Meet the Woman Changing the Way We Think About Food in Philadelphia

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Philadelphia is a city often overlooked by culinary fans — sure, cheesesteaks and water ice are great, but are they enough to make Philly a food capital? CircleAround spoke with Kae Lani Palmisano — host of local TV affiliate WHYY's Check, Please! Philly, a show that explores dining throughout the Philadelphia region — to get her take on why that perspective needs to change. 

CA: What makes the Philadelphia food scene unique?

KP: What I appreciate most about Philadelphia's food scene is how the people who have come here have kept their culinary traditions alive. It’s twofold: there are these older neighborhood establishments that are like time capsules, but there’s a new generation of chefs taking their traditional cuisines, and expressing them in a contemporary way. It blends their heritage with their experiences here in the city, creating new foods and flavors that are uniquely Philadelphian.

The best example of this is a dining series called Muhibbah Dinners, which brings together chefs from different cultural backgrounds. Everyone makes a dish that is specific not just to their heritage but also to them as an individual. Before the meal is enjoyed, each chef shares what the dish they've made means to them, where the dish comes from, and what inspired them to make it. The connections that are made around the table at Muhibbah Dinners are so deep and you end up learning something new. Everyone leaves with their stomachs and hearts filled. 

CA: How did you get started in this industry?

KP: In May of 2014, my father died by suicide and a few months later, my grandmother passed away from cancer. Both losses made me realize how fragile life can be, and encouraged me to pursue what I was really passionate about: storytelling. 

If I had to pick one project that completely changed the trajectory of my career, it would be this silly video series my then-boyfriend (now-husband) and I created back in 2016. We developed Friday Night Cookies, a weekly Facebook Live show where we'd discuss popular cookies — everything from the history of that cookie to testing its "dunkability" in milk.  

Within less than a year, the series collectively got around 28 million views on Facebook and the page on which they were hosted gained about 35,000 followers. The videos also caught the eyes of producers at WHYY, who liked the series so much they invited me to audition to host Check, Please! Philly which — spoiler alert — I got. 

CA: Is there anything you discovered about Philly’s food history that surprised you?

KP: I grew up home gardening, and recently bought a house where I have a yard to finally grow my own food.  In starting my garden, I've become inspired with the history of plants and have been learning more about where these plants come from and who cultivated them. This started when I met a seed keeper at an event we both did for the Free Library of Philadelphia's Culinary Literacy Center.  The work that Owen Taylor, of True Love Seeds, and other seed keepers throughout the region are doing is really inspiring.  

They are collecting, cultivating, and distributing culturally significant seeds for foods that are relevant to specific heritage cuisines, such as foods from the African Diaspora and seeds from Syria. There is this movement to "rematriate" seeds, meaning give seeds back to the people from which they come, so that communities can grow their own foods and stay connected to their food culture. It's sustaining people while also sustaining their cultures — I love it and I hope more people can connect with food in this way.

CA: What’s the most interesting dining experience you’ve had so far?

KP: I dine at all of the restaurants that are going to be on the show before filming. One of the restaurants I had to go to for Season 1 was Saad's Halal. I'd heard incredible things about the food, including that he makes a Philly cheesesteak that was once named the city's best cheesesteak.  

Saad AlRayes is a Lebanese immigrant, whose restaurant began as a food truck. Providing accessible halal food for the Muslim community has always been his mission, but in doing so, he also provides jobs that give Muslims time for prayer and fasting. My first time going to Saad's, they were actually closed for the entire length of Ramadan. There was a sign on the door that explained that he wanted to give his family and workers time to reflect, worship, and fast during Ramadan. I was so happy to see a business in Philadelphia giving that to their community. It's not often when you see a business putting the community first like that. 

CA: What do you want people outside of the city to know about it?

KP: The dining scene is a mix that explores where Philadelphia is going, but also shows where Philadelphia has been, thanks to all of the incredible cultural contributions. Food is political, it is an economic indicator, and it is power, and in order to promote equity and food sovereignty, we have to understand how food plays into these systems. Understanding is the first step to change.

Behind every food is a story, about the people who made that food and where they come from. Approach food with curiosity and compassion, and be open to stories that may make you feel uncomfortable. So many foods that we eat today are influenced by cultures that have been exploited, resources that have been stolen, and people being displaced. But listening to these stories, and honoring these stories, is an opportunity to rewrite the history that has been erased and to give credit to the communities who have historically fed us and continue to feed us.

Tags: Inspiration, Philadelphia food, International Cuisine

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Written By

Katka Lapelosová

Katka is a writer from New York City, currently living in Belgrade, Serbia. See Full Bio

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