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January 08, 2015

Sam Katz moderating chef panel

Yeah, that Sam Katz reported earlier that foodies will be headed to Drexel University's Chef Conference on Sunday and Monday to engage in an ongoing discussion about the status of the city's restaurant scene. Part of that two-day event includes a one-hour panel with some of the city's culinary hotshots, a panel hosted by ... Sam Katz

First thought: Oh, Sam must have some new venture he's plugging ...

Second thought: Or, perhaps he's some secret connoisseur of food?

Third thought: Or, maybe, he's really given up on both history-documenting and being mayor, and is a restaurateur now? Katz Restaurants: Coming Soon.

... Nope. Turns out, he's just a great moderator. 

"I'm an interviewer for my history films, so I spend a lot of time asking people questions. Hopefully I'll make a good contribution," Katz told

He did take a second to offer his (always blunt) thoughts on Philly's rapidly expanding restaurant scene, however -- a scene that he said has grown at a rate of "mind-bogglingness." 

"I can remember when people were talking, back in the '70s, about an Irish pub on South Street being a great place. And there wasn't anything about it other than that it was new," he said with a laugh. "This is a town that had a road to hoe not that long ago, in terms of establishing a food identity. ... We've got a long way to go, but I'd put food among the pieces of the puzzle that rounds out the quality of the city as a destination for tourists."

Any problems the restaurant scene faces, he said, are problems businesses face anywhere -- in Philly or not.

But, "if you're trying to be a neighborhood destination, you're going to need to establish a distinct style and overcome the challenges of differentiating yourself. And make money," he said. "The restaurant business is a difficult business to make money in -- not to get them talking about, mind you, but converting that to dollars and getting to a point of profitability is a more challenging thing. It requires a pair of cojones to be in it."

The panel Katz will host is called "Philly 2020" and will run from 3-4 p.m. on Sunday, Jan. 11. The panel is fairly star-studded (but not Starr-studded, sadly), featuring conference chairman Kevin Sbraga, Vetri's Jeff Benjamin, Noord's Joncarl Lachman, Barbuzzo's Marcie Turney and Rob Keddie, of Garces. 

Mike Traud, director of the Hospitality and Tourism Department at Drexel University and former Vetri chef, said the panel's mission isn't just to take both a look back and a look forward at the Philadelphia restaurant scene, but also to establish where Philly is on the international food chain.

"What do we do differently, but also, where are we being celebrated?" he said. "People think of cheesesteaks when they think of us, but we're at a point now where people really are traveling here just to eat."

To hear the panel discussion for yourself (we bet it'll be a doozy), register here. Traud said there are roughly 50 to 80 tickets left of the 350 made available.