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Meet the Chef: Pat O'Donnell of The Urban Cafe

This week food writer Clara Park sat down with Chef Pat O'Donnell of the Urban Cafe in Philadelphia

Chef Pat O'Donnell of the Urban Cafe is a chatty and affable fellow who has spent nearly half his life in restaurants. He is passionate about food, local farms and soccer. While he hasn't spent too much time traveling abroad he can tell you exactly where to get some great food and beer locally. It was a fun time talking shop with a dyed in the wool chef like O'Donnell.

Name: John Patrick O'Donnell is his full name but everyone calls him Pat.

Age:  49

Hometown: Franklin Mills, PA

Home now: Germantown

Favorite Thing about the Community: I love the people, the architecture and the history of this area. There are row houses, big houses, properties in development--and that's just on Rochelle Avenue. The Battle of Germantown is a significant historical event but many people don't know about it. 

Do you do any community work? I would really like to do a Harvest Festival where produce from different farms would be prepared by different restaurants in the area. I've reached out with the Weaver's Way Coop and maybe we'll figure something out in the future. I also donate food to schools. There's this after school program called Food Cog or something that I worked with. It is a program that takes kids off the streets and teaches them how to do different more constructive things like make stained glass. Anyway, this kid needed to do about 40 hours of work at an internship of some sort so I took him in and taught him some stuff. After the 40 hours was up he was doing such a good job I hired him.

Years in the Industry: 25

Earliest Cooking Memory: Making cookies with my mom when I was a kid. I used to also take over my sister's Easy Bake Oven. As I was growing up we had this rule that if you cooked you didn't have to clean. Gradually I was cooking all the time so I didn't have to clean. My sister also started selling Good Housekeeping cookbooks to make some extra money and I started cooking from those recipes.

First Kitchen Job: I was a prep cook in the morning and helped the sous chef at lunch at Dickens Inn on Second Street in Philly. It was an English place that is no longer there.

What brought you to the industry? I had always cooked growing up but when I was about 18 I remember watching Three's Company and there was Jack Tripper (John Ritter) making pasta with Luigi and I thought to myself, "that's kind of cool". I was working at a supermarket and a friend of my sister's was married to a server at Dickens Inn and he got me the interview. You know the rest.

 Advice for Home Cooks: Most people don't have the [guts] to do anything. Go out and fail, try stuff, fix it, experiment. You'll eventually succeed and then you're successful.

 Favorite Thing to Cook: Catfish. A long time ago when I was first starting out in kitchens, no one was cooking catfish. Today it's the most popular fish in America. In nature, catfish are bottom feeders and eat all sorts of trash. Someone figured out a way to farm catfish in the cleanest water possible, there is a vaccum that absorbs all the waste--kind of like those pool cleaners that skulk along the bottom of the pool. There is no garbage, the fish are fed nutrient rich pellets and the result is the cleanest, purest, sweet tasting fish. 

 Favorite Menu Item: A while back my sous chef and I were going through a period of adjustment. I asked him to start coming up with his own ideas for dishes and after much trial and tribulation he came up with this idea for a spice-rubbed steak made with coffee grounds. It ended up being a dry blend of Sumatra coffee, cumin and chili powder and it's delicious. It was the first dish we ever collaborated on and I'm proud of that.

Healthiest Menu Item: Our catfish dish with fresh mandarin orange salsa.

Favorite Local Restaurant: London in Fairmount

Favorite Restaurant in the World: I had the most amazing meal with an ex-girlfriend in the Sheraton in Kauai, Hawaii. I had this macadamia crusted lamb chop with three different sauces: mango, papaya and pineapple. Then to top if all off, they brought out cigars after the meal was finished!

Guilty Pleasure (food or drink): Beer. I drink microbrews often. I like Victory and Troegs.

Last Meal on Earth: Lasagne or Thanksgiving dinner...

Cook for any celebrities? Arlen Specter and various local athletes

Favorite Food Shows? Diners, Drive-ins and Dives, the stories are so great and it's a way to see what other people doing in their kitchens all across the country. It's amazing to see what's being made. Gourmet food coming out of gas stations and what not.

Biggest Kitchen Disaster: It takes three whole days to make proper veal stock and we use it in most of our sauces. I asked the dishwasher to strain the veal stock and he came back with a bucket of dead veal bones and no actual stock. He had poured 20 quarts of stock down the drain and saved the bones when what I needed was the actual stock. It was also a Friday which marks the beginning of the weekend. I learned to always explain thoroughly and not assume people understand what I am asking for.

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