Daniel Stern is the self-taught, Gray Kunz/Daniel Boulud/Jean-Georges Vongerichten–trained chef and owner of Philadelphia’s R2L. He has a penchant for antelope meat, subtle yet classically delivered cheese-cutting jokes and Mario Lopez. He doesn’t seem like your typical fine dining chef when you meet him. We chatted with him about being a not-so-haute guy in an haute cuisine world.
Did you always picture yourself running a restaurant like R2L?
I don’t think a fancy restaurant also has to be exclusive or unapproachable. I’m not really a fancy person. How I grew up in this business, the people I learned from, they taught me that a restaurant should have a certain personality. And this one is grown-up. It’s not a concept or a theme. It’s a place where people can come eat and drink. They can get engaged, celebrate an anniversary, have a business dinner. Just because it’s a place for grown-ups, doesn’t mean you won’t have fun.
How do you describe your approach to food?
Honestly, I’m a cook – an American cook. I grew up here, outside of Philly. I learned my craft the best I could, working in kitchens in New York, D.C. and California. I had some serious European influence. But I believe that we have our own cuisine here, regional and otherwise. So for me, it’s about cooking what you feel and sometimes taking a risk for your guests, so they can try something a little different… I think antelope is going to come in on my next round of menu changes.
Your restaurant is on the 37th floor. It’s rare for a restaurant to be known both for the food and the view.
Some people will trade the view for the food. A restaurant on the 37th floor wasn’t something I had planned. I was approached by the developers and when I saw the space, it seemed like another challenge. Then, you get that feeling, like, “I could really work with this.” And I did. I worked very hard on the personality of the restaurant and the design, from the fabrics to the bar to how the furniture was arranged to the sculpture.
You had a more casual place before this, with live music.
I opened a place called MidAtlantic in West Philly a little less than a year before this place opened. To me, they were two sides of the same coin. One was more casual, but was based on the same principle of what I grew up with. We had a dish called scrapple that was fantastic. I kind of miss it. I’m going to find a home for it here. Scrapple is a Philadelphia staple. It is very rustic, very homey.
Do you miss having a place where bands can perform?
I used to run up to the stage after service was over on Friday nights and try to sing with the band. It was fun. I think I did it more so the guys I work with could get a kick out of it than anything else. I had one or two staples that I could pull off with the band.
What do you listen to in the kitchen?
I am a classic rock/alternative kind of guy. Like the Clash, the Who, the Rolling Stones. Sort of the usual growing-up-in-the-’80s kind of music.
What are three foods that are always in your kitchen at home?
Pickles, mustard and cheese. There’s always a ton of shit in my refrigerator, but those are always there.
Is there a celebrity people say you look like?
When I was younger, for some reason — and I’m not saying I agree with this — but people would tell me I looked like Mel Gibson. But recently, I was driving home and I had my window open and the guy next to me rolled down his window and he yelled to his buddy, “Hey, look, it’s Jonah Hill.” Guess I’m not aging so well.
Celebrities are always being sighted at R2L. Anyone stand out for you?
We get a lot of local celebrities. We’ve also had Barbara Streisand, Jamie Foxx, Bradley Cooper, Harrison Ford, Gary Oldman, Miley Cyrus and her fiancé, whatever his name is. We’ve had a lot of athletes, a lot of Eagles. Tony La Russa was here last year during the playoffs. The best for me, though, was Mario Lopez from Saved By The Bell.
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