Stephen Starr

Stephen Starr and Chef Serpico’s “Chicken Scratch”

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Stephen Starr and Peter Serpico start from (Chicken) Scratch with their new take-out kitchen specializing in Peruvian Chicken with special sauces.

When pandemic fine dining time hit in Philadelphia, the toughest among local restaurateurs and chefs figured out new and interesting ways to go about their business. Maybe that meant roads they had never traveled (take out, delivery, outdoor seating). Maybe that meant entirely new concepts. Save for anything larcenous, one had to do what one had to do. For veteran restaurant icon, Stephen Starr, Covid-19 meant all of the above. 

As towering Philly locations of his, such as Butcher & Singer, crafted a heated, outdoor dining station alongside its Walnut Street space. Rittenhouse Square spots such as Parc and Barclay Prime offered touchless take out, with delivery options via Doordash, Caviar, Grubhub and Uber Eats.

While one location of Starr’s – such as Old City’s The Continental – shut temporarily so to re-configure its concept, literally and figuratively, his South Street partnership with Peter Serpico (the eponymously-titled Serpico) came out the other side with a radically different menu and feel than it had, originally. 

Stephen Starr

Think Pete’s Place and a kinda-Korean menu. And, now – as of last Friday – Peruvian rotisserie chicken, designer ‘stoplight’ sauces and opulent sides with Chicken Scratch. Both located at the Serpico address (604 South Street), the avant-garde chef’s fresh concepts such as the new Chicken Scratch are all part of the cloud-ghost-virtual kitchen revolution. Yet, in Starr and Serpico’s case, this is beyond any trend. A chef-driven cuisine to the max. The likes of which could be eaten indoors with white linens. And probably will be, in a brick-and-mortar sense. Keep reading…

Let’s go backward for a sec.

In regard to weathering C-19, Stephen Starr stated that it was as difficult for his spaces as it was for every other restauranteur. “But, I can honestly say that I believe there is a light at the end of all of this with a new President and a vaccine. Even though it’s not being distributed as it should be. And that, by the middle to the end of the summer, we should be on a clearer path to normalcy. The next six months will be tough. But, I feel positive about the future.”

The future has to be better than the last ten months. At least where Philadelphia governmental leadership is concerned according to Starr. As a man who owns and operates restaurants here, Atlantic City, New York City, Miami and more, Starr is confident in saying that the “leadership in Philadelphia is almost nonexistent. I don’t feel like there is any guidance, or paternal/maternal figure explaining to us what’s happening or what will happen. There is no comfort, there’s nothing. In New York, there did happen to be leadership what with interaction from Governor Cuomo with whom I spoke. I talked to Governor Wolf in Pennsylvania as well. In Philadelphia, however, nothing. We don’t see police. The homeless thing is out of control. It’s like the wild west. It’s like The Purge out there.”

Back to the present and immediate past. No one would have ever thought of Stephen Starr and/or Serpico as take out kind-of guys before the pandemic. “We always offered take out. But I didn’t ever take it seriously. It never was a big part of our business. But, when the pandemic hit, and everything closed down, we were facing a potential catastrophe. Game-ending circumstances. We did whatever we could do, and, at first, awkwardly pulled together take-out programs All of which eventually got slicker, nicer and more thought out as time went on. We did what we could do at first, but, it wasn’t pretty. It was like World War 3 out there. It was like selling apples on the street during the Depression.”

Things sound better, now, than the Depression-era dining Starr mentioned. Along with working on additional spots for separate concepts involving chicken wings and burritos, “Of course, with clever twists on each,” Stephen Starr and the soft-spoken, hard-working Serpico looked at the chef’s Korean heritage as he was working on a family cookbook. They were excited, first, to make Pete’s Place a passion project. Then further the cuisine and its aesthetic by going into rotisserie chicken. Starr continued, “He cares about the company and he wants to make a living for he and his family.”

Stephen Starr

“I didn’t know this about him. But, Peter has had a love affair with Peruvian chicken. So Chicken Scratch is a play on that. One that allows him to satisfy his yearning. And allows for an additional virtual kitchen to exist in the South Street space. A great ghost kitchen needs like 4 or 5 concepts to operate out of a single space so to make money. It’s weird, right? I am, however, getting comfortable with it. I’m all about the show of it all. The event. Virtual kitchens and take out are like Zoom concerts.”

Chef Serpico created a to-go experience to-die-for. With Chicken Scratch’s generous helpings of crackling skin chicken, in various sizes. Along with tasty, large scale sides such as sweet fried plantains. Mom’s Mac n’ Cheese. My mom never thought of adding béchamel and smoked paprika. Crispy Potatoes and garlic-y potato rolls. What makes the meal, beyond how zesty and juicy the chicken was, is Serpico’s three signature “stoplight” sauces. 

“The variety of sauces give us the ability to cater to the different preferences and palettes of everyone who orders, whether you prefer a sauce with a kick, a creamy aioli type, a rich and smoky flavor, or a little bit of all three,” says Serpico, pointing out that the Green is our take on chimichurri (jalapeño, onion, cilantro, rice vinegar) and is bright and herbaceous. The Red is our smoky chili sauce, and it’s smokey and spicy. The Yellow is a mayonnaise-based sauce with roasted garlic, lemon and turmeric, and it’s creamy yet bright and slightly acidic.

Stephen Starr

As for why a rotisserie chicken-based menu, Serpico was quick to say that, “We saw that there was a gap in to-go offerings in Philadelphia that were geared towards family-friendly, healthy and wholesome foods. And thought that a rotisserie chicken concept was the perfect concept to fill that void. Rotisserie chicken is approachable, comforting and genuinely good food. We make it easy to order for yourself with our quarter chicken options. Or for the whole family with our family combo that feeds four.”

Serpico and Chicken Scratch’s chicken honestly did not taste like anyone else’s chicken in this city. And although the sauces such as the “green light” – all the punch of jalapeno without the hard burn – were fantastic. This chicken didn’t need a thing. It’s a full flavor all on its own. 

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