By Len Lear
I met Jonathan Deutsch a while back during a beer tasting at Chestnut Grill. He was there to support Mt. Airy resident Lynn Hoffman, who helped found Drexel’s culinary arts program in 1994. Hoffman, a beer scholar and author of “Short Course in Beer,” was running the sold-out beer tasting as a fundraiser for The Friends of Carpenter’s Woods.
Deutsch is a most imposing man physically at 6-foot-6 and academically at age 40 as a Ph.D, author, professor and founding director of the Drexel University Center for Hospitality and Sport Management (CHSM), which is now called the Center for Food & Hospitality Management.
But calling Deutsch a “foodie” would be like calling Mike Trout a fairly good baseball player. He has authored or co-authored numerous food-related books, such as “Gastropolis: Food and New York City,” “They Eat That? A Cultural Encyclopedia of Weird and Exotic Food from around the World,” “Jewish American Food Culture (at Table),” “Culinary Improvisation” and “Barbecue: A Global History.”
“I’m now finishing a book,” he said last week, “called ‘We Eat What?’ It’s an encyclopedia of American regional foods and is a follow up to a global version, ‘They Eat That?’ which came out a few years ago.”
Deutsch earned his Ph.D at New York University in food studies and food management. He taught for 13 years at the City University of New York and returned to Drexel University in 2013 to launch the Center for Hospitality and Sport Management.
“I believe culinary education is in a challenging place,” he said. “If we think of culinary school as paying a lot of money to learn to cook and then get a job cooking, it doesn’t make a lot of sense. If we think of culinary education as providing the technical skills to address large food system issues like health promotion and sustainability and develop new technologies and processes for provisioning our growing population amidst challenges like climate change, there is no greater calling or more important field of study.”
What are Deutsch’s favorite restaurants in the Philadelphia area? “There are too many to list,” he replied, “but one thing I’m heartened by is how easy and rewarding it is to get great food at a wide range of price points and formality. I think we saw that recognized in the James Beard nominations this year.
“Some of my best meals lately have been at Zeppoli, Sate Kampar, Vernick, ITV, South Philly Barbacoa (now at El Compadre) and Red Kings 2. Each is euphoric in their own way.”
It seems as if there are new restaurants opening all the time in both the city and suburbs, and yet there are only so many customers. Why are so many people willing to take the high risks involved in running a restaurant?
“Since everyone eats, it’s a field where everyone has some expertise. It’s like going to a cocktail party. Everyone either has a great idea for a children’s book or a restaurant. And who am I to say? Some of these are great ideas.”
What are the most common mistakes that restaurant owners make?
“A lot of people don’t pay attention to the business fundamentals. Most chef-owners will tell you that the cooking is the easy part. Being a great cook does not mean that cook should open a restaurant. The challenge is in the site selection, human resources management, employee recruiting and retention, marketing, social media and guest/employee/investor relationships. If something isn’t tasty, it can be easily fixed. If one of these business elements is off, it’s a more challenging fix.”
Does Deutsch think that websites like yelp.com, which many restaurateurs hate, are helpful to restaurants? “One of my pet peeves working in restaurants and hospitality was knowing a guest was unhappy but upon asking, hearing everything is ‘fine.’ What yelp does is provide an outlet for what guests are thinking. Sometimes these may be helpful critiques that draw attention to a problem. Sometimes this may be groundless whining. But either way it points to a problem.”
In addition to his doctorate degree, Deutsch is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, and he earned a BS in hospitality, culinary arts and culinary science from Drexel.
At Drexel Deutsch was one of the few students who had actually worked in a kitchen before and knew how to cook. He had even worked for a stint in Japan through a high school co-op. After Drexel, Deutsch worked in various restaurants.
“I realized very quickly the faster you move up, the less cooking you do. All of a sudden, I was doing all this stuff that didn’t have to do with cooking.”
For more information about the Drexel U. Center for Hospitality & Sport Management, visit www.drexel.edu/hsm or call 215-895-2411.