COOK

Chef Jason Cichonski — co-owner of Ela and onetime Top Chef contestant — knows how to roll up his sleeves and get things done. When his Old City gastropub The Gaslight needed a radical change in menu and vibe, he shut it down for a month and shifted its concept.

When Xfinity Live at South Philadelphia’s Wells Fargo sports complex planned an expansion and lost its Spectrum Grill earlier this spring, Cichonski quickly leapt at an opportunity and came up with a casual-but-cultured menu combining Mexican and Asian flavors. His new spot, 1100 Social, opens today.

Cichonski paused long enough to discuss his long year with City Paper.

City Paper: Last time we spoke, earlier this year, you were re-configuring The Gaslight. How has that process been?

Jason Cichonski: It’s good. There’s new food, new front-of-house management. We’re polishing all the details. No matter how casual a restaurant is, every detail has to be right. Now trying to get that message out to people, looking for that second chance? I’m finding that to be tough. But you can’t stop moving forward and paying attention.

CP: How did redoing The Gaslight set up what would happen when Xfinity Live called you for a concept?

JC: I was skeptical at first. It came out of the blue. I had so much more to do with Gaslight. I wanted to make certain that I had time for Ela. I didn’t want anything to slip up. Still, it seemed like a good opportunity, so I decided just to work even harder than I do now. There was no laissez-faire, ‘Hey, they’ll run it’ attitude. Everything has to be watched and monitored, especially the food.

CP: How did it even come about, 1100 Social?

JC: Glenn Sutch — who oversees the restaurants at Xfinity Live for the Cordish Group — and the rest of the company were assessing what they had down here and what they could do to expand and improve. They renovated the Victory Beer Hall and made that bigger and better, but also realized that the Spectrum Grill really wasn’t living up to expectations. They wanted something new that showed the evolving food culture of the city [and] more attention to flavor profiles, in a place where people are also eating hot dogs and hamburgers before the game. The Mexican-Asian direction thing — I can do tacos and I can do dumplings that I think sport fans would appreciate. But I’m also grinding my own corn and I have a tortilla machine that I just got from Mexico, and we’re hand-rolling those. It’s taking fun food and just doing it really well. I’m almost surprised at myself for what I’ve achieved down here so far.

 
CP: I know that you can do anything, but do you have a big background where Asian or Mexican is concerned?

JC: Not specifically, but I do use a lot of chiles, tomatillos and Mexican sauces at Ela. I did Ela because I came from the fine dining background of La Croix, but I wanted to do something more approachable.

 
CP: Still fine dining, just more neighborhood-y?

JC: Yeah. More accessible. I have no technical or cultural boundaries at Ela. That works, as long as I’m there and evolving the menu. When it came to 1100 Social, I picked two of my favorite profiles that I wanted to play with and have fun with crossover ingredients. Plus, I wanted to use the model of the fun California food truck/Korean taco idea. Oddly enough, now that I’m focusing on flavor profiles, I want to do something Italian next. I love hand-rolling pasta. I can make a badass bowl of pasta.

 
CP: Speaking of badass, you are still, for all your success, this hip, alternative chef in a way. Only now, there is a mainstreaming process with you hooking up with Xfinity Live — like Nirvana did when they signed with Geffen. Is that part of the process of 1100 Social?

JC: Definitely. There are a lot of people down at 1100 that don’t know me from Ela or who won’t really venture into the city. Maybe after they eat here, they’ll expand their horizons and come to Ela. This is definitely heading into the mainstream — but the food is good. Doesn’t matter if it’s farm-to-table or locally sourced or if it’s French or if it’s a single piece of sashimi with 45 fucking dots of dipping sauce. That’s not to say that I don’t care about that. The mole we are making takes all day to make — all day — with 47 different ingredients, and [we] use it for my steamed chicken dumplings with chiles and bean sprouts. Ultimately, it is the tastes that should bring people to your table. Just cook food that tastes good.


CP:
It sounds as if you’re done with any level of pretense in regard to cooking.

JC: I’m over my own ego when it comes down to cooking. I don’t want it to be pretentious. Now I’m buying nicer plates for Ela and refining some of the dishes there with finer details. We have ideas about the direction of Ela as it has been open for four years. I also know that I can’t do a seven-course tasting menu at 1100 Social. I have to make people happy immediately. So I still have the passion for fine dining and plating — that will be in me forever — but there is more. My 24-year-old La Croix self would turn his nose up at 1100 Social. He didn’t cook that sort of food. Now, though, if I can cook food and reach more people and make more people happy, that’s what this is all about. The idea of hospitality has become more important to me. You have to put as much energy into something simple as you do something complex.