Hot Chef: Leo Forneas adds a New York twist to Southern cooking

Leo Forneas thinks the Philly restaurant scene is "fun and casual." Credit: Courtney Owens
Leo Forneas thinks the Philly restaurant scene is “fun and casual.”
Credit: Courtney Owens

Former Sampan chef Leo Forneas left Philadelphia a few years ago to experiment in New York kitchens. Now he’s back, and somewhere you wouldn’t expect to see him: The Twisted Tail in Society Hill, which calls itself a bourbon house and juke joint. Forneas came in, used a determined and guiding hand to revamp the menu, and added his own touch to the Southern cuisine.

When you got to The Twisted Tail, you overhauled the menu. What’s that process like?
We researched the concept, went through the whole menu, and figured out what Southern cooking is all about. I wanted to make it lighter in a sense. I’m not going to change your grandmother’s cornbread, but I want to introduce more salad with local ingredients coming from Jersey farms. You read a lot of articles about chefs who learned their trade in New York, then went back to their hometowns and started cooking lighter versions of those staples. You can do the farm-to-table stuff without losing the essence of Southern cooking.

Anything on the menu that you just had to keep?
The crawfish mac ’n cheese had to stay. I love mac ’n cheese — plus it’s our No. 1-selling item.

You lived in Philadelphia a few years ago and then you went to New York. Notice any changes since coming back?
Oh yeah. There are a lot of younger chefs coming in. They’re going to bring back that culture of new food. When I opened Sampan, all you heard about was [Stephen] Starr and [Jose] Garces really. Now there are smaller chefs coming up, a younger generation, and that’s really cool to see. People can’t afford to open a restaurant in New York, so they come to Philly.

And there’s a huge difference in the industry between New York and Philly, right?
Yes. In New York you have to do the best thing ever all the time. It’s not fun. Philly’s fun and casual. No one’s telling you to wear nice jeans or a suit. And Philly is, like, the proudest.

Now that you’re back in Philly is there anything that you’re making sure you do?
During the summer when I lived here four years ago I used to go to a farm to pick blueberries. I went a few weeks ago and it was awesome. Until it started raining.


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