by Len Lear
If Jennifer Carroll keeps moving full-throttle in the direction of fine dining, she may have to find out what it’s like to navigate the choppy waters of fame. At the very least, her new restaurant, Spice Finch, could easily become a reassuring talisman for Philadelphia area foodies. Jennifer, who is small in stature but big in culinary talent, opened the 158-seat Spice Finch on July 12 adjacent to the Warwick Hotel, 220 S. 17th St. in Center City with her fiancé, Billy Riddle, also a chef.
“We named the restaurant Spice Finch after the bird,” Jennifer told us, “which is native to the Mediterranean and eats many of the spices we are incorporating into the menu.”
The deceptively demure and soft-spoken Ms. Carroll, 40-ish, has a history in high-pressure kitchens that bespeaks a python intensity. She grew up in Northeast Philly, but her parents insisted that she and her sisters, Jessica and Sunny, attend Mount St. Joseph Academy in Flourtown because “they said that education was very, very important and that Mount St. Joseph had a great reputation.” (Jessica graduated from Chestnut Hill College in 1995.) Jennifer earned top grades at every school she attended, but when she was at “the Mount” in Flourtown, no one could have predicted she would wind up being an acclaimed chef.
“My dad was a steak-and-potatoes guy,” she told us in an earlier interview. “My mom took cooking classes and wanted to be more adventurous, but my dad would have none of it, so our meals were pretty basic — protein, starch and Del Monte canned vegetables.”
In addition to her scholastic excellence, Jennifer played on the soccer and lacrosse teams at Mount St. Joseph. “My sisters swam,” said Jen, “and we all played piano and tap-danced and did other activities. Our mom, Joan, was awesome. She was at every one of our sporting events, and she was also a softball coach and soccer coach.”
Jennifer originally planned to go to law school, but after one year at Catholic University and two years at St. Joseph’s University, she realized that her destiny would not be found in law libraries or courtrooms. She informed her mom that she would be dropping out of St. Joe’s and enrolling in the Restaurant School of Philadelphia. “She said, ‘You’re crazy, but you have to follow your heart.’ I think that (being a chef) is either in you, or it’s not,” said Jennifer. “I always loved cooking and experimenting in the kitchen, even when I was a kid, and I worked in a restaurant in Ocean City as a teenager. I always felt I had to be different from anybody else I knew, and I guess now I am.”
After graduating from the Restaurant School, Carroll became the first female sous chef at Sonoma in Manayunk. She subsequently worked in other restaurants in Philadelphia and San Francisco before landing at New York City’s ultra-chic Le Bernardin. “Everyone starts at the bottom at Le Bernardin,” said Jen, “no matter how much experience you may have.” In 2009, when the Ritz Carlton Hotel in Center City opened the 10 Arts Bistro & Lounge in their spectacular lobby, famed French chef Eric Ripert, who had also been Jennifer’s boss at Le Bernardin, selected her to run it. After 10 Arts, Carroll worked with chef Marcus Samuelsson, who has been on several TV cooking shows, at the Red Rooster in Harlem and at his semi-permanent pop-up, Samuelsson, in the historic Hamilton Princess Hotel in Bermuda. She later cheffed at the acclaimed French-Mediterranean restaurant, Requin, in Washington, D.C.
She met Billy Riddle almost 10 years ago at 10 Arts. “Billy came in to eat with one of my sous chefs, and I was working,” she said. Riddle has worked at some of Philly’s most upscale restaurants such as Lacroix, Ela Restaurant & Bar, Volver and Townsend.
According to Jennifer, at Spice Finch “We have created a modern Mediterranean menu with a lot of spices and herbs incorporated into each dish. The menu lends itself to a vegetarian palate, and it’s based on the way Billy and I eat at home. These are spices we are familiar with and use in our day-to-day cooking.”
We have not eaten yet at Spice Finch, but after perusing the menu, it would be tempting to eat so many of these dishes that I could wind up in the Fitness Protection Program — from fresh baked flatbreads, spreads and salads to an elaborately spiced whole fish feast for the table. There is an emphasis on vegetable-forward and grain-based dishes, small plates that include date truffles with pomegranate, cashew streusel and lime zest; charred carrot hummus with northern bean, cucumber and flatbread; croquettes with mahon (a cheese made from cow’s milk), avocado and tomatillo; and roasted cauliflower with coriander cashew butter, pickled onion and basil oil.
When asked if the historically notorious sexist attitudes in the restaurant industry have changed over the years, Jennifer chose not to answer.
What was the best advice anyone has ever given to Jennifer? “Treat everyone fairly and with respect.”
What is the hardest thing she has ever done? “For being a chef, owner and partner, you have to do every job, like sticking my arm into a grease trip to unclog it.”
If she could meet and spend time with anyone on earth, living or dead, who would it be? “Oprah Winfrey! I would love to cook with her and spend the day with her and her dogs.”
For more information, visit www.spicefinchphilly.com or call 215-309-2238. You can reach Len Lear at firstname.lastname@example.org