Just to the right as you go through the door of an old brick-and-mortar warehouse in the Northern Liberties section of Philadelphia--a little north and east of the action in center city--a thick, rough-hewn sign that says "The Commissary" is bolted to the wall. A quiet hum, like electric snoring, issues from the walk-in refrigerators in the nearby industrial kitchen, now suspended in stainless-steel sleep. The sign was carved by Steve Poses, C'69, and hung above the sidewalk outside the innovative and upscale cafeteria he started downtown in the mid 70s. With the Commissary and some half dozen other eating enterprises, he is credited with launching Philadelphia's restaurant renaissance, which lifted the city out of what one food critic named the "dark ages of dining."
Guided by Ignorance
Unencumbered by ethnic predilections, Poses was free to experiment with whatever flavor combinations seemed to taste good. "I could take this from here and that from there and come up with something that's 'fusion,'" he says. "That's what they call it now." A summer in Spain, France, and Italy awakened his palate to cuisines with more spark than American bland. Returning home, he subscribed to the Time-Life international cookbook series to inform his culinary experiments.
"I was really guided by ignorance and a certain sense of adventure and a reasonable palate to come up with flavors."
Just as he rejected standard American fare, Poses also didn't want a traditional doctor-or-lawyer career. After a brief Peace Corps stint, he took the first step toward becoming a restaurateur by accepting a position as busboy, parsley chopper, and pheasant plucker at La Panetiere, then Philadelphia's premier French restaurant. He kept Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking beside his bed like a bible and eventually found a place sauteing vegetables on the cooking line.
Working in the kitchen were a number of young men from Thailand who had fled the wars igniting across Southeast Asia. The exotic tastes of the staff dinners they prepared delighted Posesthe pickled vegetables, the lemon grass and fish sauce, the many-colored sweet and fiery curries. "Only in America and only at that time," he writes in his best selling Frog/Commissary Cookbook, "could a Jewish kid from Yonkers, having graduated from the University of Pennsylvania, be working and learning how to cook in a French restaurant alongside a substantial contingent of Thais."
an Asian culinary tradition to his Western repertoire supplied the critical
mass for an unheard-of fusion of multicultural ingredients, tastes, textures,
and cooking methods. At the age of 26, he opened Frög--with an umlaut
and an investment of $35,000. The storefront restaurant was hobbled together
with mismatched chairs and church pews, green marble slabs from a soda
fountain top he was paid to remove from a defunct drugstore, and a card-table
salad station whose leg had to be tied to a sturdier piece of
The experiment of mixing heretofore unmixed flavors that Poses began at Frog, captured the attention of Philadelphians and let loose a chain reaction of innovative eating establishments that cropped up all over the city. Many aspiring chefs who became part of the restaurant renaissance learned the trade by working for the man who fathered it. Paul Roller, C'74, who has set up three restaurants in Chestnut Hill, started out at the Commissary. Frog and the Commissary, he has commented, were "seminal to the food movement overall. It was a wonderful, experimental time."
More Steak and Sizzle
Philadelphia's restaurant resurgence has continued to cook but has left Poses behind. His dining empire eventually fell apart, and he now oversees Frog/Commissary Catering, which is housed in the Northern Liberties warehouse. The business serves 700 to 800 events a year, and employees number about 50 in the off season, ballooning to nearly 300 at the peak.
Starting in the mid-90s, he notes, big chains, such as the Four Seasons hotel, sparked a second renaissance, with investors spending lavishly to finance splendid decors, fabulous linens, gorgeous silverware, professionally trained chefs, and staff skilled in the intricate theater of presentation that now accompanies fine dining in the city. "I think the food is probably superior to anything we served in the first wave, and on top of that, they added a layer of sizzle. I think both the steak has changed and the sizzle has gotten a lot brighter."
Looking back at how the Frog started, and even at the level of elegance it eventually achieved, it's hard to imagine how local entrepreneurs could compete at this new level without substantial financial backing. The original restaurant renaissance was "a wonderful partnership between the economic times, the restaurateurs, and the dining public that is unlikely to occur again. For now I'm just going to run the [catering] business," says Poses, leaving the door ajar for some future adventure. "You're only as good as your last meal, so I try to make them as good as possible."