Spurred by authors like Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser, chefs like Alice Waters and Jamie Oliver, and, beginning in 2009, the focus of Michelle Obama, the food movement took off. Taichman says it’s no surprise that the politicization of food caught on in kitchens throughout the country.
“Chefs are such artists,” she says. “The whole organic movement gave them access to cool stuff to show off as an art form. And we all know that artists want to change the world.”
That’s what Feastival is really about—this idea that change doesn’t necessarily come top down from politicians anymore, that artists in chef whites can make food for us while making their communities better.
Get Feastival tickets here.Header photo via Feastival