by Lou Mancinelli
A chef is a journeyman. So says chef Ken Roberts. Since 2005, Roberts has served up fresh, healthy, down-home Alabama and Carolina-inspired soul food cooking without the guts, grease and fatty oil at Chef Ken’s Café, 7135 Germantown Ave. in Mt. Airy.
If the minds behind M&M candies had not already cornered the “melt in your mouth” marketing motto, chef Ken could apply the phrase to his roasted chicken, yams, collard greens, jambalaya, macaroni and cheese, ribs, fish, wings, corn muffins, cobblers and more, and he’d be right on target. Dishes are cooked in canola and olive oil, and cooked throughout the day as needed. And it is all available through catering for parties and other events as well.
In recognition of Chef Ken’s Café’s sixth anniversary this past April, Roberts lowered the price of one of his bet-you-cannot-finish-it-yourself meals, which includes a choice of roasted or barbeque chicken, blackened tilapia or fried whiting plus two sides, from $12.95 to $10. He says the reduced prices have spurred almost a 150 percent increase in business.
At Chef Ken’s the food sings in your mouth. It is as if each ingredient of Roberts’ background: the history of the old south, the experience of his father, known as “New Jersey’s Favorite Latin Son,” a Latin musician who has played with the mythic Tito Puente, and his master chef grandfather who spoke seven languages and traveled the world cooking on cruise ships, come together in a harmonious food melody for your hearty palette. When you add to that the cooking prowess and style of his family’s diversity — an Italian mother, Cuban father and two African-American grandmothers — the final score is a delicious traditional meal good for the soul and good for the body, and rooted in the melting-pot of American culture.
“You never knew what was gonna be cooking at home,” said Roberts, who was raised in Montclair, New Jersey. “One night it was black beans and rice and tortillas, and the next it was manicotti … Our grandparents would get together and throw down.”
In 2004, Roberts visited Philadelphia to aid his youngest daughter Malika, a renal patient since birth. It was supposed to be a brief trip. But as it came to pass, his daughter needed a transplant. Roberts thus resigned his position as executive chef at the Venetian Hotel and Sans Expo Convention Center in Las Vegas. But 10 days before the surgery, the family received news that a donor came though, and chef Ken, 54, did not have to sacrifice one of his own essential organs for the good of his youngest of six children.
Yet now he was back in Philadelphia, where he started as a caterer in 1982 after returning from Los Angeles. In the 1980s Roberts owned and operated Chef Ken’s Quality Comfort and Class, a small catering company. One of his first clients was the Philadelphia Club Impulse, where at the time Mayor Michael Nutter was working as a disc jockey and manager.
In 1988, Roberts helped his family open Cousins, a soul food café in North Hollywood. During those years, he also worked in car insurance and found jobs in L.A. kitchens, and more work in Vegas. He moonlighted between Vegas and L.A. and traveled back and forth as work required.
Beginning in the early ’90s he worked his way up to be executive chef at the Venetian Hotel-Casino in Las Vegas, handling catering events for hundreds of diners and operating a 739-seat restaurant. But Roberts left Vegas for Philly to care for his daughter. He then visited various neighborhoods to select a location for a new restaurant, but “chose Mt. Airy because of the diversity.”
When he opened in 2005 in the old Sedgwick Theater, he shared the block with a Chinese food store and pizza shop. Since then, the block has evolved into an independent entrepreneur’s vision, now home to Earth Bread + Brewery, InFusion Coffee & Tea and Umbria, an upscale “new American” restaurant.
And now, Chef Ken has his eyes on a possible second location in The Piazza in Northern Liberties. He hopes to open by August. “When I saw the former site of the Schmidt’s Brewery down there,” said Ken, “it reminded me of the Venetian Hotel in Vegas. I’m gonna make Bart Blatstein (the developer) an offer he can’t refuse.”
According to Roberts, it took him 18 months to pay back a $100,000 loan to him from a non-profit group called the Philadelphia Community Development Corporation. But for Roberts, Chef Ken’s Café and his southern cooking has been a healthy investment. He said his doctor recently told him he had the health of a 41-year-old man. Chef Ken says he has eaten small meals of his food, collard greens here, roasted chicken there, throughout the day for the past 28 years.