Chef Philip-George Davis Makes Endive Aux Jambon

Papillon Brasserie

Philip-George Davis

Endive Aux Jambon

What prompted you to start a restaurant?

I needed a creative outlet. I studied political science at West Chester University, but that wasn’t a great fit, and I played the guitar for ten years, and studied music, but wasn’t good enough to be a professional musician. I’ve always been interested in French food—my mother is French and a great cook—so to stretch myself I took a job as an apprentice at an Italian restaurant. I fell in love with the business, and by the age of 25, I was Executive Chef of the Valley Green Inn, in Fairmont Park. That’s very young, but I had already reached the point where I couldn’t work for anyone else. Meanwhile, there’s life. My daughter Zoe was born, and I sold my soul to support her, in sales and real estate. Eventually I went back in as a sous chef. A friend came into the restaurant one day and said, “I’ve never seen you so happy. I want to help you start your own restaurant.” She lit the fire. It took years—I had to get other investors lined up and get this place in shape—but that was the beginning. We opened Papillon in November 2009.

How did you learn to cook French food? Are you self-taught or did you have formal training?

Growing up, I spent summers with my grandparents in France. Every morning, I’d go with my grandmother to the market while she’d fuss about the vegetables and the fruit and the cuts of meat. That’s what those ladies used to do! And my mother cooked really well. Her ratatouille was one of my favorite things: she’d  make a big batch that she’d put in the refrigerator, and every day it got better. It’s not that my family taught me how to do things, but they gave me a rich appreciation for the whole world of food. I didn’t go to culinary school, but I wouldn’t say I’m self-taught, because you have to learn the basic methods—basic braising and roasting, knife skills, how to make stocks and sauces. I learned how to do those things from other chefs.

Do you have a favorite cookbook or favorite chef?

Marco Pierre White. He’s a very intense Brit—they call him the Godfather of modern cooking—who in the 1990s was the youngest chef ever to be awarded three Michelin stars. He trained Gordon Ramsey. Anyway, he got so famous that people were offering to set him up as the head of a whole empire of restaurants, but he didn’t want that. “If I’m not in the kitchen, it’s not my restaurant and not my stars.” He wanted to more spend time with his kids, so he closed the restaurant and returned the Michelin stars. I like that fierce integrity. I also like his approach: “Mother Nature is the artist,” says White. “I’m the technician.” If you don’t respect the ingredients, there’s no point.

What’s one ingredient you couldn’t live without?

Butter, probably. No—eggs. My chicken man came by with his delivery the other evening, and he had forgotten the eggs. It was a disaster. I already had orders in for dishes that required eggs, and I had only eight left in the building. No sauce béarnaise! No soufflés! I made it work, but not without some loud expressions!  The lack of eggs can incite a riot.

What is your favorite dish to make?

Not one particular dish. What I like is seasonal food, simply prepared—ingredients at the peak of freshness, in other words, and prepared in such a way that you get all the flavors. In May, for example, I love to make a panna cotta with fennel fronds and wild strawberries. You could make it in February, but the flavors would be fake. When I can, I get all my produce from Erica Lavdanski, at B&H Organics. That’s real farm-to-table cooking. In the winter, a nice dish of braised short ribs is just right, cooked for about eight hours.

What is your favorite thing to eat?

There’s nothing like a good plate of cheeses. I get most of my cheeses from an amazing little shop in Lancaster (Pennsylvania) called Mandros. I used to walk there when I was a kid. I don’t go out to eat very often because I’m working, but when I do I choose cuisines that I don’t cook myself, like Middle Eastern. It is important to know what other chefs are doing, though, so I do spend time at brasseries in New York City, checking out new flavors and ideas. I create a new menu every week, and you need fresh ideas.

What music do you listen to while working?

Eric Clapton, the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, LL Cool J, Miles Davis, Jay-Z, the Beatles. Pretty much anything as long as it’s loud. This is a chef’s restaurant, with an open kitchen, and the music I’m listening to is part of the experience for my customers. It’s part of the fun.

What is your most memorable evening at Papillon?

Our one-year anniversary dinner. That was a really special night. It was by invitation only, to our very best customers, and Zoe was the hostess. We have wonderful customers, and they come here to have a good time. Old, young, it doesn’t matter. Some folks come twice a week. That night, we had an amazing five-course menu and lots of good wine, and the customers sang Happy Birthday to Papillon at least three times. Zoe and I have been through a lot together, and that night was an affirmation that after all our hard work, we had made it. To be able to have her watch as I make my life’s dream a reality is an amazing lesson to give your child.

What makes Papillon special?

How it all comes together—exceptional food, simply prepared with fresh, local ingredients and served to the best customers in the world.


Submitted by Jane Palmer