Normally, when you go to a conference, there is going to be some sort of food and drink spread to accompany the panels and educational talks. You never expect the said offerings to blow you out of the water, but free food is free food.
But what if the reception offered bites from four of the top thirteen restaurants from “Esquire’s Best New Restaurants of 2019” list, freshly made right in front of you? What if your bartender was one of the best in the country? How about trying fresh, high-grade sashimi, puff pastry with caviar or pasta from a three Michelin star Italian restaurant?
Well, with the Philly Chef Conference, that’s all to be expected.
Hosted by Drexel University’s Food & Hospitality Management Department, along with the College of Nursing and Health Professions, the seventh annual Philly Chef Conference was a hub for outrageously good food and drinks, lively conversations and a space to learn as much as possible in a short span of time.
As written on the Philly Chef Conference website: “The conference is an annual event designed to convene the food community and to showcase the latest food and beverage ideas and techniques through educational lectures, panel discussions and demonstrations.”
The first day was open to the general public, and the focus was geared towards general educational lectures about “topics of interest in food and beverage.” However, there were also tips, tricks, insights, reflections and just about everything you could ever want from a food conference. From a hospitality standpoint, Drexel University went above and beyond what was expected of an event organizer.
The man behind it all — along with a host of other planners and workers, many of whom are Drexel students — is Michael Traud, JD, EdD. The Director of Hospitality Management here at Drexel sees the Philly Chef Conference as the crowning achievement of Drexel’s Food & Hospitality Management Department.
“Planning for this takes all year,” Traud explained. “It takes so much planning. The goal is to just keep the ball rolling, year after year.”
Going into details of the intensely planned event, the opening session and reception on Sunday, Mar. 1 began at 3:30 p.m. at The Study at University City. The high-ceiling ballroom on the second floor was standing room only as guests listened to the two panels.
The first panel was “When the Recipe is You: A Candid Talk about the Golden Age of Food Memoirs.” The moderator was author Jeff Gordinier, with the three panelists being Phyllis Grant, Kwame Onwuachi and Jean-Georges Vongerichten. The panelists answered questions about a variety of topics, ranging from identity, the role of critics in their work, the changing kitchen culture and the impact of their families on their books and careers.
The biggest underlying motifs of these three seemed to be family and their inherent identities. As Onwuachi — the 2019 James Beard Award winner for Best New Chef — so succinctly put it, “When I think about food I think about my mother directly… I think about standing next to my grandmother in Nigeria, cooking with her.” Food, family and, unsurprisingly, New York City were constants in the lives of these three.
The second panel on Sunday covered a conversation between Howie Kahn and Will Guidara, titled “The Recipe for Human Connection.”
Kahn is a renaissance food writer and author, and you’ll find his byline in just about every food publication under the sun, along with being a James Beard Award winner for food feature writing. Guidara is an NYC-based restaurateur with an ace in the hole when it comes to hospitality. His restaurant, Eleven Madison Park, landed a spot on The World’s 50 Best Restaurants list every year from 2010-18, taking the coveted #1 spot in the world in 2017.
Guidara drove home what he wants out of hospitality. “Create environments where human beings can connect with one another around the table,” Guidara said. “If you can make everyone who walks in the door make them feel like they belong, that’s the greatest accomplishment.”
After the two panels wrapped up on Sunday, there was food from a whole host of highly-touted restaurants, and if you refer back to the beginning of the article, you’d get a good picture of what was offered.
The second day of the 2020 Philly Chef Conference was, to say the least, a whole different beast. While day one was open to the general public, day two was, on the other hand, “dedicated exclusively to hospitality and restaurant professionals,” and the lectures, discussions and demonstrations certainly didn’t disappoint.
Located on the sixth floor of Academic Building in the Academic Bistro, day two dropped the glamorous feel of The Study’s reception hall and took on an intimate and friendly feel.
From 8 to 9 a.m., there was registration and breakfast — but not just any registration, and certainly not just any breakfast. When you checked in, you received a tote bag full of high-quality gifts and the opportunity to sign up for the day’s sessions (some had limited availability). Then, you were given the time to peruse the spreads.
