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La Peg: A Hub for The Arts and Food.

February 20, 2015

LaPegOnline02Text by Dan Halma. Images by Charles Shan Cerrone.

An abandoned high pressure pump station isn’t the typical first choice for a restaurant but according to Peter Woolsey, executive chef and proprietor of La Peg, the building was “the first property that made sense” for his new restaurant. Located at 140 N. Columbus Blvd., La Peg officially opened its doors for business on Aug. 25. It sits nicely next to the Benjamin Franklin Bridge and directly across the street from Race Street Pier. Through the sizable floor-to-ceiling windows that are set into the original glazed brick walls of the pump station, diners are treated to fantastic views of the Delaware River waterfront as they savor Woolsey’s take on traditional brasserie fare.

French for brewery, a brasserie traditionally serves casual, yet refined food in a setting that is more relaxed than its cousin, the bistro. La Peg’s menu reflects this tradition. Woolsey insists that La Peg’s cuisine is “inspired but not strict” in its take on brasserie offerings.

“For example, we have Pho,” Woolsey says, “but it’s Pho through a Frenchman’s eyes.”

Originally from Lower Merion Township, Woolsey now lives in the Pennsport neighborhood of Philadelphia and is no newcomer to the art of cooking or being a restaurateur.  Cooking since the age of 18, Woolsey has worked in restaurants across the country, under famous chefs and restaurateurs including Georges Perrier of Le Bec-Fin, Stephen Starr of the Starr Restaurant Organization and Alfred Portale of Gotham Bar and Grill.

What provided the springboard for Woolsey’s career in French cuisine was a chance move to France in 2000.

In France, Woolsey studied pastry making and worked at Lucas Carton, the famous Paris restaurant now owned and operated by chef Alain Senderens. Senderens is credited as one of the founders of nouvelle cuisine, an approach to French cuisine characterized by lighter and more delicate dishes with emphasis on presentation.

“France just happened,” Woolsey says. “I’m not a Francophone by any means but France is where I ended up. Now I speak French fluently, I’m married to a French woman and I run French restaurants.”

Woolsey owes not only his time in France to shaping La Peg’s cuisine, but also its name. When asked about it, Woolsey smiles and undoes the buttons of his flannel shirt and reveals the words “La Peg” which have been tattooed on his upper left arm for the past 10 years.

“I had this done when I got married,” Woolsey explains. “My wife’s name is Peggy but her father had nicknames for each one of his children. Her nickname was ‘La Peg.’”

The menu at La Peg serves as a testament to Woolsey’s time in France. On the brunch menu, diners can savor a variety of options including crepes, eggs florentine and benedict, pork terrine and the house mesclun salad. Patrons arriving for dinner can expect options including foie gras, pan roasted striped bass, beef and tuna tartare, pork cheek carbonade and choucroute garnie.

After moving back to Philadelphia in 2002, Woolsey continued to refine his craft and in 2008 opened his first restaurant, Bistrot La Minette, located at 623 S. Sixth St., where he still serves as owner and proprietor. While both restaurants follow a French tradition, Woolsey seeks to make a distinction between the two.

“Where Bistrot is inviting,” he explains, “I want La Peg to be exciting.”

The restaurant’s location on N. Columbus Boulevard is the perfect space to do so. In addition to housing La Peg, the building is also home to the offices and theater of Philadelphia’s Fringe Arts, curators of the annual Fringe Festival.

When searching for locations for the  Fringe Arts space, president and co-founder Nick Stuccio had a specific idea for what he wanted to establish.

“I wanted to create a place where artists hatch ideas to change the world,” says Stuccio.

In the 18 years that Fringe Arts has been operating in Philadelphia they have followed this vision. As one of the area’s leaders for contemporary and experimental artists, Fringe Arts has provided Philadelphia with an outlet for some of the most cutting edge artists from around the world.

While Fringe Arts is most known for Fringe Fest, they also host events and performances year-round. But what was missing from Stuccio’s vision was a bar and restaurant that would make Fringe Arts a true hub for artists. With La Peg now a few months into operation it seems that his vision is complete.

But no performing arts hub would be complete without live music. La Peg is also the home for Philadelphia’s Red 40 & The Last Groovement, who are enjoying their residency as house band performing every first Friday night. In addition to Red 40’s residency, La Peg also hosts live music every Friday night.

Woolsey explains that the restaurant and Fringe Arts have had a very symbiotic relationship. The restaurant opened just prior to this year’s Fringe Fest and theatergoers would try La Peg’s offerings before or after the events of the festival.

Woolsey is already brainstorming ideas for next year’s Fringe Fest, expressing an interesting in blurring the lines between a dining and theater experience.

“John Waters made a film where you had a scratch-and-sniff card that you’d smell at different parts of the movie,” Woolsey says, referring to Water’s 1981 film “Polyester.” “Maybe we could do something like that but you’d eat certain things at different parts of the play instead of smelling them.”

In the meantime, Fringe Arts and La Peg’s intersection of food and theater can be experienced as early as this coming March when Yumi Kendall, acting associate principal cellist of the Philadelphia Orchestra, will be “playing brunch.” Kendall will be working with Stuccio and Fringe Arts staff to pick a selection of music that Woolsey will then plan an accompanying menu inspired by Kendall’s pieces.

While managing a restaurant with more than 45 staff members “… is sometimes like herding cats,” Woolsey is happy to take on the challenge.

“Who gets to have this much fun at work?” he asks.

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