While high-end restaurants — especially BYOBs — are a Philadelphia restaurant scene staple, upscale BYOBs are extremely hard to come by in the Fishtown area of Philly, despite the growth and development this section of the city has seen over the last ten years. Someone should open a BYOB in Fishtown, right? Meet Todd Braley and Daniela D’Ambrosio, owners and chefs of The Pickled Heron, a French-inspired BYOB. Tucked into an old, Frankford Avenue row-home with a welcoming heron-featured chalkboard out front (were you expecting another bird on it?), TPH is a greatly appreciated change of pace to this gastropub- and dive bar-obsessed area of town. Food painter Mike Geno (whose ole’ CCM feature you can find here) has been raving about TPH for quite some time, and he even organized a private foodie dinner there, which we were unable to attend. We’ve been playing email-tag with Daniela and Todd for a while, and we recently had the privilege of enjoying a lovely dinner at TPH — charcuterie, stuffed zucchini, wild boar, duck (two ways!), lemon meringue tarte and the “best crème brûlée I’ve ever had” (according to Ms. CCM). Whoever thought that you could get so close to France (or at least French-inspired food) via the Frankford El?! After all the accolades and delicious bites, we caught up with Daniela and Todd to share some (Chocolate Covered) Memories …
How did you find yourself in this niche of the industry?
Todd: I graduated with honors from the Restaurant School here in Philly. I had gone to college to become a teacher, after which I worked as an electrician and carpenter for several years. I had always loved food and cooking but never thought that I would do it for a living. My brother was getting married, and he asked me to cook for the rehearsal dinner at my parents’ house on Cape Cod. I cooked for four or five straight days — a menu I could now do in just half a day with little planning — and all the while I was in heaven. My feet hurt, my back was sore, I was exhausted, but I loved every minute of it. I decided to go to culinary school, thinking I was going to do catering. I thought the restaurant life would be too much for this humble guy, who just liked entertaining and cooking as best I could. When I got my first cooking job, starting a few days before opening at Bliss here in Philly, I got my ass handed to me on a daily basis. But I realized restaurant kitchens were the place for me. Catering is about logistics and schlepping, less about cooking.
Daniela: I went to New England Culinary Institute for my training, right out of high school. I knew that I wanted to cook, and I knew that they had a great program. What I didn’t really comprehend, until I became a student, was the amazing relationship that NECI has with the surrounding farms and farmers and the community itself. I knew that when I opened my own place many, many, many years down the road, that I wanted to have those types of friendships with the people who supplied the food to make my dishes possible. With The Pickled Heron, we really opened a “Chef’s Restaurant.” Fifty seats; we can see just about all of them from the open kitchen. No bar to have to worry about wine programs and liquor inventory, as we are BYOB. The menus are printed as often as we like, so things change EVERY week. And we can call the farmers that make our cheese or raise our ducks and say, “This was great” or “ Have you changed this?” or “ I want something special for an event coming up.” We are really lucky.
Any child/teenage food industry jobs?
Todd: My first jobs were lawn work. I would sometimes pull wild onions and eat them while cutting the grass. In high school, I started learning the electrical trade and later carpentry. But I was in my mother’s kitchen from 4 or 5 years old on. Around 13 or so, I started going to my grandmother’s house early on all the holidays to help her cook. About the same time, she and I started visiting my great-aunt and great-uncle here in Philly. They had always lavishly entertained for business back in the day and had traveled a lot and eaten in many great restaurants around the world. Over the years, I started coming down from New York to spend a week or two a year with them, always cooking, going to the markets, and upon return to New York, writing to get recipes. They really were a great inspiration for my cooking and entertaining.
