Craig LaBan has described the Rittenhouse gem, a.kitchen, as “overlooked… underappreciated” and deserving of three bells in The Inquirer’s yearly round up of the top 25 restaurants in Philadelphia. Eli Collins, the executive chef for the French-influenced restaurant, has had a lot to do with the establishment’s position as a culinary destination in the city. Chef Collins sits down with us during a.kitchen’s sleepy late afternoon lull between lunch and dinner service to chat about a.kitchen, a.bar and a career that he loves.
For people familiar with the establishment, how do you describe a.kitchen and a.bar?
A.kitchen is a wine-centric as well as French-influenced restaurant in the AKA Rittenhouse Hotel. We’re located at 185 S. 18th which is essentially at the corner of 18th and Walnut at Rittenhouse Square. We serve breakfast, lunch, and dinner. We also have a top sale bar and a cocktail bar [a.bar] that’s adjacent to the restaurant as well.
You spent time in New York before coming back to the Philly area. What about Philadelphia brought you back?
It also very much coincided with a very exciting food scene in Philadelphia that has happened in the last decade maybe even less—half of the decade I would say. The opportunity to work in one of the best food cities in America, if not the #1 food city in America, [interested me]. It was a great opportunity and I look forward to being here a long time and raising my family here.
Speaking for myself, I always had this image of the restaurant industry as really competitive and a little mean even, but after listening to chefs, Philadelphia’s restaurant industry seems like a close, supportive community. Is that unique to Philadelphia?
Everyone’s very supportive of each other. It is a small town so a lot of people have worked together at one point or another, so unless there was bad blood working together, which could happen, everyone is looking at each other and trying to be as supportive as possible. I also think everyone is trying to do their own thing, so [there] is a respect for everybody.
[We’re all] on the same page. We’re all on the same boat. It is an unusual industry in some regard to the hours that you work, the way you work with staff, and things like that, so there is a binding experience. That’s kinda the way it goes.
Is that normal?
I think so. I haven’t worked in that many major cities. I did work in New York, but New York’s a bit different. It’s a lot larger and I think there is probably a community of chefs, but I also think its a broader territory. Not everyone’s so interconnected.
It’s very easy in Philadelphia to keep track of what everybody’s doing. Everybody does a good job of holding the standards of the city very high and making sure that [diners] are having the best [meals] that they can possibly have inside the city. So if everybody is on the same page with that you know it makes a very positive experience.
Did you always know that you wanted to be a chef?
No, not really. I went to a liberal arts college. I studied fine arts and winged my way through college not knowing what I really wanted to do.
After I graduated, I started working in some restaurants really just as a form of employment. I would say that one or two years into doing that, I realized that I was pretty good at the tasks that they were giving me. From there, I realized that I’d be doing it for a little while. I don’t think I saw myself doing it for as long as I’ve been doing it now, but I think that it definitely has become my adult life.
At FEASTIVAL, we focus a lot on the intersection between art – performance art- and culinary art. As a chef, what are the similarities you see between the culinary world and the “art” world?
There’s always a creative process. When you study the finer arts, whether it’s dance or art [history] or painting or drawing or visual media, there’s an extreme amount of discipline in creating what you’re putting out there. [The visual art world] is a little bit different in that really great visual artists are always building on the past, but they are really trying to create their own language.
The culinary arts are a little bit different in that there’s been a groundwork laid. There’s a tradition to it and there’s a very strong history to it. You’re feeding into that conversation but you almost want to respect the history.
With me, the basis of my kitchen is the larder or the pantry with all these different ingredients that may not appear on the plate as main ingredients but sort of feed into the food. That’s where the creative process comes in for me [and how I create] my own language. I don’t think the food ends up on the plate as a totally new thing but the process of getting there, doing it your own way while also respecting the things that make it really well done [is the core of culinary art].
We obviously can’t sell our food for the same price that some people sell their artwork. We can’t get away with that. I wish we could…(Eli laughs at the notion).
I’m glad you guys can’t. You would never see me eating out.
What sparked your love of cooking?
It was something that I knew absolutely nothing about. It was very physical, and I worked really well being active throughout the day. I need that activity.
[At] that initial time when I started cooking, there wasn’t a lot of documentation of how to do things [like a particular technique or specific recipes]. The internet wasn’t nearly what it is now. If you didn’t know how to do something, you couldn’t just Google it. You really had to dig deep and either work in a restaurant that was doing something you were interested in or, you know, learn about ingredients over time. It was an immersive environment, and that made it very exciting for me and kept me interested over the long term in constantly growing and learning about things.
It also activates a lot of different senses for me.
A huge part of the appeal is being able to create something on a daily basis that makes people happy. I don’t think [cooking] is something to hold on to as a “precious commodity” in that I think it’s so important what I’m doing. There’s a small amount of pleasure that people gain from it, and I’m able to give that.
On your days off what are you doing, where are you going, what are you eating?
I’m usually with my family. I try to spend time with my sons as much as possible. I sorta curtail my diet based around what they’re into.
How old are they?
They’re nine and six.
Oh, they’re little guys.
Well, they’re getting big now. The nine-year-old is a pretty big kid.
And then we have a dog. I like to spend time with them. As far as eating, I’ll cook something very simple at home like pasta. We go out to eat at a local restaurant. They’re pretty picky eaters so we are in a pizza and burgers zone right now.
Philadelphia gets the culinary spotlight, but what’s going on out there in the suburbs? Where’s your favorite place to eat in Narberth?
I don’t know… it’s not really culinary driven but there’s some good Vietnamese food out in Upper Darby which is farther away but still in that neighborhood. My wife and I go to Tired Hands pretty regularly if we get out of the house.
American cuisine or French cuisine?
American cuisine is really hard to define. It’s such an amalgamation of so many different things. I say the food here is French-influenced much more in technique, but the flavors tend to be much more to the American palate or even the global palate….
American food is hard to define. I don’t even really know what American food is other than what the chefs all over the country are putting together both regionally and as a collective of chefs around the [nation]. I mean, you really are just seeing now the breadth of the American food scene. …You’re seeing the ethnic foods that have existed in the US for a long time being showcased either by chefs outside of their specific ethnicity or by chefs who have grown up with it all of their lives.
I think for me, I’m cooking American food as I know American food. I learned to cook by cooking French style food, but it’s really a total blend at this point. I don’t think I ever truly sit down and just cook French food, and I don’t think there is a time I’ll ever cook a dish and say to myself, well, that’s not American. Everything that I cook is American whether it’s a pasta dish or anything because I’m just a guy from northeastern Pennsylvania.
What’s next for you, a.kitchen and a.bar?
We have a very exciting spring menu coming up. The menu changes quite a bit depending on what we get seasonally and sorta the whims of what we feel like cooking at the time. I can’t say it really is a locked in spring menu, but I’m excited to see spring ingredients and change the momentum of what we are doing. You get into mid-February and you can only look at so much celery and so much rutabaga. It’s that time of year when you’re completely over it.
Thursday, we’re doing a full vegetarian tasting for Valentines Day. I’m excited about it. We can give people another opportunity to see what we can do here. We are looking to make that a part of something that we regularly do. Its something I’ve been talking about doing for a long time.
Thank you to Chef Eli Collins and a.kitchen & a.bar!
A.kitchen (135 S 18th Street, Philadelphia, PA) is a contemporary American cuisine with an innovative wine program in the heart of Philadelphia.
* Chef Collins’ responses have been edited for clarity.