Remember the first time you heard a certain song and now, looking back, you have no idea how you ever lived before without that band’s music in your life? [And, no, this is not a Garden State/The Shins reference. Sorry, hipster girls.] Maybe you became an avid runner after a lifetime of inactivity. Maybe you stumbled on a director’s movie catalogue or a long-running television show that became an instant favorite of yours. How did you ever live before without this new find in your life? Well, to many, and not just food fanatics, a good bite, especially a life-changing burger, can be just like that. You take one bite and wonder how you ever ate regular, boring, bland burgers before. Meet Phyllis Farquhar, the owner, baker and chef of Sketch Burger in Fishtown (Philadelphia). Since 2008, Sketch has been a destination restaurant for Philadelphia’s burger aficionados, who flock to the restaurant for its king-sized fare. While Sketch is best known for its made-to-order burgers (sirloin beef, American Kobe beef, turkey, vegan bean), hot, crispy, hand cut, Belgian-style fries and thick and yummy milkshakes (featuring both regular and non-dairy vegan ice creams), Farquhar keeps an ever-changing list of specials on the menu, including customer favorites like Korean fried chicken, beef chili and Chinese sticky buns. Sketch is like a daydream for those craving hip, homemade, comfort food and baked sweets, which is apropos as Sketch’s walls are decorated with doodles and artwork of customers of all ages, featuring crayon and marker burgers, fries, milkshakes and more . We recently caught up with Phyllis Farquhar and talked about big bites, big sketches and, of course, big Chocolate Covered Memories …
How did you find yourself in this niche of the food industry?
Coming from an Eastern European Jewish family, food was of primary importance to me. And, not just in a celebratory way, but each daily meal was very important. My family shopped and cooked in the European tradition, where they shopped for everything fresh every single day. So growing up, we never saw a canned good or a frozen good, and I think that was something I wanted to continue in my professional life. My parents had many friends who were French, and they were pastry chefs and cooks, and, at the age of 13, I started to work with them in New York City. Basically, I was pretty fortunate to grow up in the 1960s when child labor wasn’t an issue. It was actually encouraged!
Sketch’s atmosphere is so distinct with all the customers’ crayon-sketched artwork on the walls. Do you have an artistic background?
The restaurant that I owned preceding Sketch was called Canvas, and that was a showcase for my own paintings and ceramics and mosaics. And I was able to sell quite a lot of my artwork over there. But as Canvas became much more involved and much more complicated, I swore that I wanted to not only simplify the menu but also the environment. So we switched it up from Canvas to Sketch. The artwork continues, but now it is customer-generated.
What are your earliest childhood memories of food?
I have a lot of early memories of food. One of the earliest is that we always had a typical poverty dish. My favorite dish was egg noodles with Velveeta cheese. I loved that growing up. My family lived on matzah and cottage cheese. But my fondest memory, or the most important memory that drove me into the pastry world, is of my grandmother’s rugulach [traditional Jewish pastries]. I’ve never forgotten that recipe and I continue to make it to this day.
What foods remind you of childhood?
Roast chicken and a tossed salad always makes me think of childhood. That’s how we ate most days. You could feed a family of six for pretty cheap with a roast chicken and tossed salad. And we always had something for dessert. My mother baked every day.
Were you a picky eater as a kid? Any foods you couldn’t stand growing up? Have you overcome those childhood fears or do they still remain to this day? Any stuff you loved eating as a child that you would never eat now?
Poor people are not allowed to be picky eaters! That’s my rule. And we weren’t allowed to have food allergies or be vegetarians, and we definitely weren’t allowed to be picky eaters. But one time, my mother made a broccoli and ham casserole. I must have contracted a stomach flu beforehand, because as soon as I ate it, I just became so sick. And since that day, I’ve never been able to eat broccoli or ham. And I would never eat Velveeta now. Also, I used to eat tuna sandwiches dipped in Cup of Noodle soup. It was my favorite lunch, but I’d never eat that now.
What do you think of the modern food world?
One thing that’s interesting to me is that when I was growing up, we did not eat out ever. Simply because you could not take a family of six out to dinner if you were on a budget. We’d go out maybe once a year for a special occasion. But so few people cook at home anymore. On the one hand, I get really kind of sick and tired hearing about how broke people are, but, on the other hand, my business is to feed people. So I try to strike the happy medium, where I’m feeding people at an extremely reasonable price. I wish that people would cook more at home, but I like for them to eat at my restaurant.
What family recipes do you want to share with us?
I really love to make biscuits, and people really seem to enjoy eating them. I’m not a big fan of traditional biscuits myself. So, when I was creating this recipe, I tried to come up with a good cross between a Parker roll and a traditional biscuit. Enjoy making (and eating!) Sketch’s Biscuits.
Phyllis Farquhar is an accomplished baker and pastry chef and the owner of Sketch Burger (Fishtown, Philadelphia). Farquhar makes all of Sketch’s baked goods in-house, and keeps her dessert hutch filled with specialties from vegan carrot cupcakes to red velvet whoopie pies. Farquhar, who has been working in the restaurant industry since she was a teenager, is also an artist. The walls of Sketch are plastered with construction paper and crayon drawings that are made by customers while they eat. Farquhar came up with the idea for the unusual décor as a way to distinguish Sketch from her previous restaurant, Canvas, where she hung her own paintings on the wall.