Daniela: My first cooking job was at the Radison Hotel in Trevose, Pennsylvania. I was 16 and worked the Sesame Place buffet on weekends. Families would buy package deals of the hotel stay, tickets to the theme park and get free breakfast buffet included. It was torture. Picture small children who were excited about meeting Bert and Ernie, their parents who were cranky from driving in from East Who-Knows-Where, add the sleep deprivation that occurs when a family of four shares one queen bed for the night and give them unlimited pancakes and syrup. It was a crappy job. But in the afternoon, I got to help with prep, which was awesome. I would skin salmon, cut veggies and get to ask the chef as many questions as I wanted about food. This was pre-Food Network. I wouldn’t say that I learned a lot, but I learned that I wanted to stay in the food business. That wasn’t my parents’ intention. They thought that a job in the biz would scare me and I would become a CPA or something. Instead, I fell in love with the fire, knives, men, cursing. What wasn’t to like?!?
What are your earliest childhood memories of food?
Todd: My mother was a flight attendant when I was young. She would be dead tired from her work schedule. At around three-to-five years old I would make my own “PB and J” sandwiches. She would leave all the fixins together for me. I don’t remember that as well as the little Tupperware pitcher she would leave with milk in the bottom of the fridge so I could reach to make myself cereal. Of course, [I remember] using a stool to reach the counter, but she would have it so she could see me from the couch if she was half-napping. I would guess I was a pretty good kid. Nowadays social services would have a field day with that sort of thing, but I think it was fine.
Daniela: Family dinners. My parents came here from Italy, and food and love were basically the same thing. Holidays were spent in the kitchen, then around a big table drinking homemade wine, eating my grandmother’s pasta, and talking. Then the ladies went back into the kitchen to clean, pick on even more food, and have the more serious talks away from the men. It was the first time I felt like I was a part of anything really special or important.
Where does your love of food stem from?
Todd: I often kid my mother that I learned to cook out of self-defense. My mom is a lover of baking. It was very common to come home from school to hot-from-the-oven muffins. She had less patience for regular cooking. We have a large family, so I was always in the kitchen helping for family gatherings. That led to silly things, like carving the watermelon into a whale for the fruit salad and other stuff like that. More so though, I think the kitchen has always been my safe place away from the crowd, even when that crowd is my own family.
What foods remind you of childhood?
Todd: Dad made the worst pork chops on the planet! Mom was flying a lot, so my dad was left to fend for my older brother and I often when we were younger. He would make these pork chops that were baked on a bed of sauerkraut with caraway seeds. These would bake to a dryness that required a small bite to be followed by a swig of milk to moisten the meat enough to then chew it for a long time before finally being able to swallow it. His other “fine” culinary gift was boiled ham and cabbage. He’d boil the hell out of that, too, then smear yellow mustard on the wedge of cabbage … “oof.”
Daniela: When we were young, seven or eight years old, my parents would let us have a splash of my grandfather’s homemade wine mixed with Sprite. As we got older, the ratio of wine-to-soda changed until we were teenagers and could handle a whole glass of wine. But when I taste a really strong, effervescent red wine, it takes me back to crisp October afternoons, helping crush the grapes and celebrating with some sausage and meatballs and a diluted glass of red.
Any specific food memories/stories that you want to share?
Daniela: As a kid, I was always making things for people to eat. My brother was in a band, and they would practice in my parent’s basement. When the guys would come over, I would take to the kitchen and make them snacks — from cheesecake or scrambled eggs to fresh baked bread or cookies and everything in between. It was really sweet of a bunch of high school guys to be so nice to an annoying little sister busting in on their “jam sessions.”
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?
Todd: I think — says the guy with two pig tattoos — that I have overcome the atrocities my father committed on swine to the point that I have a slightly off-love for all things pork. That said, my love of pork and duck really comes from the expression “nothing is wasted but the oink.” I don’t think I was a picky eater, but I am told that I would chew food for a very long time; like twenty minutes after diner, someone would ask if I was eating something, and I would reveal mashed potatoes. In my defense, as I stated earlier, things [liked those mashed potatoes] may have been a little dry.
Daniela: No. I ate most things. Still do.
Growing up, what was your favorite meal/food/snack to eat outside? Anywhere in particular? How about now as an adult?
