Monday, December 5, 2011

Davio's Executive Chef David Boyle

Davio’s Northern Italian Steakhouse, a refined restaurant residing in Center City, focuses on simple, regional Italian foods with an emphasis on the grill. The Philadelphia location joins other branches situated in Boston, Foxborough, and Atlanta. Located in the historic Provident Bank Building near Rittenhouse Square, the open space inside is elegant with tall arched windows, high ceilings, and beautiful wood floors. Yet there is still a warmth and intimacy that glows throughout the restaurant, making it the perfect spot for a birthday meal, special anniversary, or business dinner.

I had the pleasure of talking with charismatic Executive Chef David Boyle, captain of Davio’s well-oiled machine of a kitchen in Philadelphia. Born in this “City of Brotherly Love,” David grew up in a suburb of Anchorage, AK, before returning to his roots and enrolling in the Restaurant School of Philadelphia. After an enriching externship at the Four Seasons Hotel, he stayed with the team past graduation with a yearlong interlude at the Michelin Hotel Restaurant in Le Grande Monarque Hotel in Chartres, France. He eventually took his talents to Jake’s in Manayunk and worked his way up to Executive Chef in only eight months. After years of rave reviews (including complimentary words from Zagat and Philadelphia Inquirer food critic Craig LaBan) there, he brought his honed skills to Davio’s.

NW: How did you get your start in the food business?
DB: I first dabbled with the food world when I worked on a vegetable farm as a teenager. You’d wake up at 6 am, grab a burlap bag, and start picking in the field until sundown. Corn, tomatoes, you name it… I learned a lot during my time there from the people I worked with and the overall experience.

NW: Was it difficult transitioning between the different restaurants you’ve cooked at during your career?
DB: There was no real transition. Being trained classically, you learn how to use ingredients and apply basic techniques. I’ve had the opportunity to work in a variety of kitchens, whether it was strictly French or had a heavy Asian influence. You find over time that a steakhouse is much different from a normal fine dining establishment versus a tapas bar versus a BYOB. It’s really a continual education.

NW: What makes Davio’s different from other steak houses?
DB: We pride ourselves on quality. Sometimes the steak itself will be 50% of the end price, so excellence is certainly important to us. We take the finest ingredients and prepare them properly to create an exceptional final product. Our dishes don’t necessarily have to be complicated: they just need to be consistent, simple, and good.

NW: Speaking of something that’s good, you’re known for inventing the Philly Cheese Steak Spring Roll in 2003. How did it come to life?
DB: My wife is Vietnamese, so she definitely inspired the spring roll concept. We used to have a duck and vegetable spring roll at the Four Seasons, which was quite popular. Eventually, we thought, “Why not apply that to a Philly classic?” We use spring roll wrappers because they’re a little thinner and crispier than egg roll wrappers. The rolls are also complemented with a spicy house-made ketchup and Sriracha dipping sauces, which both add a dash of Asian influence. After we put the new spring rolls on the bar menu and heard rave reviews, we sent it up to Boston; before I knew it, the spring rolls were being sold in the freezer section at the local supermarket! Now there’s a range of flavors available, including Buffalo Chicken and Chicken Parma. The classic will always be the Cheese Steak version, though—that’s what people come for.

NW: What motivates you in the kitchen?
DB: There are two vital criteria that I constantly aspire to meet with the dishes we serve: one, I would feed it to my mother, and two, I would feed it to a blind person. If you can satisfy these and achieve phenomenal look, smell, and taste, you’re set. I’m also fortunate to have a loyal crew that wants to come to work. My career keeps me busy, but it makes me happy. I’m able to balance my family and work lives and am creatively challenged every day.

NW: Does that mean you have a lot of autonomy with the menu, even though there are multiple Davio’s branches?
DB: We do have the opportunity to feature our own dishes. This especially applies to plates that feature seasonal ingredients. If one of my sous chefs has something special up their sleeve, I’m happy to feature it on the menu that evening. Of course, we always have our classic dishes—these should be cooked the same way all the time. It shows our attention to detail and expresses our commitment to a consistent quality product.

NW: What’s one of the lessons you’ve learned during your career?
DB: You’re only as good as your staff and your dishwasher.

NW: What’s your favorite food memory?
DB: Wow, there’s a lot… one would have to be when I was in Cleveland, OH. It was very simple, extremely casual: we barbecued turkey legs and had pitchers of beer. I’ll never forget how juicy the turkey legs were. For me, it’s all about taking simple, perhaps mundane ingredients and making them fantastic.

NW: Do you have a food weakness?
DB: I’m happy with ramen soup—add some cilantro, some bean sprouts, make it spicy… I cook all day, so I want something that’s easy to make when I get home! That being said, I’m fortunate that my wife is an excellent cook!

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