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Locally Grown: Food and the Chefs Who Make It

Chicago has pizza, New York City has cheesecake, and Philadelphia has the cheesesteak. But it's finally time to put the best cheesesteak debate aside as the rest of the country has begun to notice what we Philadelphians already know: Our chefs and restaurants are serving food that's way more interesting. And Drexel's culinary arts program is training homegrown chefs who are helping to grow the city's reputation as a culinary destination.

One of the first baccalaureate-awarding culinary arts programs in the nation, Drexel's program is based on equal parts liberal arts, business, hospitality management, and of course, culinary arts. According to Jonathan Deutsch, director of Drexel's Center for Hospitality and Sport Management, "Too many culinary graduates find themselves unable to move beyond a cook position because they don't have enough depth of knowledge in other areas.... Our graduates don't have limitations. [They] rise easily from cook to chef, manager, or owner."

The proof of the program's success, which graduated its first class in 1999, is in the pudding, or rather, the makers of the pudding. Drexel culinary arts alumni include Garces Group's Natalie Maronski, Honest Tom's Taco Shop's Tom McCusker, and Wishbone's David Clouser.

Many students in the culinary arts program grew up in the greater Philadelphia area and chose to stay here after graduation to work and start their own businesses. After spending a few years training in New York City post-graduation, 2001 graduates Colleen Lawler (BS culinary arts, originally from Winslow, New Jersey) and Josh Lawler (BS hospitality management, originally from Conshohocken, Pennsylvania) are the successful husband-and-wife owners of The Farm and Fisherman, a farm-to-table BYO near Washington Square in Philadelphia. Both say that their Drexel education gave them the solid foundation needed to make a restaurant work. "So many chefs spend their whole lives in kitchens," says Josh; "having more than just a culinary degree made me more well-rounded. Not only did we learn how to cook, but we learned how to appreciate the art of it, how to run a business, the finances, how to manage people."

No matter how well-rounded the degree — which can include a Study Abroad experience in London, ongoing networking opportunities with the United Kingdom's most revered chefs, and full-time for-credit, often paid, Drexel Co-op experiences — it's not enough on its own. Charles "Chip" Roman, BS '02 and native of Philadelphia's Fishtown neighborhood, spent his Drexel years working at Taco Lou's food truck in Powelton Village. Thanks to a networking referral from a fraternity brother, he earned his cooking chops at Vetri, the namesake restaurant of Marc Vetri, internationally renowned chef and Drexel marketing and finance alum (BS '90). Roman went on to work with superstar chefs such as Georges Perrier of Le Bec-Fin. "I was able to make some crafty connections," says Roman, and he learned that to survive and thrive in the food world it's necessary to put your time in at the bottom of the food chain. Roman now owns three nationally lauded restaurants of his own — Blackfish in Conshohocken, Mica in Chestnut Hill, and Ela in Queen Village — plus a catering company (Charles Roman Catering) and a chocolate shop (Tradestone Confections in Chestnut Hill). "For the first five years, don't worry about the money and keep your mouth shut," he advises. "Your schooling is your foundation, and in the culinary world, it's just the beginning of a career's worth of training."

Thanks to that patient training and dedication, Philly is benefiting from a host of inventive, independent neighborhood restaurants. As diners, we have lots of reasons to keep our mouths open. Visit Drexel's Academic Bistro to taste the future of Philadelphia dining.