Todd: There is something about a sandwich — like ham and cheese with mayo — when you’re fishing. The slight smell of trout on your hands, or maybe that’s the earth worm goo. The mayo getting funky and seeping through the kinda’ soggy white bread roll that’s been in the cooler for hours. With some kind of root beer and chips.
Daniela: As a kid, I liked to drink chocolate milk outside. (“Chocolate” was actually the second word I ever spoke.) We would drink it with a straw and do that obnoxious kid thing where you blow into the straw until the whole cup is full of milk bubbles. This was easier to get away with outside, because if it overflowed outside, mom wouldn’t freak out. As an adult, champagne. I really love to sit in the park with a bottle of bubbly, a chunk of bread and some cured meats. There is something that feels so naughty about drinking in the sunshine on a random Monday afternoon.
What do you think of the modern food world (from Whole Foods to franchises like Olive Garden, from the Food Network to Groupon, from Yelp to foodie bloggers)?
Todd: Yelp is a pain in the ass. I wish the person at the insurance company who you get stuck on the phone with and has no answer for anything could get reviewed on Yelp. I don’t know why people think it’s okay to critique restaurants like they are [old-school New York Times food journalist and restaurant critic] Craig Claiborne. If people realized what sacrifices we’ve made to our personal lives, family lives, financial livelihood; if only they realized what a chance we have taken with everything to make our dream come true and how hard we work — day and night — to put out the best food we can; and if they realize that a small business like ours is always teetering on the edge of great success and utter failure. Daniela and I doing everything. I would like to go to every Yelp reviewers’ place of business, spend 45-90 minutes there, and then critique every aspect of that experience. They would not be happy. We are way more in tune with the little details than they could possibly imagine.
That said, Yelp is part of the game, and it is what it is. We can’t respond to Yelpers; we have to grin and bear it.
Daniela: Somethings about the modern food world are cool. We have an open kitchen at The Pickled Heron, and it is fun when guests ask a bunch of questions and watch us to pick up tricks of the trade. We’ve even had guests hang out in the kitchen when we are butchering whole pigs. It’s pretty cool to see folks who are into what we are doing.
Groupon is a hard one for us. We are BYOB, so we have to keep our food cost super low just to get by. Groupon is great in the way that they help to advertise and reach people that would not have a clue that you were even around. But those people don’t come back, and the company takes a big chunk of the earnings.
Yelpers are great and horrible at the same time. It is awesome to get feedback, but I can’t stand it when someone says that everything is great in person and then trashes things on Yelp. Part of the review needs to be speaking up about a bad experience and seeing what the restaurant does to correct it. We had an evening where I sent a soup to the wrong table. The woman got the soup and none of the other appetizers for the table were ready. As soon as the soup hit the table, I went over and explained that it was my fault and gave her the choice of having the soup in front of her or us sending a new one in three minutes when the other apps would be ready. She said that is was no big deal and would keep the soup. We also sent a round of house made liqueur out to smooth things over, and they said that everything was great. The next day, her online review said differently. What can you do? This is the world we cook and live in now. You can’t make every decision based on what someone may or may not blog about, but I would love to go to where some of these Yelpers work and write about their job performance.
What family recipes do you want to share with us?
Todd: My Great Grandma’s spaghetti was a staple in our house. Now mind you, my family on that side is from Czechoslovakia and Scotland, so pasta is not their strongest [suit]. But this dish is, to this day, one of my favorite meals. Enjoy my Great Grandma’s Spaghetti!
Daniela: My paternal grandmother would always make us grandkids pizza whenever we went over, no matter why we were there. Easter dinner — rabbit, pasta and pizza. Christmas — seven fishes, pasta and pizza. Sleepover — coffee, cereal and pizza. She passed away a few years ago, and when we grandkids were helping my mom sort through some of her things, all I wanted to take home was her pizza pan. It wasn’t anything fancy — an $8 aluminum pizza pan you can get just about anywhere, but it was marred with every pass of her heavy hand guiding that pizza wheel to cut perfectly-even and delicious slices for us seven grandkids. I still use it to this day. Enjoy my Grandmother’s Homemade Pizza!