This past April, Society Hill Society announced it was opening in the former-Artful Dodger location (at 2nd and Pine Streets where Society Hill meets Headhouse Square in Philadelphia) with Yun Fuentes on the team as their executive chef. For 30-plus years, that venue provided Philadelphians with many sipping memories and stories, while chef Fuentes had established himself as a reputable chef de cuisine around town these last ten years. The old fashioned bar has been redesigned — now a welcoming wraparound, offering an ever-evolving cocktail menu. The dining area has been opened up with much more natural light. Now when enjoying SHS’s welcoming casual atmosphere, it’s as if the abundant sunshine is illuminating upon our former Philly dining memories while chef Fuentes is cooking us up new ones. We first met chef Fuentes, while he was mixing up pork and rice at a charity gala last fall, where he shared one of his childhood food memories with us. We dined at SHS this past late-April, sipped some Pilsner Urquels (SHS is proud to be one of only a handful of taverns in America which pour Pilsner Urquel from an authentic Czech fount) and were greatly impressed by Fuentes’ menu, which is inspired by classic Pennsylvania flavors (warm soft pretzels, traditional snapper soup, an awesome house-ground sirloin burger and even deconstructed shoofly pie). Wondering how his Puerto Rican roots influenced and inspired his craft, we reached out to chef Fuentes who was kind enough to share his (Chocolate Covered) Memories with us …
How did you find yourself in this niche of the food industry?
I wanted a job so I could buy myself some Nike Air Jordan’s.
Any child/teenage food industry jobs?
What are your earliest childhood memories of food?
Sitting on the kitchen counter, and my granddad would make pancakes for me.
Where does your love of food stem from?
There are plenty of reasons why I love food, some logical and others not so sane. But I guess that if you refer to it as an industry, I like to make a living by giving on to others. Lending my hands to feed people, and doing it by highlighting the beauty of the product and the act of eating itself, making it enjoyable and entertaining. I think that’s a good cause.
What foods remind you of childhood?
There is lots of food that reminds me of childhood. But mainly staples from Puerto Rican cuisine that were all around me as a child.
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?
I wouldn’t eat mushrooms. One night I was invited to Maritza’s house (my girlfriend at the time) to have dinner with her family, and Margie (her mom) made sweet and sour pork (Margie’s specialty). It just so happens that Margie puts mushrooms on her sweet and sour pork. When I got served, I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t want to eat it, but I also didn’t want to not eat it. So I built up enough courage to grab the first bite, and I loved it. After that, I decided that I would try other things, even if they did not look appetizing to me at first glance. If people ate it, I would, too.
Any childhood cooking accidents in the kitchen?
My biggest kitchen accident is I ended up working in the kitchen.
What family recipes do you want to share with us?
I used to eat Mallorca Bread for breakfast as a child in Puerto Rico. There are plenty of places that would sell this bread, and some people would sell it door-to-door. My favorite was made at a place called “La Bombonera,” which unfortunately closed its doors a year or two ago. They would take this bread toasted, spread butter on it, and serve it with freshly-squeezed orange juice. Enjoy my Mallorca Bread!
Yun Fuentes’s first industry job — as a Hamburglar costume-clad McDonald’s birthday attendant — wasn’t exactly glamorous. And though his second saw him arm-deep in suds as a dishwasher, it got him into the kitchen, where he proved himself an able cook. Moving from the dish basin to the stove, Fuentes realized just how much he had to learn. And that initial spark of curiosity fueled his ascent in the industry.
In the 1990s, Fuentes worked the restaurant circuit in his native Old San Juan. He cooked under Roberto Treviño at The Parrot Club and served as the first chef de cuisine at Blue Agave Bar & Grill, where he worked with Richard Sandoval. To push his knowledge and comfort zone, Fuentes left Puerto Rico for New York City, where he landed at Patria, followed by stints at El Zocalo, and Pipa and Lucy Latin Kitchen in the ABC Building. Eventually, Fuentes found his way to Jean-Georges Vongerichten kitchens — all the while continuing to stage.
Fuentes finally found a culinary home in Philadelphia, working on the Amada salad station for Jose Garces. Moving within the Garces Group, Fuentes worked at Tinto and Village Whiskey before taking over as chef de cuisine at JG Domestic, where he earned a 2013 StarChefs.com Philadelphia Rising Stars Chef Award.
Fuentes is now the Executive Chef at Society Hill Society, where he is cooking up Pennsylvania heritage cuisine. He likens the move from the Garces group to SHS to going from a big studio film to starring in an indie film.