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."
In May of 2013, Aimee opened Talula’s Daily in Philadelphia in the art deco-inspired Ayer Condominium building, where Talula’s Garden is also housed. Talula’s Daily borrows queues from Aimee’s market-by-day, Talula’s Table: the space features an open kitchen, coffee bar, grab-and-go as well as prepared food options, while also highlighting local/regional products and provisions. There is a wide-selection of freshly baked goods, charcuterie and cheese too. When the market closes, the restaurant opens. A seasonal, monthly rotating, family-style supper menu is offered, bringing a new style of eating to Philadelphia, reminiscent of Thomas Keller’s Ad Hoc.
Executive Chef, Talula’s Garden
A Phoenix native who originally enrolled in college with a mind to study economics, Jeremy McMillan didn’t set out with a culinary career in mind. It was only after he transferred to a school in Washington, which led to a side job at a private club in Seattle, that the fit clicked. "I decided, while peeling potatoes, that this is what I want to do," he says.
Returning to Arizona after completing his schooling, McMillan found work at Scottdale’s highly regarded Zinc Bistro, progressing from commis to chef de cuisine over a period of nearly six years. With a solid cooking foundation set, McMillan made the move to Northern California to join the team at the chef Richard Reddington’s Redd. Executing contemporary cuisine with intelligent Italian, French and Asian influences, McMillan built lasting relationships with local farmers, growers and artisans — an aspect of the profession he still holds in extremely high regard.
In early 2008, McMillan headed to East Coast to take a chef de cuisine position at Bedford, New York’s Bedford Post, presenting elevated American food crafted with carefully sourced ingredients. After a year and a half, he left Westchester County for the big city, working under Food & Wine Best New Chef Missy Robbins at two NYC locations of the Michelin-starred A Voce. As sous chef, then chef de cuisine, he picked up a strong understanding of regional Italian cooking, as well as the creative drive required to craft ever-changing seasonal menus.
McMillan returned to The Bedford Post in 2010, accepting his very first executive chef position. In full control of culinary direction, he reimagined the approach of the farmhouse concept, earning attention from Today, the Cooking Channel and The New York Times, which awarded the restaurant an "Excellent" rating. Esquire food critic John Mariani also named McMillan a 2014 "chef to watch," praising his "outstanding" cooking and command of big flavors.
Fully immersed in the farming culture of Pennsylvania, McMillan has made connecting with local farmers and artisanal producers a top priority at Talula’s Garden. While he’s heavily influenced by the region, he also pursues the delicate balance of progress and restraint that defines a fully realized dish. "I’m driven by the products around me," says McMillan. "But one thing I’ve learned is that the most important ingredient is often the one you leave out — not the one you put in."