Feature

15 Secret Weapons Behind Philly's Top Restaurants

By Danya Henninger  |  March 16, 2015

Ask any chef or restaurateur and they’ll agree: every successful establishment has one. The person management can always count on, the one who knows how everything ticks, gladly fills in for coworkers and regularly gives more than 100%. Though the rest of us usually don’t know their name, this person is the restaurant’s secret weapon, and today we’re shining a spotlight in their direction. Read on to meet 15 unsung heroes of the Philly restaurant scene.

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  • Name: Nick Cammarota

    Title: Social media manager and assistant GM at Blue Duck Sandwich Co.

    Stats: Cammarota started training to be a server with zero restaurant experience, but it only took five days for co-owners Kris Serviss and Joe Callahan to promote him to assistant GM. In the six months the Northeast BYO has been open, Cammarota has also washed dishes, worked pastry, helped with the scheduling and reservations and eventually took over all social media duties.

    Secrets to success: “Lots of Rival Bros. coffee! But really, my main approach is to treat every day as its own entity. I love and embrace the fact that much of what a restaurant does relies on producing the same product over and over with extreme precision, but no two services ever feel the same.”

    Future plans: “Right now, I'm extremely happy with what I'm doing after a few years of being anything but. I was really fortunate to meet Kris and Joe and have them take a chance on me, and I know they have some big plans for the future — it would be an honor to be part of them.”

  • Name: Rosalino Fernandez

    Title: Butcher/lead prep cook at Amis

    Stats: Daily specials built around the rotating whole-animal “Beast of Amis” at this Vetri trattoria on 13th Street wouldn’t be possible without Fernandez — from veal to poultry to pork to fish, his knife is what turns the whole animals into great ingredients. Says Brad Spence, who has had him on staff since day one: “I bet he could cook every dish...he just doesn’t want anyone to know.”

    Secrets to success: “I don’t waste time. I get frustrated when orders come in late, because then I can’t keep to my timeline.”

    Future plans: “Happy where I am; no immediate plans to move onto something else.”

  • Name: Pedro Mendez

    Title: Line cook at Rex 1516

    Stats: Mendez has been at this South Street West kitchen since day one. Each week he turns out more than 100 burgers, each done to perfect temp, and is also the wizard behind the delicate crust on the crawfish pot pie. In addition to cooking, he’s counted on to fix appliances, translate Spanish and shoot promo photos (the three days a week he’s not behind the line, Mendez is a professional photographer).

    Secrets to success: “I love everyone here and like for things to work out. I like things fixed. Before anyone asks, it’s just done.”

    Future plans: In partnership with his wife, who is pastry chef at Bridget Foy’s, Mendez would like to own a coffee shop one day.

  • Name: Drew Chermack 

    Title: Server at Pub & Kitchen

    Stats: During his 50-55 hours a week at this laid-back Rittenhouse favorite, Chermack not only works the floor, but also is the one who arrives early to shovel the sidewalks, helps load in liquor deliveries and jumps on the dish line to help get it caught up. He’s been a cook as well as a barback, with time spent at The Diving Horse and Fitler Dining Room as well as P&K.

    Secrets to success: “I like hard work, so I never say no to anything that’s put in front of me. In the kitchen you get to immerse yourself in the work, but I also enjoy the face-to-face of front-of-the-house jobs.”

    Future plans: “I’ve been in the food biz since I started cooking at Sly Fox in Phoenixville when I was 15 or 16, and I definitely plan to make a career in this industry. Right now my only definite plan is to spend next summer at The Diving Horse again.”

  • Name: Tori McNally

    Title: Bartender at Zahav

    Stats: McNally has worked at this acclaimed CookNSolo Israeli spot for more than five years, and though her usual position is behind the bar, she’s the one management relies on to fill in any front-of-house need, from food running to hosting to working special events. 

    Secrets to success: “I just stick to simple morals you grow up with. For instance, be honest — if you mess up, don’t try to hide it. You can’t learn from mistakes if you don’t admit to them. I also try to make eye contact and say hi to everyone I encounter, from guests to dishwasher to line cooks.”

    Future plans: “I’m happy doing what I do.”

  • Name: Michael Jefferson

    Title: Commissary kitchen manager at Tria

    Stats: With three locations and a fourth on the way, Michael McCaulley and Jon Myerow’s wine-cheese-beer concepts depend on the centralized efforts put in by Jefferson. Although he also works nights at UPS, he gives Tria up to 60 hours a week, doing everything from cooking to kitchen prep to paperwork to moving supplies around.

    Secrets to success: “I run off an hour-and-a-half of sleep most days, but I keep a positive outlook; I try to find the positive in any situation. Everything I do is for my daughters, who are 13 and 17 and both honor-roll students.”

    Future plans: “I have always loved cooking, and I love Tria — they’re the ones who gave me my start in the culinary world. I would love to maybe run my own Tria one day.”

  • Name: Jorge Hernandez

    Title: Lead line cook at Osteria

    Stats: Chef-partner Jeff Michaud calls Hernandez “the chef de partie of every station” because he can (and does) create just about anything on the menu at the North Broad Italian, where he has worked for seven years and spends upwards of 60 hours each week.

