Aimee Olexy reigns when it comes to Philadelphia dining. Talula’s Table, her gourmet market by day, twelve-person tasting venue by night, has been wowing diners from all over (many who migrate many miles for the meal). Her concept with Stephen Starr, Talula’s Garden, opened in 2011, and is an extension of Olexy herself. We’re fans of restaurateurs creating highly unique experiences in cities around America, which is why we love Olexy so much.We hung out with her at Eataly during her last trip to New York, when she was visiting to discuss a possible collaboration with the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. Seems Olexy is in demand in every city, not just Philadelphia.
The New Potato: From start to finish, what would be your ideal food day?
Aimee Olexy: "Probably my ideal food day would be cooking in my home. When you work and own restaurants, and travel for food for a living, you crave your own cooking. I live in a region that’s ridiculous with ingredients. I have a couple of chickens, so the first thing I’d do is probably grab some eggs and cook a little something cute with my daughter, and basically spend the rest of the day in my region seeking out ingredients for my dinner. The whole day would be centered around shopping for food, and cooking for that night. I live in an area that has a ton of mushroom houses, so I’d probably go to one of them and do a little foraging. We’re also getting into the time of the year where the hillside across from my house is filled with ramps, so we can forage ramps, wild purslanes, wild dandelions, tons of stuff. Then I’d spend the rest of the time visiting some of the people that raise pastured lamb and pastured beef.
"Home drinking and home cooking is pretty nice. You don’t need to drive anywhere. I travel a lot already! I run around often visiting wineries and farms and stuff like that, so if I were to dedicate a day to good food, I’d probably get the most in at home. That would be my ideal food day, and then that night I’d eat my way into a late dinner. I am pretty indulgent so late night I’d probably want chocolate, wine, and cheese!"
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TNP: Is Talula’s Table farm-to-table? Are you getting new stuff in every single day?
"Definitely. It’s open everyday, seven days a week from seven to seven. So it’s like the general store of our region, but modern, with modern provisions. Shelves are lined with a lot of products we make — a lot of our seasonal products — and then, each day it’s really small batch cooking. We make scones, a green bean salad, a batch of an egg salad, just one after the other. Making something in a batch for us is literally making a platter. We put out a platter of food, people come and buy it, and it’s gone."
"It’s this huge in and out process. We joke about it a lot. We don’t have a freezer. We have a little tiny thing that we do ice creams in for dinner, but I mean no freezers. We really receive a lot of batches of stuff; we have a farm down the street called Bailey’s where we get all of our dairy from. It’s very rare to have a big local shop that uses pure dairy. I’ll see a lot of places where they’ll retail or use nice eggs, but in our coffee shop, we’ll foam every milk as Bailey’s milk — it’s fresh milk that’s coming right from a cow a mile away. The things that are integral to cooking — like dairy — we get everyday. Certainly tons of vegetables for sure, and we deal with a lot of proteins that are local and/or from a particular province. We use fishmongers to bring in porgie, and we also make a lot of natural whole foods. We do a lot of grains and beans and things like that. A lot of foods that, for me are really simple, but I feel like you can’t get anywhere. I push wholesome eating.
Every night, we serve the private dinner. That’s a secret supper that happens at the farm table for a group of twelve, and in the kitchen for a group of eight. That menu changes every month, and there are ten courses. Each course showcases the season. Some are really hyper seasonal too. What I think is interesting about Talula’s Table and Talula’s Garden is — and people say it to me — there is a real sense of place."
TNP: And how did that play into the Talula’s Garden expansion? Was that to make your food more accessible to more people (since tables needed to be scheduled very far in advance)?
"I have been in food for my whole life, so I love to foster people in the culinary world — and also in the regular world — just in helping them eat, in learning how to bring food in a healthy way into their lifestyle, and in being more knowledgeable of food. It’s kind of all I think about, so it comes naturally to me. I’ve had a lot of staff over the years. Mostly everybody that works there has worked there for about six years now, and it’s really like their culture. So, I had a lot of high-end culinary young men and women that were ready to move onto something else, and start developing something that took a little bit of their ingenuity as well. I wanted to build forums for that. I had been in Philadelphia a lot when I was younger, so I had a lot of clientele from Philadelphia that were constantly like, 'Open a place in Philly!' They truly feel like there’s nowhere to eat. We do pure food. People talk about having three ingredients on a plate, and we do dishes where it’s just tomatoes and a bit of vinegar. I spend a lot of my time getting the right ingredients to get to my table, to take care of it well, to season it well, and to serve it well. It’s really pure food and there really aren’t too many places that do it. Even the kind of places that say they do it, you kind of still walk away like, 'God, that had a lot of garlic or onion in it…' It’s a flavor profile that not a lot of people are comfortable doing."
"Yes I do, from visiting other cities. Not too long ago I was in Atlanta, and it was interesting because I felt that Atlanta was so much more progressive than Philly. And you wouldn’t think that typically, but it was very progressive. You felt a culture behind the food — the farms, the people, their history — a little bit more than you do in Philly. It’s the urban nature of Philly, you know?"
TNP: How is Talula’s Daily different from Talula’s Table?
