The Snackbar Chainsaw Epicure


John Taus has more monikers than Ol’ Dirty Bastard and more talent than him, too. Well, at least in the kitchen. While ‘Chainsaw’ has been known to break out freestyle raps in broken Spanish, his real proficiency is evident in an inspired fall menu that packed on a few pounds to my midsection. I spent an afternoon with the Snackbar headman who has flown under the radar up until now. Those days are soon to be over, thanks to our most famous local critic ringing out 3 bells for Chef Taus. Find out what makes Philly’s newest scene crashing chef tick, and what he fears more than anything else.

‘Oatmeal is the one thing I really don’t do. That shit scares me’, Taus starts up over brunch at Meme. ‘Maybe it was the gruel from Oliver Twist or something, but I’m done with it. Like frightened.’

I admit my fear of lima beans, realizing that the dish I ordered probably inspired the oatmeal discussion. But my plate of Anson Mills grits and a poached egg was awesome, and far from the reaches of old school lumpy breakfast that intimidates the chef.

‘Do you eat fava beans? Or is it just the limas you can’t deal with?’. Just the limas I assure him, now rethinking my aversion towards those little green bastards might only be due to my mom’s ability to destroy any vegetable beyond belief. Love you, moms.

Taus mentions the deep ruby hue of the egg yolk in front of him. ‘Best looking egg I’ve seen in a long time.’ A bite into it confirms the perfection. ‘That color means the egg is rich in protein. You never see orange like that in storebought eggs. Dave (Katz) has serious ingredients. I always end up here for brunch. Did you ever have the pancakes here with Foie? Dope.’

I met Chef Taus at a mutual industry friend’s dinner party. We were at opposite ends of the table separated by people discussing face cream, handbags, and investment opportunity. He looked as uncomfortable as I did, underdressed with nothing to offer the conversation. When we got up from the last course, we found common interest in discussing the woes of the Eagles and It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia, and one of my favorite discussions, Pho. He’s a Pho Ha guy.

Rain started to pour, and I was gonna grab the subway home. Taus offered me a ride. Solid dude. What else would you expect from a guy nicknamed ‘Chainsaw’, which I guessed correctly, was in reference to a character from the 80′s flick Summer School. Spitting fucking image. Although he now rocks a shorter cut, he showed me his old license which had a Metal Mane straight out of a Judas Priest video. Boss.

kimchiHe lives with his younger sister and another roommate in the Grad Hospital neighborhood. On our walk home, we stop at the Delicious Bites market for a container of homemade Kimchi.

‘There’s no way this stuff is legally made here. It’s fermented. It’s awesome.’ He’s right. The fire-red cabbage is really hot and perfectly balanced. Big gem hidden on South Street. 8 bucks.

There’s not a dash of pretention in his game. When we arrive at his apartment for a breather in between bar hops, there were a few other friends hanging out on his couch.

While he breaks open a can of PBR in his kitchen, one of his housemates hits him with, ‘Hey, ‘Rising Star’, hand me a glass’, in reference to Craig LaBan’s glowing review of Snackbar. Taus fires back something that shouldn’t be printed, but follows up with a little more insight.

‘It’s an honor, yeah, but that was last week. This is a new week. You know, all that ‘What Have You Done For Me Lately’ shit. I’m only as good as my team, and they fucking kill it. You can’t run a kitchen by yourself. My sous chef Goodie was all into the creative weird offal meat stuff you love and I’m a more technical guy. He was Ansill, I was Corporate Starr. Together we made some dope dishes. He’s leaving for a bit to travel the world, but my new guy is gonna kick ass too.’

Taus was born and raised in Allentown, not exactly the spiritual birthplace of haute cuisine. ‘My grandmother was a great cook. Whenever I’m stuck for a special, I use one of her dishes.’ he professes. You can see grandma’s inspiration in many of his offerings, most notably the much-ballyhooed Mini Pot Pie with Sage gravy, which LaBan gushed over for a couple paragraphs. The Farfalle with Cabbage turned me onto his homestyle Nanafood. ‘Italian and German fusion. How about that shit?’, is how he described it to me when I ordered the special. Brilliant.

But not all of his plates are old school comfort. He drops sophistication with the best of them (check out his Scallop Crudo with grape and pomegranite seeds), spending his early culinary career in Philly under Chris Painter, longtime Starrship Enterprise chef, and now the Big Enchilada for all of SRO restaurants.

‘Painter gave me my break here. I was working at a Chili’s in A-town and applied for a job with Starr when I got here. Chris asked me what I wanted to do, and I told him to just teach me how to cook. That’s how it started. Painter was the man, I credit so much of my success to him.’

Taus came to Philadelphia to study Hotel and Restaurant management at Drexel University. After completing his schooling, Chef worked in a number of noteworthy joints within the city limits. The now defunct Tangerine was his first stop in the real world of food, just doing whatever Chef Painter required.

‘I did the line, then after a couple weeks, he moved me up to hot apps. A couple weeks later, I was at the fish station. I worked my ass off in that place, Really learned a lot of technical stuff. I miss that kitchen.’

After a stint in New Orleans, he returned to town at Buddakan‘s kitchen, followed by the shuttered doors of Angelina, Starr’s Nouveau Italiano eatery.

‘It was funny. People didn’t get it. In a town with great traditional homestyle Italian food, we ended up having people order separate dishes and dump them all together. They wanted Chicken Parm and the Eggplant Parm, because one had the pasta and the other had the gravy. Then they would put them all together for Eggplant Chicken Parm. Yeah, that didn’t last long.’

After Angelina, his resume reads like a rap sheet: Morimoto, Bliss, Washington Square, Pod, James, 12 Steps Down, and then Zahav.

Yeah. 12 Steps Down. Badass.

‘You don’t have to put that in there. It was a tough gig actually. You would go to the Italian Market and buy your ingredients for the night. Prep, and move no food until midnight when you left. I love that bar and the patrons, but it wasn’t a place to be cooking. I needed a little pocket cash before the Zahav gig opened up. But I met some cool people there.’

Actually it seemed like Taus either worked with or drank with everyone in the city. Everywhere we went, he knew someone from the kitchen, management, or waitstaff. The busboys high five him during our stop at Good Dog. He talked up the Charcuterie Master Andrew Wood on our stop at Fork. I’m a longtime fan myself.

‘Sick stuff. He should have his own restaurant. Everything charcuterie I do, is like a team effort with him. We talk all the time about what we’re up to’, Taus comments and is quick to compliment everyone he has worked with. ‘I got all of them to thank for what’s happening now.’  Humble pie motherfucker.

As we wrap up our day together, Taus walks away to take a call while I check email on my phone. I overhear, ‘No, I have no idea where he is. 3 days? Look, just don’t throw him out tonight if he comes back home.’ Sounds serious, but Taus is laughing by the time he returns to shake hands. He offers me one more piece of advice before we part ways for the night:

‘Whenever you get calls from an unknown number, you gotta answer it. Usually it’s gonna be hilarious. That or I owe someone money.’

Solid dude.

– Collin Flatt

  • danya

    ‘Whenever you get calls from an unknown number, you gotta answer it. Usually it’s gonna be hilarious. That or I owe someone money.’

    I think that’s my new mantra.

  • Sarah

    Love everything about this interview – chef profiles can get a bit boring after a while, this was a nice change.

  • BJ

    Yay, Drexel finally produced a blog worthy alumni!

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