    Secrets to success: “I enjoy my job and love learning. I take the time to make everything exactly as the chefs show me.”

    Future plans: “I would eventually like to open a combination pizzeria/taqueria.”

  • Name: Brett Wanyo 

    Title: Sausage maker at Brauhaus Schmitz

    Stats: To supply all the housemade brats and wursts at this South Street German beer hall, chef Jeremy Nolen relies on Wanyo, who worked his way up from lunch cook to become the go-to sausage and charcuterie guy. Wanyo also fills in for cooks when they’re sick and accompanies the chef to events in NYC.

    Secrets to success: “I have a good, strong work ethic, can take criticism with a grain of salt. I always strive for consistency in everything I do, and willing to go above and be on the call of duty.”

    Future plans: “Right now I'm happy with what I'm doing. I don't know what my future holds for me; for now I will keep my feet planted, and wait to see what's over the horizon.”

  • Name: Julian Hernandez

    Title: Barback at The Fat Ham

    Stats: After three years bussing tables at the original at Broad and Pine, Hernandez now splits his 40-50 hours a week between all three Kevin Sbraga establishments. He’s the essential second man behind the busy weekend bar at The Fat Ham and has mastered the art of tableside Caesar salads at Juniper Commons. If the restaurant group needs a hand, Hernandez is where they turn.

    Secrets to success: “I focus on one job at a time. I don't think about any other job when I'm at the restaurant. I am working.”

    Future plans: “I’m always looking for new opportunities — I like this business. [Right now,] talking to the guests is my favorite thing to do because I can practice my English and make the guest happy.”

  • Name: Matt Money

    Title: Bartender/server at La Peg

    Stats: Chef-owner Peter Woolsey knows that whatever needs to be done at his bi-level brasserie, he can count on Money to do it, especially filling in for empty shifts — Money lives on a sailboat docked right across Columbus Boulevard from the FringeArts building.

    Secrets to success: “Don’t let any job be beneath you. If you need to scrub a toilet, scrub a toilet. If you need to carry a table, carry a table. Just help everyone you work with, and everyone will be happy.”

    Future plans: “I work 35-55 hours a week so I can finish fixing up my boat and sail down to Florida next winter. I’ll come back and work at La Peg in the summertime.”

  • Name: Avelardo Morales

    Title: Line cook at Oyster House

    Stats: Morales spends close to 50 hours a week at this Center City seafood house, where he is indispensable behind the line, butchering fish and making sauces. He’s just as useful in the dining room, where he installs light fixtures, paints and has even laid concrete.

    Secrets to success: “I figure out solutions by thinking and working with my teammates rather than seeking the answer on the Internet.”

    Future plans: “Very happy right where I am now.”

  • Name: Colwin Bocasin

    Title: Food runner at Pennsylvania 6

    Stats: In addition to helping expedite at the pass and running food to guests at this contemporary American lounge in Wash West, Bocasin fills in for servers, has jumped behind the stick as a barback and is learning to shuck oysters to help staff the busy raw bar.

    Secrets to success: “Pay attention to everything. Things move quickly in restaurants and knowing what’s going on always expedites solving problems when they arise. My goal every shift is to set everyone up for success and be that positive energy that makes a busy night just a little easier.”

    Future plans: “Right now I’m building experience at two jobs. At Penn 6, I get to see menu construction, catering and all aspects of service. At my other job I work with local food producers creating products from scratch. I hope to start my own business one day, using everything I’ve learned.”

  • Name: Kelli Britton

    Title: Server at London Grill

    Stats: With 15 years experience at this neighborhood tavern in Fairmount, Britton is the server who works the busiest shifts, runs the outdoor cafe, is manager on duty, works most banquets and does the schedule when her bosses need help.

    Secrets to success: “Sincerity, integrity and generosity. I try to make everyone who walks through the front door feel like a family member.”

    Future plans: “I like being in the biz, always have. I am not waiting for something better to come along — I’ve already earned three degrees while working here. I also run a monthly vintage flea market that benefits a cat charity, and I write.”

  • Name: Isaiah Ross

    Title: Porter/prep cook/dishwasher at JG Domestic

    Stats: Ross is officially a dishwasher, but the 50 hours or so he spends at the Jose Garces spot each week are spent helping organize rentals for catering events and helping prep every aspect of the nighttime menu. He also types up checklists that he then fills out at the end of every shift, evaluating his own performance.

    Secrets to success: “Adapt and change! Have the mindset that things can always change, and change fast. I do what I do by keeping an open mind, and familiarizing myself with every detail about what’s going on.”

    Future plans: “I’d like to become a sous-chef or go into front-of-the-house management, so that I can someday open a restaurant of my own.”

  • Name: Andy Swan

    Title: Barback at American Sardine Bar

    Stats: At John Longacre’s Point Breeze tavern, the majority of the dining room is taken up by the impressive bar, and Swan is the person the bartenders count on to keep it humming smoothly, at least during his 60 hours or so at the bar each week.

    Secrets to success: “Alcohol?” 

    Future plans: “I hope to have a full-time job as a recording engineer.”