The first time I met Derek Davis in 2001, I was pretty sure I had made a huge mistake by walking into that room. A gargantuan beast of a chef, he shook my hand and bent his full weight toward me. His impish eyes and disturbingly long eyelashes boxed me in. “So this is the wine guy?” he asked with a remarkable growl that bounced between laughter and ridicule.
“I guess so.” I muttered. I was fairly certain I had failed some unknown litmus test. The school had been located in a coffee shop, but the owner had unceremoniously kicked us out they day before. Derek somehow heard and invited me to open up shop in the wine cellar at Kansas City Prime, one of his many restaurants in Manayunk. We talked for a while after that, but I left that room thinking I had just killed the Wine School of Philadelphia. Closing the door behind me, I walked out onto Main Street in Manayunk.
By the time I got home, I had an email from Derek on my computer. ”Happy to have you here at Kansas City Prime. Let my sommelier know if you need anything.” This was clearly a dude I couldn’t figure. One thing I did now from that very moment, was that Derek Davis had just saved my fledgling school. Little did I know, Derek Davis was going to be our fairy godmother for the next two years (yes, it’s a disturbing visual).
For ya’ll youngsters out there, Derek has been a major player in Philly’s restaurant scene since the eighties. He was the executive chef at 1701 Café in the Warwick Hotel, back when it was talked about in the same breath as Le Bec Fin. He set his eye on Manayunk, and stared opening restaurants at a breakneck pace. He launched first restaurant, Sonoma, in 1992. That was followed by Kansas City Prime, Arroyo Grill, Fish On Main, and finally Carmella’s. For much of a decade, Manayunk was the place to eat in Philadelphia.
He stopped by the Wine School of Philadelphia in February to get a tour of the spiffy new place and be a contestant in the Sommelier Smackdown. He kindly answered a few questions afterwards.
How did end up in the restaurant trade?
I started working at a place called “Hoagie City ” in 1974. i cut lettuce, tomato, onions and cold cuts for sandwiches. By the time i was 16 i had already worked there, a jewish Deli, a fountain making ice cream treats and a bagel bakery. I just LOVED it and set my goal on becoming a chef and owning my own restaurant. When asked when i became a chef my reply is “I was born a chef.”
Any favorite and/or funny anecdotes in your time as a restaurateur?
Wait for the book.
Any anecdotes from the era of the Wine School at Kansas City Prime?
When the wine School started at KCp it was because we were attempting to be THE wine destination for the region and what better way than to house a wine school? The Wine School had a pretty sweet deal. We lent them the use of the space and glassware at NO charge. The only thing i asked was that the busboy’s were taken care of and compensated for their work. Conventional wisdom is that a wine school is never a profitable business and a very tough way to make a living. Looking back on it i hope that by assisting in the schools start-up that it can continue to be a profitable venture and give many more years of entertainment and knowledge to the wine drinkers of the region.
Where do you think Philadelphia’s food scene is going?
I think philadelphia’s restaurant scene arrived many years ago. i hope that it will continue to grow in quality. Unfrotunately , there may be too many restaurants and i hope that older more established ones are not choked out by the growing number of competitors, because face it, Philadelphian’s are very fickle and have always jumped to the new place. Just like wine drinkers who are always trying new wines, see the pattern here? i wish the really talented young chefs would open complete restaurants and not BYOB’s.. Though i enjoy bringing my own wine sometimes, i think a BYOB is only half a restaurant and that top chefs should not waste their time and aspire to be really great restaurauteurs, too!
Any new culinary trends that you hate, or love?
I adore food of all types and kinds. Though i tend to gravitate one way i appreciate and respect everyone’s proclivities for self expression and ultimately nourishment of not only the belly but of the soul as well.
Anything else you want people to know about?
This is a journey, a lifetime if you will. i have totally dedicated my life to gastronomy and hospitality and only hope that i can continue to do so for as amny years more as i can. Remember, my business IS pleasure. i have one more [hopefully great!] restaurant left in me. I really do not know where yet, but when i find the palce and the time it will be totally “fuck you!” meaning i want it to be the ultimate expression of all I know and offer the best quality of all products. In its design i will incorporate the most modern and up to date furnishings, fixtures , and equipment. It will be a monument to me! Investors can call me anytime! LMFAO!