The laid back attitude of Phil Dersch, Executive Chef at the General Warren Inne, is very inviting. He claims to need only a knife and cutting board, maybe a spoon or tongs, when discussing must-have utensils. This relaxed take on cuisine indicates how comfortable he is in a kitchen, likely to know his blindfolded way around many upscale dishes.
Calling on his talents at the historic, fine dining restaurant for regulars, new faces, wedding parties, and once a record breaking Valentine crowd of 323 people in under five hours, the culinary scene is where he has always belonged. Even if something or someone forbid him to cook, his theoretical second job, a gardener, would keep him close to what he loves most; food. Find out what else he’s passionate about, celebrities he cooked for and the best item on the menu, in this exclusive interview.
You’ve said before “I’m always pushing myself and stretching my knowledge to the maximum.” What are ways that you continue to learn? Books, celebrity chefs, movies, brainstorming?
Chef Dersch: I do a lot of menu research. I’ll look up menus from other restaurants in different parts of the country like Washington, Texas, everywhere! I have many cookbooks as well. I write everything down and save all my specials then I’ll go back over stuff and pick and choose, make different dishes out of stuff that took two months to piece together. I have about five notebooks full of ideas and information that I forget about and then I’ll go back and be like “oh, wow!” Then I’ll try to make that and go somewhere completely different.
So in a way it’s like organized chaos, which is pretty common in the food industry?
Chef Dersch: Yes, exactly! That’s the way I’ve always done it.
Is there any Chef in particular whose recipes and techniques you tend to gravitate toward when looking for motivation?
Chef Dersch: I’m a big fan of Gordon Ramsay. His styles and everything. He’s the man. Anthony Bourdain, I fell in love with at a young age. I first read Kitchen Confidential in 10th grade. I knew this is what I wanted and I’ve just always enjoyed it.
Since you were so steadfast on becoming a Chef since you were an adolescent, have you ever even considered anything else? Let’s say you couldn’t cook for one reason or another, what would you do?
Chef Dersch: No, I never hesitated for one second. I guess I’d be a gardener. It’s a great outlet for everything. I have tomato plants at home and a lot of flowers, not the edible ones we sometimes use at the General Warren Inne. Speaking of, I’m incorporating Orchids into a salad for our new Twofers Menu. This past week I was running specials with the Orchids as well. I made a Lemon Grass, Wild Orchid Tea and a Ginger and Orchid Tuna Tartar. This transforms the color of the dish and it looks very nice.
You do all the cooking for the weddings that occur at the General Warren Inne. How is that different from your regular night? Obviously it’s on a larger scale but are there other elements to juggle?
Chef Dersch: I think it’s, I don’t want to say easier, but it kind of is. When you have a la carte and people coming in on a busy night…we have very high end clientele so you never know who you’re cooking for. Every plate better be the best plate to begin with, regardless of who you’re cooking for. When it’s a wedding, we really take care of the bridal party and their head table. Them and the immediate family get special attention but all the guests are very important to us and we want them to have a really great meal, along with a good time. You just have to be prepared. We always are.
You say that every plate is important. So there was never a time when you wanted to make something extra special? Maybe for your wife or a famous guest?
Chef Dersch: I’ve cooked for a lot of people, even movie stars. I went to school and lived in Pittsburgh so I cooked for all the Steelers, basketball players, the Mayor, and Bad Company. It was actually during culinary school and I was the closing supervisor. I cooked all their [the band member’s] steaks at the Italian Chophouse. They asked me to come out and they were joking around. It was awesome. They were really cool.
I cooked for Uma Thurman, a bunch of people. If you work in nice places long enough, you’re going to cook for those kind of people. I think at one point I started a list, like earlier on in my career. Then I thought, this is kind of cheesy.
As a young critic yourself, who always knew he wanted to be a Chef, what were your favorite meals growing up and how did they influence what you do today?
