Foraging wild ingredients gave the chef a new perspective in the kitchen as well as a family-first outlook on the restaurant business. Don’t expect any accolades to change that.
By Matt Skoufalos | January 27, 2023
In the six years since opening Park Place Café and Restaurant in Merchantville, Chef Phil Manganaro has quietly but steadily continued to refine his perspective on fine dining.
Quietly, because the curtained, four-table dining room on Park Avenue only offers dinner service three evenings a week.
In the marquee on its exterior, where a menu might have been posted in earlier days, a typed sign now reads, “Private. By Appointment Only.”
Steadily, because out of the chaos that befell restaurants during the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, Manganaro emerged with a clarity of purpose born out of the resourcefulness of necessity.
Like so many other pandemic-driven solutions, his answer was to spend more time outside; sometimes 20 to 30 hours a week more.
The practical activity that takes Manganaro throughout the untamed reaches of South Jersey, where he roots out the native ingredients that comprise his recipes, might be classically described as foraging.
Manganaro calls it “wild farming.”
Philosophically, it feels more like transcendentalism. His self-reliant approach to cuisine reflects both a reunion with nature and with the labor of food cultivation with which Emerson or Thoreau or MFK Fisher might have found common cause.
But it’s also allowed Manganaro to live the whole of his life on his own terms in a way that working in high-end, corporate kitchens never could have.
The entirety of the front-of-house duties at Park Place are handled by one employee, Josh Dombrowski, who functions as both server and maître d’. The kitchen is Manganaro’s alone.
Its walls are lined with years’ worth of illustrations of dinosaurs, Godzillas, and other cinematic megafauna, made by hand with love from his son, Dean. It’s not uncommon for the chef and his son to FaceTime for an hour or more while Manganaro is firing dish after dish, course after prix-fixe course.
They spend most of the week together. While Dean’s in school, Phil’s out harvesting wild mustard root, or matsutake mushrooms, or keeping up with the complex process of cultivating acorn flour for a rustic crepe. And when Dean’s home, his dad is there with him.
Their schedules are built like that — the Manganaros’ and Park Place’s — because the chef decided a long time ago that whatever mark he made in the kitchen would never be as important to him as being a reliable father.
The lifestyle that came along with it not only brought him closer to the food he puts on the table for his guests, but to the world in which he’s raising a child.
Dean’s artwork is making its way into the dining room now, having gone from markers on paper to paint on canvas.
Like the growth rings of a tree, it marks the years that the restaurant has survived, changing as it endures; evolving along with Manganaro’s understanding of the wild places that underpin its flavors.
The dishes at Park Place change weekly, and everything is driven by what the chef brings in from the outdoors. Manganaro hates to repeat a trick, delighting instead in the freedom to follow his own impulses, and guided by the ingredients and the way they show up.
His love of cherry blossoms led him through a pickling phase; now he’s playing with dehydration, pulverizing the flowers into a pink dust that recalls their scattered petals in nature. And after a while, he’ll find another way to use them in a dish, his workmanlike process revealing some different characteristic of the ingredient to express.
“It took me a while to say I’m an artist,” Manganaro said. “In that art, you can’t force it. You have to let it come to you, and then produce it. That’s more of my direction.”
That he’s happened to garner critical praise for his approach, including a James Beard Award nomination for Best Chef in the mid-Atlantic region, is humbling, but ultimately, incidental to the point.
“It’s great validation for my career, my way of life, and my food,” the chef said. “I can’t buy most of the stuff I find, and I’m cooking with that. I’m doing everything myself by choice. It’s very rewarding.
“In hindsight, it was a great idea, but professionally speaking, it was a huge risk I took, and a ton of extra work,” Manganaro said.
“I live a certain way, and to be recognized and have success in the way that I’ve chosen to live; to be able to be a father and be a good example, I think that’s more important.”
Manganaro was cooking pasta for Dean on Tuesday morning when his phone lit up with the news that he’d made the list of the 2023 Beard semifinalists. The news was stunning and unexpected; Manganaro doesn’t have cable TV or the Internet at home. Father and son celebrated with ice cream and Cokes after school, and then it was back to business as usual.
“Nothing changes for me today,” Manganaro said. “I focus on my blessings in life, and being a humble person, and really realizing what is the beauty in my life.
“Somebody could call me tomorrow and say I’m the best chef in the universe, and I’m still going to come home and cook with my son,” he said. “He understands what’s going on, how much I put into it, and that I get it all done to spend time with him.
“If I didn’t have Park Place, I’d have to go work for somebody, and I don’t get to be the parent that I get to be,” Manganaro said. “That motivation is that blessing that I have. It has its own stresses and its own beauty.”
Dave Mosko of Haddon Heights, a longtime Park Place customer, said regulars appreciate Manganaro’s approach, not only because his attention to detail elevates the dishes he serves them, but because they know his only competition is with himself.
“If you experience Park Place, it always gets better,” Mosko said. “The progression of what Phil does is astounding.
“[Philadelphia Inquirer food critic Craig] LaBan put him in the paper.
“Park Place could have rested on its laurels; Phil got better,” Mosko said.
“When Phil is presented with kudos, he takes things to another level,” he said.
“I don’t know where he’s going to go now.”
From Manganaro’s outlook, there’s really nowhere else to go.
A James Beard Award wouldn’t turn Park Place into a family of restaurants, or send him hustling to maximize the footprint of his current space, or relaunch the concept in some other form, whatever that could even begin to look like. He’s not interested in disrupting the balance he’s cultivated in his life, and which he works carefully, intentionally, to maintain.
“I like to just focus on what I’m doing and not have it influenced by anything but myself and my life,” Manganaro said; “as much as you can be, an original creation.
“People are going to think I’m just saying something, but as time goes on, and something like this happens, and you build a track record, this is actually this guy’s life, and it’s pretty awesome and beautiful,” he said.
“How long can I do that? I’ll know when it’s time to not do it anymore, but for me, I choose to do it because I can do it right now,” the chef said.
“I can see everything that I can produce and accomplish with my own two hands right now.”
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