"Talula’s Daily is interesting because it’s modeled a little after Talula’s Table, of course. It’s definitely a market and bakery by day; you walk in and coffee is abound. Cheese is abound. Cheese is my love, so the cheese scene is rich. By night we’ll be doing a secret supper there in a family style. Talula’s Table is high-end in the sense that the courses showcase a ton of labor, fabrication, and work. Talula’s Daily will be a supper that’s very family style, very pure to ingredient, and very pure to some kind of simple cooking. As a restaurant experience, we’ll serve one meal a night and it will be a simple experience with very premium, curated ingredients, in this market vibe. Talula’s Table changed people’s opinion about eating and really reinvented the dinner party feel. It’s an intimate experience. There’s not a lot of manicuring of food and fabricating of food. It’s very alive on the plate. It’s the same dinner you’d cook for yourself at home if you were an excellent home cook."
TNP: Farm-to-table is such a buzzword now, so what would you say is different about what you’re doing?
"A lot of my mission is learning a region. I’m an expert on our region [Philadelphia]. I know the farms, the cheeses, the producers, and even the wineries. Knowing your region, being able to know what’s healthy and to incorporate it into your eating year round, is really important to me. I do it, and I help a lot of people in other restaurants do it. Not to kind of jump on and jump off, but to continue to foster the growing scene and the farming scene all year round. That means changing your eating habits a little bit. If you can indulge in anything you want at any time, it’s hard to remember the seasons of the year and to be in touch with them. I’m able to do it year round, which means using stuff from all over the world, and reinforcing quality with good ingredients. Truth in menu is important too. I think a lot of times, as the customer, you hear of places doing certain things, and I’m not sure if they actually are. I was getting on a train this morning and I was walking by this shitty coffee shop, but their sign was ‘Morning Fresh Egg Sandwiches.’ And I was thinking, when I think of morning-fresh egg sandwiches, I can smell bird poo. I have a completely different view than what they are thinking. It exists out there, and many people are doing it, but [I've] continued for years and years to be the genuine person doing it and have taught others to do it. For me, it’s a lifestyle. In our clientele, there are lots of destination diners and repeat people. They tell us, you’re our habit; you’re our need. We go to you as a resource; we look at your menus to remember what we should cook for ourselves. Farm-to-table is just a lifestyle for me. When I hear that it’s growing and growing, I’m like, ‘Great!’ because it’s really good for the farming community."
TNP: What’s it like working with Stephen Starr? How did that relationship start?
"I was the General Manager for him at a great restaurant called Blue Angel that started about fifteen years ago. It was a French bistro — kind of like Balthazar. It was successful and beyond successful on the service side of it, meaning the genuine personal clientele that we developed. Stephen has really good systems to keep a really good staff and keep the scene alive. I did Blue Angel and we had a good relationship then — and in the food world we see each other all of the time. When Talula’s Garden came to mind for me, he really wanted to do it; he was really supportive of it. He felt like he really needed it in his own diet too; he wanted those influences."
"My role is kind of interesting and cool because I’m a great cook and I love to cook, but I never like saying I’m a chef, you know? I’m the restaurateur and the editor of what all these culinary girls and guys who work under me do. I’m the editor of the dining room, of how it’s perceived, and of how we service our guests. So it’s still kind of old school. I feel like with Talula’s, the guests see it as a bonus. They actually get this person who is this brand editor, making sure it’s quality the whole way through. I’m basically the customer’s advocate. I eat dinner here all the time; I’m the eater. I also happen to cook, and serve the wine and cheese. I think it’s very hard as the culinary person to edit your own food and your own menu. When you’re living inside the kitchen, it can get foggy. The people I work with enjoy having the constant inspiration. I’m the person that wants to spend money and try new things. It kind of keeps life going in there. It’s an extra layer. In some European restaurants, that layer exists, but in American restaurants it exists less because we want chef or mogul driven restaurants. But I’m more of a dining room host."
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TNP: I was just interviewing someone in the fashion industry, and he was saying that he doesn’t like going to restaurants when it’s just about the chef, because the chef doesn’t always care about you [the diner]. So, you’re the customer’s advocate, and it’s a good layered system because some restaurants tend to skip that step…
"Definitely. And food for me is a culture; it’s this whole synergy. I grew up in the country, so it’s kind of holistic for me. I think of eating all of the time as an experience of sharing and giving. You’re doing something very personal together. Some of that layer has been removed from the restaurant experience. I spend a lot of time in the dining room with the servers, reminding them to foster that layer. That’s what people pay for. That’s really what the whole experience is about. If it was just about eating then it wouldn’t cost so much. I’m still in that very old school realm of, we owe it to our guests to create that layer of magic for them. You can’t pay for it; you can’t define it. It’s individual interactions, you know? It’s believing in the genuine, and caring about the ingredients because you did go to the farm."
TNP: If you could invite any five people, living or dead, to Talula’s Table, who would you invite?
"I would definitely love Alice Waters to be there, for sure. I’ve been on Martha Stewart’s show a lot, but she hasn’t been there; I’d like her to come in. She’s pretty awesome. I really love Joni Mitchell. I think I’m making a table of women! Let me add two cool guys. I’d love someone like Mario Batali to come in; I think that would be neat. And then I’d throw in someone like Gregg Allman [of The Allman Brothers Band] or Bob Dylan. I could see Dylan and Martha Stewart getting off a little. And I love Bruce Springsteen; he’s a great regional guy."