Chef Dersch: When we went to my grandparents house it was always nice. My dad’s mom, we’re all Italian, so you’d get up early to make meatballs all day and she made these cookies. It was just flower and a touch of salt and sugar. It made no sense how delicious they were. It still doesn’t make sense to me and I watched her make them so I know those are the only ingredients. She’d make pizzelles and all that stuff. Then my mom’s side of the family, I looked forward to their burgers. Great cookouts!
I’m basically German and Italian but a big fan of French cuisine. The style is the best but I also personally love Asian and Japanese cuisine. Not particularly Asian Fusion but more like American-Asian…Amerinasian? I’ve always worked in American Continental styled restaurants just like this.
Did you ever visit France or are you planning a trip in the future?
Chef Dersch: Sadly, I’ve never been to France but maybe one day. I’d like to go to England, too, but so far I’ve been to the Cayman Islands, which is a British influenced territory and the food there is absolutely amazing. Everything is so fresh and so great!
There is a common pattern among Chefs who cook for a living that they don’t necessarily want to cook in their free time. Some eat a lot of fast food. Do you fall into that category or what do you do with your free time?
Chef Dersch: I do cook. On the other hand, I don’t eat fast food at McDonald’s places but I can enjoy anything that comes out of the microwave. With a busy schedule, sometimes you’re just grateful for a meal you can have ready in under five minutes. Also, anything I can put mustard on. I’m a big fan of what I call “little kid mustard.” It’s just the best. Honestly, in my free time with the family, we spend it outside, playing with the kids, doing yard work. I love being outside.
How did you end up here at the General Warren Inne and what do you think makes it so special?
Chef Dersch: I’ve been here for five years thanks to a tip from the dishwasher at my old job about an opening Chef position. It’s just a great place. Everybody’s got something good to say about their own stuff but there is a lot of thought going into everything we do here. It’s all done from scratch and very tedious but I’m particular about each detail. The guys in the kitchen know that and they work hard for me so I work hard right next to them. I’ve got an amazing staff here. I love it. I was always the youngest in the kitchen so mentally, I always had that maturity to manage a crew.
What’s your favorite dish on the General Warren Inne menu, either to prepare or enjoy on the other side for once?
Chef Dersch: I’m a big fan of the duck. That whole dish is basically cooked in duck fat. You really can’t go wrong. It’s a pan seared duck breast. We score the top of that off. Before that’s even done, we make duck confit, cool it down and pick it all. Then we make a black forest mushroom blend risotto cake mixed with the confit and seared in the duck juices. It’s served with spinach and all the components end up having an amazing hint of duck while still retaining their naturally delicious flavor. We’ve also got stuff that you won’t find anywhere else, which I enjoy. The snapper soup and the table side dover soles. Those dishes aren’t going anywhere for a while because people love it.
You talked about a favorite dish here at the Inne and what the customers love. In general, what would you eat as your last meal?
Chef Dersch: My first thought was pizza….with duck confit on top. No. My last meal, honestly, I just ate at the London Gordon Ramsay (in New York City) a couple weeks ago and that was [he lets out a deep sigh] the best meal I’ve ever eaten in my life! If I could have that again…It was a nine-course meal. Amuse bouche, duck foie gras, langoustine course, a halibut course, a Colorado lamb course and a roasted suckling pig course. The whole deal. It was to die for! Gosh, take away my pizza answer.
Chef Dersch goes on to explain how he loves going out to eat, even if it’s not his favorite celebrity chef’s restaurant. He doesn’t necessarily do it to borrow ideas but just to see what other people are doing because, in his mind, he never stops learning. The specials and a la carte menu, which Chef Dersch carefully creates at the General Warren Inne are proof of his lifelong education.
The young, talented Executive Chef has jazzed up the menu since starting five years ago and his innovative concepts will continue to evolve the cuisine. He welcomes diners of all ages and promises they’ll find something to enjoy at the General Warren Inne.
Find the General Warren Inne at 9 Village Way in Malvern or online at generalwarren.com. Photographs credited to Angela Corrado and Nina Lea Photography.