Southern Cooking, Northern Challenges
Philadelphia gained some Southern sensibilities last December.
It started with Chef Kevin Sbraga opening his second venture in the city, the Fat Ham, building off the success of his eponymous restaurant Sbraga. Chef Sbraga says the Southern theme was inspired by the lack of it in the market and his desire to cook a more rustic cuisine.
Once the public got a taste of the Fat Ham's dishes, flavorful, comforting dishes such as collard greens and shrimp and grits, similar food began popping up at other eateries in the neighborhood.
"We're definitely the first restaurant in Philly to go down this road," says Aaron Gottesman, the Fat Ham's chef de cuisine. "There are barbecue restaurants and other restaurants that dabble in Southern food, but I definitely saw a higher rate of people cooking Southern food right around here after we opened.
"When people were starting to cook Southern food that they might not necessarily have done before, it made us all feel great around here, that we were doing something that people were paying attention to."
Much of the North's restaurant scene, in fact, is paying attention to the Fat Ham, but not just for its food. It is also for pulling off a Southern-influenced eatery smack dab in the middle of one of the North's biggest cities. The geography presents challenges to both the chefs and bartenders, who strive to mimic the fare south of the Mason-Dixon line while existing in an entirely different growing season.
"When you're in Philadelphia, you're kind of stuck in the Northeast United States vortex, so Philly and New York and Boston," head bartender Dan Carr says. "You get stuck in the trends that exist in these three cities, and those trends are often not replicated in the South, or the South comes up with something completely different. So, toeing the line of being current in the Philadelphia market but staying true to the South is very important."
For a restaurant that does four serious menu changes throughout the year, Gottesman says finding the right vendors was integral to ensuring the Fat Ham live up to its promise. He says the restaurant works with a farmer who has begun growing products specifically for it, allowing for the bounty of the South to be local to Philly.
One of Carr's methods to procure Southern ingredients was to haunt specialty stores around the city.
"I went to Reading Terminal market, one of the oldest indoor markets in Philadelphia, and I went to a spice store that I'd always used for herbs," Carr says. "I said, do you have Southern sassafras? And they looked at me like I was crazy. I kept going after them, kept going after them, and finally I was able to source Alabaman sassafras and have them ship it in, and subsequently have gone to a lot of specialty stores around Philadelphia. The guys have started to get to know me."
At the same time, Carr has gotten to know Southern cuisine and ingredients. Ask what his previous experience was with Southern eats and he says, "literally none. It took a lot of reading and a lot of work on my end to bring myself up to speed, a lot of old-school cocktail books, a lot of Garden & Gun magazine."
Gottesman echoes his sentiment. "I had absolutely no [previous experience with Southern cuisine]—I had never cooked collard greens in my life."
The food menu is heavily based off pork, and subtle influences of it exist throughout the menu. While there are not many actual pork dishes, such as pork belly or pork shoulder, Gottesman estimates 50 percent of the menu has some pork influence in one way or another. He and Chef Sbraga wanted to find Southern traditions and staples and put their own twist on them. One is the Nashville hot chicken, which both chefs say is their favorite thing on the menu.
"It's basically just a fried chicken that is extremely spicy, and we've kind of made a name for ourselves with it, among other dishes," Gottesman says.
The kitchen is about 15 feet by 5 feet, Chef Sbraga says, and the cramped cooking space presents him the biggest challenge at the Fat Ham. The restaurant seats 46—but don’t call it constricted. “It’s snug in there,” Chef Sbraga acknowledges. “We’ll use the word cozy.”
By Sonya Chudgar