As a chef in Philadelphia, one should know how to cook with beer. Recently Cooperstown, N.Y.’s Brewery Ommegang decided to put the city’s best to the test with a brew-inspired competition entitled Philly’s Hop Chef, that included executive chef George Sabatino of Stateside, 1536 E. Passyunk Ave.
“We had to cook with beer. We had an assigned one and we got to pick one,” Sabatino, of 24th Street and Washington Avenue, said. “We had to cook using two Ommegang ales.”
Using the assigned Abbey Dubbel ale to whip up beef cheek lettuce wraps, the chef followed up the main dish with a dessert of Three Philosophers with head to tail cherries. “Ommegang is not typically what I would drink, so that was part of the challenge, as well,” he said. “I like lighter beers, like pilsners and things like that.”
Despite his taste preferences, the chef who competed July 10 at University City’s World Cafe Live against six other city talents, including Joe Cicala of Le Virtu, 1927 E. Passyunk Ave.; Jason Cichonski, of Ela, 627 S. Third St.; and Scott Schroeder, of The South Philadelphia Tap Room, 1509 Mifflin St., and American Sardine Bar, 1801 Federal St.; was able to bring home a win.
While Schroeder took the people’s choice, Sabatino won the judges’ hearts and will compete at the Grand Hop Chef competition with the winner of the Washington, D.C. and New York competitions Aug. 4 in Cooperstown, N.Y.
“The only other thing I had done was, a couple months ago, the Audrey Claire COOK Open Stove series. I went against Ben [Puchowitz] of [Center City’s] Matyson. For Ben, it was actually the second one he had done and he called me out. They did a mystery basket and the first ingredient was American cheese — which is pretty messed up,” Sabatino, who beat out his friend in that competition, said. “I look forward to doing it again, to be honest. I have a pretty good track record going.”
Locals can try different creations from the contest-winning chef daily at Stateside, the Passyunk Square eatery serving up domestic-only beverages and locally-sourced food. Opening its doors in November, Sabatino was eager to see who would come.
“I was not sure what to expect,” Sabatino said. “People would come in looking for fried cheese and marinara sauce and leave because we didn’t have it. Or they’d come in and see there was no burger on the menu and leave. But we stayed true to the course.”
The course the eatery set and continues to improve on is a seasonal-inspired menu with at least biweekly alterations to reflect what is freshest and to keep things interesting for the devotees.
“We do get a lot of people that come from all over the city. More recently I’ve met people in the dining room coming from Delaware and New Jersey,” Sabatino said. “I would say what we are fortunate to have is neighborhood regulars for sure that eat at the restaurant every week and are always willing to try the new stuff, which is awesome.
“People are excited when the menu changes and I post things on Twitter and they come in and get it.”
Leaving his hometown in Central New Jersey eight years ago to come to Philly and attend community college, Sabatino decided to major in music, mostly because he didn’t know what he wanted to do.
“I grew up playing in bands since I was very young. It was just a normal teenage thing. I went to school for music, but I wasn’t happy doing it. I just wasn’t sure what I wanted to do,” Sabatino who left community college after a year, said. “I didn’t really see what I was doing with it. I didn’t want to become a music teacher.”
As a child, Sabatino only was allowed to use the microwave to make macaroni and cheese because he was “a horrible cook,” he said. However, in his late-teens, he began to prepare meals for friends and decided to try his hand professionally.
“I came and went to school for a month. I left when I realized [school] wasn’t for me,” Sabatino said of JNA Institute of Culinary Arts, 1212 S. Broad St. “I was cooking in low-level kitchen bars. Doc Watson’s [Pub in Center City] was my first cooking job. It was pretty crazy, but I was determined. And I showed up with a notebook everyday and took notes.”
The immersive experience was just what Sabatino needed and with hard work and some natural skill, he moved up through the ranks and was fortunate enough to land a job with Marcie Blaine Turney, chef/owner of multiple restaurants on South 13th Street in Center City.
“It took one-and-a-half years cooking around kitchens I wasn’t crazy about before I got a job at Lolita with Marcie Turney, who became my mentor,” Sabatino said. “That’s where I made my bones. I learned how to cook fast and efficiently.”
Sabatino spent many years working with Turney, who opened Bindi, where Sabatino learned how to cook Indian food, and Barbuzzo, where he perfected charcuterie and Mediterranean, during that time.
“I was really fortunate about that, that every time I was ready to do something new Marcie and [partner] Valerie [Safran] were ready to open a new restaurant,” Sabatino said. “I did Barbuzzo and I got very overwhelmed. I decided to take off from management and I was a line cook at Pub and Kitchen.”
During this break Sabatino was able to take stock of his options, knowing his next move would be as the executive chef of a new venture. Stateside’s owners approached the talented chef and Sabatino was immediately on board with their concept.
“With Stateside I liked the idea of doing something small. I would be very much in control of the first one. The bar only had 32 seats when we opened,” he said. “We say it’s contemporary American small plates.”
Through the turmoil of opening any venture — Sabatino said the restaurant didn’t have a dishwasher for the first six weeks it was open — the chef and his team have coalesced and earned themselves a loyal following that is rapidly expanding. As the restaurant continues its own growth, including current plans to get licensed to serve through the windows, Sabatino wants locals to know they can count on a good drink and an innovative bite any day of the week.
“I think at Stateside, what we’re doing, it’s deceptively simple food. There is something for everyone,” he said. “But what’s more important is the cooking we are doing is very honest and from our heart and it’s very interesting in a way.
“We’re trying to do something that’s very different in South Philadelphia and even if it’s just for small plates and an awesome whiskey at the bar, people should come on in.” SPR
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