Maybe you wanted five of the all-too-photogenic and equally delicious rugelach from K’Far, or Essen Bakery’s delectable treats, or every single Lost Bread Co. product that there was, and wash it down with a steaming cup of La Colombe. But knowing what was to come, that would’ve been downright wasteful.
Snacking on fresh fruit and minor sweet baked goods — the K’Far rugelach and Essen peach danish had to be consumed, along with some blackberries — I merely took in the conversations that were occurring and watched just how many industry professionals made the trip to Drexel University.
Michael Traud rose up again to kick off the day at 9:15 a.m. before rushing away to help his staff. The focus could not slip once during the entire day for Traud and his fleet of workers, and that included being the most gracious host to just about 300 people who were in attendance on Monday.
From 9:15 a.m. to noon, there were three 45-minute sessions, each with three different offerings. You could be in the lounge, listening to an educational panel; you could be in the bistro, listening to a lively discussion on many different topics about the industry or you could be in the demo kitchen, watching incredibly talented chefs make some labors of love — for you to try, of course.
Some of the morning’s sessions included an educational panel called “The Sweet Ones: Inside the minds of the Top Pastry Chefs;” a demo titled “Dueling Pastas” done by experts David Marcelli and Stefano Secchi and a moderated panel titled “Diversity in the Kitchen: The Road Ahead.”
If you needed a 10 a.m. coffee break, there was a never-ending supply of La Colombe. If you wanted to keep nibbling on bread and pastries, they were replenished as soon as you turned your head. When parched, there seemed to be a San Pellegrino around every corner. When it came to meeting your needs before you even realized the need, Drexel Food & Hospitality Management was ready.
The clock struck noon and lunch was served, with one of the best spreads imaginable. The revered Cristina Martinez was offering South Philly Barbacoa’s adored barbacoa tacos. The guys from Mike’s BBQ gave you a glimpse into their meat-filled world with their brisket on a beautiful brown bread and, if you asked nicely, they’d give you a burnt end, too.
Other Philly spots included the infamously famous Palizzi Social Club, Puyero Venezuelan Flavor — their tostones are the real deal — Porcos Porchetteria, Poi Dog, Jezabel’s Argentine Cafe and more.
After the hour-long lunch break, the sessions returned, but this time there was another style open: the bar. There were educational sessions at the Academic Bistro’s bar all afternoon, with anything from a natural wine discussion to learning about the ecology of mezcal.
If you were feeling the effects of lunch and couldn’t focus, or maybe you just wanted a break from the discussions, you could take a step back into one of the many small spaces of the Academic Bistro.
But if you did take a breather, just know that the odds of you running into someone remarkable were high. When you stumble into a conversation with Bon Appetit’s Priya Krishna and Food & Wine’s Khushbu Shah, you can’t help but laugh about it in your head and soak up everything they tell you, and then tune in to their equally interesting exchange about the California climate change tax on restaurant bills.
Halfway through the afternoon, the 3 p.m. slump was fended off with a coffee and dessert break, but this time on steroids. With Rival Bros Coffee Bar whipping up fresh espressos, La Colombe cold oat milk lattes an arm’s length away and a smorgasbord of delectable desserts at hand, how could you not feel instantly energized?
There was Weckerly’s serving up a tahini and creamsicle ice cream sandwich in their all-too-adorable packaging, Fiore Fine Foods with both a sourdough bomboloni and a savory scone to hit both sides of the snacking taste buds, Eclat Chocolates and Aurora Grace Chocolates offering seemingly fifty bite-sized morsels and so much more.
At 5:30 p.m., there was a small reception and happy hour for guests, who were offered a light charcuterie spread and some highly respected craft beer from Collective Arts Brewing, Dock Street Brewing and more.
Upon leaving the Philly Chef Conference with a full stomach, a much larger appreciation for Drexel’s Food & Hospitality Management Department and a true appreciation for the food scene in Philadelphia, it is clear this is a hidden gem events that anyone could possibly attend.
It was so personal and accessible, and yet the level of food, drink and service was so high.
As Traud said, through a mix of a laugh and a sigh, “We already have people lined up for next year.” If you’re looking towards next year’s Philly Chef Conference, just know that it is everything you could ask for.