by Barbara Sherf
What is an accomplished chef who has catered events for the White House and been a Food Network star doing running a tiny eatery that used to be Suzanne’s Deli in Wyndmoor?
Classically trained for more than a decade under Master Chef Jean Pierre Tardy, who was the executive chef of Le Bec-Fin for seven years, chef Barry E. Sexton, 52, also worked on creating signature dishes at Jean Pierre’s French restaurant in Newtown, Bucks County. In addition, in the 1990s he worked at Striped Bass, which was then one of the top fine dining restaurants in the city.
With over 30 years of experience in the culinary arts, Chef Sexton is now owner/operator of Barry’s Palate in Wyndmoor. He said he wanted to find a spot to call his own within 15 minutes of his Elkins Park home and had been looking for an opportunity to “wiggle his way into the community.”
So at an April, 2013, reunion of former employees at the old 21 West restaurant and The Depot, both in Chestnut Hill, Suzanne Leaming-Bagwell, owner of Suzanne’s Deli for 12 years, ran into Sexton. She had worked at The Depot, which was run by Richard Allman, who now runs the Joseph Ambler Inn. Allman’s mother, the late Mary P. Fretz, owned and operated 21 West, where chef Sexton had begun in the industry, starting as a dishwasher.
At the reunion, Bagwell, who had had some medical issues and wanted to get out of the restaurant industry, pitched Sexton on creating his own place there. “I wanted to keep that momentum going, even if I couldn’t run it,” she said. “Barry seemed like a good fit, and I’m thrilled that my regulars are still coming in. His food is amazing, and just look at the pictures on the walls.”
Gracing the walls are photos of Sexton and the Food Network’s Guy Fieri, best known for his “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives” program, and a separate photo of a much heavier Sexton with former First Lady Laura Bush, at a fundraiser cocktail reception he had catered at the White House.
How did he come into contact with these high-profile celebrities? “Through working in the industry for many years and setting up a catering company and developing a reputation and for being able to do other caterers a favor and getting favors in return,” said Sexton, who opened his own catering company, The Opinionated Palate, in 2005.
Sexton had a full four-year scholarship at the Art Institute of Philadelphia, but worked nights and weekends at 21 West from 1977 to 1984. He started at age 14 as a dishwasher and worked his way up to executive chef when he was just 21. Upon graduating from the Art Institute, he went to work for three years in a vegetarian restaurant in the Andorra Shopping Center that is no longer in existence.
“I really learned my spices and how to cook broth without meat. It was a great training ground,” he said. From there he learned grilling by working at Hamilton’s Grill Room in Lambertville, New Jersey, followed by a stint at Jean Pierre’s restaurant in Bucks County, where he worked on and off for 12 years. He also worked at Zanzibar Blue on the Avenue of the Arts and at the Round Hill Hotel and Villas resort in Jamaica.
He came back to Philly after his wife, a schoolteacher, became pregnant with their third child, and he opened his catering firm, The Opinionated Palate. His wife came up with the name. “I don’t talk politics,” he said. “I talk food, and when I talk food, I can get very opinionated about how to match fresh ingredients with creativity.”
Another caterer referred him to do an affair for the Canadian Embassy, and once he got a security clearance, other government work came through, including a cocktail reception fundraiser Laura Bush hosted at the White House. At the time Sexton weighed 100 pounds more than he does now. “I had a 44-inch belt, and I had to keep poking holes in it to make it bigger and bigger. I then started eating the right foods, and it’s been 13 months since I lost the 100 pounds, and I have kept my 32-inch belt size.”
While working as a food stylist for the Food Network, Sexton was asked to co-host four episodes of “Dinner Impossible” with Robert Irvine, and that is how he came to cater the Fieri event. These days, you can view his wall of fame Monday through Saturday while Barry cooks up breakfast, lunch, takeout dinners and his catering. “That was then, and this is now. I’m happy with where I’m at, cooking and catering,” said Sexton, who chats up customers as he cooks in the open kitchen.
“Gosh I hope he opens on Sundays,” a customer named Warren Miller told me. “My fiancée and I just bought a place within walking distance, and we are working on the kitchen, so he has been feeding us. Their food is great, but the breakfasts are amazing.”
Indeed, while my dining partner and I sat at an outside table this fall, repeat customer after customer placed their orders and chatted with Barry while he prepared their takeout lunches. While there is a counter with a handful of stools inside, takeout and catering has been the key to Barry’s early success since taking over this past August.
Dr. Charles Ashbach, who was a regular when Suzanne owned the deli, pulled up out front for his grilled ham and cheese on wheat toast. “The food is great, and he is warm and friendly,” said Dr. Ashbach. “I like supporting a local business, and I like his food, and it’s minutes from my office.”
Chris Tunnell of Wyndmoor stopped in to thank Sexton for the extra dinners he had dropped off at the American Legion Hall on a cold, rainy night. “He didn’t have to do that,” said Tunnell, “and get in his car and drive them down, but that’s how he is growing his business with great customer service and great food.”
Sexton chatted about his culinary experiences while cleaning up from the lunch rush and preparing for a cooking class that evening. During the class, participants learned the basics of cooking and were treated to a three-course meal that included a jumbo lump crab cake for $45. “It was great,” said Cindy Christaldi of Wyndmoor. “I learned so much about mixing different combinations of food and watching a pot form the right bubbles to know when a sauce is done.”
For more information on the catering, visit www.opinionatedpalate.com. For more information on the restaurant, call 215-233-8977 or stop in at 918 East Willow Grove Ave., Wyndmoor.
Barbara Sherf is a Flourtown “foodie” who enjoys cooking and takeout. You can reach her at CaptureLifeStories@gmail.com or 215-222-8022.