Owner, Talula's Garden
One of the most recognized personalities in Philadelphia dining, Aimee Olexy truly understands what hospitality means. Talula's Garden, her inspired Washington Square collaboration with Stephen Starr, counts as more than just a restaurant opening - it also marks a return to the city for the worldly front-of-house veteran, blessed with the ability to send the "fine-dining elite into effusions of breathless adjectives," according to Philadelphia magazine.
Olexy grew up in West Chester, Pa., and her early food memories remain vivid as ever. "My parents were pretty hippie," she laughs. "Guitars and gardens and tie-dyes. We ate simply and naturally, picked blueberries and squash and hid in forsythia bushes for fun." As a teenager in the late '80s, she landed her very first restaurant job at Conshohocken's Spring Mill Café, in a jill-of-all- trades role that saw her waiting tables, sweeping floors and even doing a little cooking. It was here that Olexy first uncovered her love of making people happy as well as her fascination with cheese, one of many areas of expertise on display at Talula's Garden. "I loved pronouncing them and sniffing them and making the cheese plates, even then," she recalls.
The early '90s saw Olexy earning her English Lit degree from St. Joseph's University (she's still a grade-A bookworm), overseeing a number of area restaurants before relocating to Colorado, managing Q's Restaurant in Boulder and Panzano in downtown Denver, among other stops. Next up was an educational journey in France, where Olexy attended l'Universitie du Vin in the Vacluse, forming the groundwork of her wine expertise and further fostering her love affair with fromage. "I can remember every cheese and where and how they were made," she says. "With food, I can remember everything."
Olexy headed back to Philly in 1999, handling operations at Victory Brewing Company and at the Swann at the Four Seasons before embarking on her first stint with Starr, as GM of his Center City bistro Blue Angel. Olexy excelled so much here that she was promoted to Director of Restaurants, handling operations at Continental, Buddakan and Tangerine and opening Pod in 2000.
The year 2001 marked Olexy's true arrival onto the Philadelphia restaurant scene - that March, she and ex-husband Bryan Sikora debuted Django, the Society Hill restaurant that's still, to this day, the only BYOB eatery ever to earn a four-bell rating from Philadelphia Inquirer critic Craig LaBan, who wrote that Django "manages to communicate - without the usual public-relations pyrotechnics - the heart and polish that make a restaurant great."
"I knew Django was special immediately," Olexy says of the tiny 38- seat restaurant, where she was a constant front-of-house presence. She still remembers her first customer. "He was telling me how much he loved cheese, and I felt the glimmer of hope," the restaurateur recalls. "And he said he loved fish soup. I said, 'Come tomorrow.' He did, and we had it ready for him."
In 2005, to the shock of some, Olexy and Sikora decided to sell Django at the height of its popularity and relocate to Pennsylvania's bucolic Chester County, where in 2007 they opened Talula's Table. The Talula part is in honor of their daughter, Annalee Talula Rae. The "Table" part, meanwhile, refers to the gourmet-market-by- day's nightly 12-person BYOB tastings, so incredibly coveted that reservations have to be made a full calendar year in advance. Portfolio.com dubbed it "The Toughest Table in America." The New York Times praised the "handsome, deceptively complex and masterfully executed" food, likening the experience to a "spiritual retreat." The experience earned a spot on the 2010 "Saveur 100" list, which informed us that "the magic has to do with more than just the menu - it's the sense of community."
Talula's Garden, which Olexy opened in partnership with Starr in April 2011, aims to capture identical sentiments, albeit on an ambitious downtown scale. ZIP code notwithstanding, Olexy's energy can be felt throughout - from the cozy-chic décor and vibrant outdoor planter boxes to the elaborate pink-granite cheese bar inside, the restaurant is distinctly hers, no matter where you're sitting. And don't be surprised if you catch the consummate "Maítre Fromager" tableside, rhapsodizing about her newest blues to groups of enchanted diners. I work a lot and I love it," says Olexy. "My work is who I am - and that is the only way I know to live."
Executive Chef, Talula's Garden
Born in Philadelphia and raised between South Philly and South Jersey, Sean McPaul is quick to describe himself as "a city kid," but simply eat his food and you'll know he'd feel right at home in the fields. His top-notch training, sincere respect for local ingredients and ability to maximize the beauty of the season on the plate help him excel as executive chef of Stephen Starr and Aimee Olexy's Talula's Garden.
McPaul started his career early, working at a mom-and-pop restaurant in high school and catering events and parties at area campsites on weekends. "It was a strange way to learn, but it really made cooking fun," says McPaul. "That's when I fell in love with it." A year of college helped McPaul realize that the traditional academic path was not for him, so he left school and landed a job at Starr's Buddakan at the age of 20, prepping during the day and running food at night under chefs Scott Swiderski and Todd Fuller. He moved on to work for Fuller and current Il Pittore chef/owner Chris Painter at Tangerine, another award-winning Starr restaurant. McPaul eventually relocated to New York to attend the Culinary Institute of America, graduating in 2004. After his schooling was complete, he returned to Philly and logged three more years of invaluable experience under Fuller at Tangerine.
In 2006, McPaul headed for the culinary mecca of San Francisco, starting his West Coast tutelage at Farallon in the city's Union Square neighborhood. McPaul lived "starving artist style" early on, driven by his desire to absorb as much knowledge as possible and hungry for opportunities to shine behind the line. In 2007 he landed at Bacar, working his way up to the chef de cuisine position under Robbie Lewis, a James Beard winner, and Morgan Mueller. Here, McPaul truly began understanding the nuances of what he calls "the California way," rising early in the morning and hitting the city's best farmers' markets to load up on the fresh produce that would shape that night's menu. "We let the market dictate what kind of food we were going to cook," says McPaul. "Even now, I have to be at the market, hand-picking everything."
In 2009, after a stint opening the popular Quince in Jackson Square, McPaul backed Mueller in his new position as executive chef of Traci Des Jardins' lauded Jardinière. As sous chef, McPaul handled everything from menu development to hiring, but his relationships with the region's producers made the most lasting impact. "My time out there left me with a profound respect for food," says the chef. "You have no idea how much love and care farmers and ranchers put into it. Chefs are the last link - we need to complete the cycle."
McPaul landed back in Starr's orbit immediately after returning to Philadelphia. Recognizing all of the same passions and philosophies he latched onto in California in Olexy's plans for Talula's Garden, he opened the restaurant as chef de cuisine in April 2011 and was promoted to the top position just five months later. The city kid is back in his city - but the farm is never far from his mind. "Tomatoes don't pick themselves," he says. "Potatoes don't dig themselves out of the ground. Farmers do that with the same love that we as chefs have when we cook the food. It's important to keep that in mind."