Philadelphia Inquirer: Chef Valerie Erwin's New Mission at EAT Cafe
The Philadelphia Inquirer sat down with Valerie Erwin to discuss her new position with the EAT Cafe, Philadelphia's first pay-what-you-can restaurant.
Below is an excerpt from a recent Philadelphia Inquirer article.
Last week, I chatted with Erwin, 64, whose pre-Geechee Girl background includes landmark restaurants such as the Commissary, La Terrasse, Roller’s, and Striped Bass. (She says she opened Geechee Girl “primarily because I ran out of people I wanted to work for. I was looking for a certain attitude toward cooking and I just didn’t think it existed.”)
Why did you take the job at Eat?
What I tell people is, ‘There’s lots of work in food and justice but there’s not lots of paid work.’ So it is a really good platform. I love the cafe, and we are part of a bigger organization that was started by Dr. Mariana Chilton. She’s the one who came up with the vision for the cafe and funding and the partners. She’s really a visionary person and heads a research group called the Center for Hunger-Free Communities. The cafe is kind of like an on-the-ground, help-an-individual-person enterprise, and it does a very good job of that, but what the center does is research and policy and lobbying — trying to do the things that will either help people get out of poverty or prevent them from falling into poverty. I find that really, really interesting.
I’m not as interested in looking at someone who’s falling through all the cracks in our society and saying, ‘Let’s give them a meal and that’s the end of it.’ We’ve got to do something else. We have got to change something, and that’s the work that Mariana does.
How do you fit into this?
I do something a lot less rarefied. I really just run a restaurant. I admire the scholars who can do all those other things. It’s OK when you can run a restaurant, but fundamentally, this is just a restaurant, and that’s my role. That’s what I really wanted to do — to enhance the food, enhance the service, to enhance the experience.
Tell me your earliest cooking memory.
I learned to cook from my father, and I don’t remember learning. I don’t remember a time when I couldn’t cook. I mean, I remember learning how to make certain things, but I don’t remember like not being able to cook dinner. My oldest cooking memory, though, is when I was 8. My next-door neighbor’s mother was in the hospital, having had a baby, and I remember when my father came home and I said, ‘Carolyn [age 9] came over because she was making dinner and she didn’t know how to make gravy.’ And my father said, ‘So did you tell her?’ And I said, ‘Yeah.’ I was 8 and I knew how to make gravy, so that’s the only real marker that I have.
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