by Sally Cohen and Len Lear
Just in time for the holidays, Mt. Airy’s popular Geechee Girl Rice Café, a BYOB at 6825 Germantown Ave., celebrates the publication of the “Geechee Girl 2013 Recipe Calendar,” featuring 12 eye-OK photos by Mt. Airy photographer Debbie Lerman and easy-to-follow recipes by Valerie Erwin, 58, chef and owner of Geechee Girl.
“I’ve been wanting to do a calendar for several years,” said Ms. Erwin, “to share our culinary vision with folks beyond just the meals they eat at our restaurant.” Some of the recipes are traditional dishes, and some are examples of the innovative Low Country cuisine for which Geechee Girl is so well known. All are simple to prepare.
Not the least bit worried that giving out recipes will tempt patrons to stay home, Ms. Erwin explained, “People come to the restaurant for the food, the atmosphere, the company — the whole experience. We’ll be very happy to know that they’re cooking our food for their families, and then coming here when they want us to cook it for them!”
In his glowing 2011 review, The Philadelphia Inquirer’s Craig LaBan called it “one of Philly’s most personal and unique BYOBs.” Several of the dishes featured in the 2013 recipe calendar were among LaBan’s favorites, including the crispy Hoppin’ John (black-eyed peas and rice), which he called “addictive” and the Low Country shrimp and grits, “a study in the satisfaction of simplicity.”
Calendars are available for purchase at the restaurant for $20 each. Named one of Philadelphia’s top five soul/southern restaurants by Zagat’s in 2012, Geechee Girl Rice Café opened in Philadelphia in 2003. The restaurant pays tribute to the Geechees, descendants of the enslaved Africans who live in the Low Country — the coast and islands off South Carolina and Georgia. Geechee Girl chef owner and Valerie Erwin, whose grandparents were from the Low Country, shares 12 of her favorite recipes in the illustrated 2013 calendar.
Valerie’s biggest admirer is probably Paul Roller, owner of Roller’s Flying Fish restaurant in Chestnut Hill, who is known as a virtual Attila the Hun in the kitchen but is a softie when it comes to Valerie, who worked for him from 1983 to 1988. In fact, Roller once offered to give Valerie a car if she would learn how to drive, but she turned down the offer. “She has the best cooking instincts of anyone who ever worked for me,” Roller said. “In addition to being a really nice person and incredibly hard worker, she has a special talent as a chef, and that was obvious from the very beginning.”
Valerie’s journey from a North Philly rowhouse to chef/restaurateur has been about as unorthodox as a heavy metal rock band at a funeral service. After graduating from Germantown High School in 1971, she went to Princeton University, where she was one of the Ivy League school’s miniscule number of African American students. She graduated in 1975 with a degree in political science. “Many of the students at Princeton came from very wealthy families,” said Valerie, “but I was able to make it through with a combination of loans and aid.”
From 1975 to 1979 Erwin had state and federal government jobs, but for a free spirit like her, the work was about as exciting as watching clothes wash in the spin cycle. So she left the world of 9-to-5 desk jobs to become a prep cook at The Commissary, a restaurant in the vanguard of the city’s Restaurant Renaissance in the 1970s. “I really thought the job would just be temporary while I got myself together and decided what I wanted to do as a career.”
But as the old saying goes, life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans, so Valerie wound up working for a succession of restaurants after The Commissary, among them La Terrasse near the Penn campus, Jamey’s in Manayunk and Striped Bass. Finally, after 23 years of toiling in other people’s kitchens, Valerie pulled the trigger and opened Geechee Girl in 2002 in a Germantown storefront that previously housed a Jamaican restaurant.
When a restaurant called Limpopo closed its doors in 2006 at 6825 Germantown Ave., however, Valerie jumped at the chance to move into a much larger location, but she still had mixed emotions about the move. “I liked walking to work at my place in Germantown because I lived so close,” she explained at the time. “I guess I was spoiled, so even though I’m just a mile away from my old location now, it’s a little too far to walk, especially when there’s really bad weather.” (Valerie has never learned to drive a car.)
For more information, visit www.GeecheeGirl.com or call 215-843-8113. Geechee Girl is open for dinner Wednesday through Sunday and for brunch on Sunday.