A Tale of Two Chefs
Brian Sikora and MacGregor Mann are making the Brandywine Valley a gourmand’s paradise.
As the sun dipped behind a grove of oak and hickory trees last September, I joined a stream of guests hiking up to a late-1600s bank barn at Haskell Farm. Then the aroma hit me—an intoxicating whiff of slow-roasting meat.
Dressed in a green Garrison Cyclery T-shirt and shorts, chef Bryan Sikora chatted up visitors while manning grills laden with racks of spice-rubbed hanger steak and chicken wings, preparing a farm-to-table bonanza for 90 fortunate patrons of Haskell’s final dinner of the summer.
Sikora understands how to coax the best flavor from the farm’s late-summer bounty. Gently dressed and lightly grilled, his gorgeous ode to freshly picked vegetables—green, red and yellow peppers, zucchini, beans, squash and several varieties of corn—is a platter brimming with colorful, hearty and healthy goodness. The smoky flavor provided just the right accompaniment to the grilled local chicken.
Haskell’s SIW farm stand is a go-to spot for Sikora during the growing season. Sikora delicately loads up his bounty of veggies just picked that morning and transports it all to La Fia, where he spills out the still-wet-with-dew veggies atop the kitchen table.
“The inspiration for my food often comes from my drive down the back roads from my home into Wilmington,” says Sikora, who lives with his wife and two young children in Downingtown. “I pass by marvelous farm stands that bring to mind wonderful fresh creations for that day’s menu.”
Sikora and his wife, Andrea, launched their bistro-bakery-market at Fifth and Market streets, kitty-corner to World Cafe Live at the Queen, in July 2013. Simple but inviting, La Fia is their riff on a tone-perfect French bistro. Foodies have taken note. On weekends, reservations are booked typically a couple of weeks out.
Last year, Sikora was a James Beard Awards semifinalist for Best Chef in the super-competitive Mid-Atlantic region. He put his culinary ventures into overdrive last fall. In November, he opened a wholesale bakery near the Grand Opera House. It turns out batches of handcrafted breads using a variety of artisan ingredients in an array of styles. They’re brought daily to such regional high-end retail outlets as Harvest Market and Terra Foods, along with The Whip Tavern, Four Dogs Tavern and other eateries.
This spring, Bryan and Andrea launched Cocina Lolo on King Street, a block away from La Fia. Formerly an office building’s lackluster cafeteria, the smartly renovated 40-seat eatery serves authentic Mexican fare for breakfast, lunch and dinner. A corner coffee bar juts off a handsome 24-seat bar that spotlights tequila specialty drinks and classic cocktails. At this lively space, the chef and his pair of Mexican-born chefs bring the same no-shortcut passion to updated Mexican street food.
Cocina Lolo is a creative outlet for Sikora—a chance to put his sophisticated nuances onto tried-and-true favorites. Hand-pressed and cooked to order, light tortillas and fresh ingredients help make the plump tacos a memorable experience.
For Sikora’s take on gorditas, he fills the warmed tortilla layers with crab, pico de gallo, shredded lettuce, cojita cheese and pickled jalapeno. “It’s food close to my heart,” he says. “I want to do it in a way that’s contemporary and fun—hearty in flavor with a sophisticated American influence and super-fresh ingredients. I’m going to treat Lolo as my new favorite experience and nurture it along to be a singular success.”
Sikora is focused on expanding his brand even further in the next few years. “I strongly believe a restaurant space must have good bones, with a concept that complements its community.”
A native of Ligonier in western Pennsylvania, Sikora graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y. The chef and his then- wife, Aimee Olexy, burst onto Philly’s culinary scene with the mega-hit Django in 2001. When the couple sold that intimate space, they moved to Unionville, Pa., and became culinary superstars with Talula’s Table in Kennett Square, a venture Olexy kept when the couple split up. Patrons for the restaurant’s chef’s table still must make reservations a year in advance.
After leaving highly touted a.kitchen in Philly in 2013, Sikora landed in LOMA, a shined-up section of downtown Wilmington, with his first chef/owner venture. Named for Bryan and Andrea’s young daughter, Sophia, La Fia is housed in a vintage storefront. Its distressed tin ceiling catches your eye. So does the natural light streaming through the tall windows fronting Market Street, and the reclaimed walnut floors and tables at the former florist’s shop.
Sikora’s labor-intensive philosophy is evident in much of his cuisine—from baking his own bread to creating his own pastas and pastries. So is his brave culinary spirit. A recent special on La Fia’s menu gave a tip of the hat to his local forager, who stopped by with gorgeous maitaki mushrooms that Sikora layered with homemade bechamel to create a maitaki gratin.
“Bryan likes to try new stuff—like chickweed that grows plentifully in the fall,” says H.G. Haskell, owner of the eponymous SIW farmstand. “He uses it as a garnish on some wonderful dishes. Bryan is the real farm-to-table guy. Unlike a lot of chefs, he’s a risk taker. He’ll try something new, and make it work.”
Sikora calls Wilmington a “boutique” city—one with a strong community effort fostered by the city’s developers, the arts and philanthropic endeavors.
“I find the thinking downtown very proactive,” he observes. “I see LOMA as an emerging neighborhood, a business landscape changing for the good. There are vibrant plans for DCCA and new residences here. We all just need patience.”
A few years ago, MacGregor Mann headed out on a global culinary walkabout. He was accepted as a station chef at Michelin-starred Noma in Copenhagen. Named the best restaurant in the world by Restaurant Magazine from 2010 to 2013, it afforded Mann the opportunity to learn from chef Rene Redzepi.
Redzepi augments his pantry by foraging in the wild Danish coastlands, forests and fields, where he uncovers rich, unexpected flavors. Diners book several months in advance, and can pay nearly $1,000 a couple for a wine pairing and tasting menu with dishes like fried reindeer moss, radishes served in soil, and live ants with yogurt. Mann likened his 2012 experience to a “PhD-worthy” sabbatical.
Returning to the states, Mann settled in Idaho, where he took over as executive chef at Henry’s Fork Lodge, a premier fly-fishing destination. Typical favorites of the anglers included bacon-wrapped trout, New York strip steaks seared directly on the coals, creamy butter beans, and Dutch-oven cornbread dotted with fig jam.
Mann’s talent and pedigree were honed at Amada, part of the esteemed Jose Garces group of restaurants. Mann rose through the ranks at the award-winning tapas bar in Philadelphia (known nationally in creative Latin cuisine) to become chef de cuisine. He was even featured on Iron Chef America, cooking alongside Garces.
But two summers ago, the vagabond cook conceived the vision for his chef/owner debut. He named his establishment Junto (JUNE-toe), which refers to a group of persons joined for a common purpose, Mann’s tip of the cap to a social club founded by Ben Franklin in Philadelphia in 1727.
Junto was launched in Chadds Ford to critical acclaim in May 2014. A sweeping front porch beckons diners to this “American modern farmhouse” that presents familiar flavors with refined style, seasonality and sharp technique.
Mann encourages his ingredients to speak for themselves, He employs all sorts of culinary techniques, including fermentation, and is regularly grilling on a wood-fired Big Green Egg out back.
Some of Mann’s earliest memories are of chasing chickens and stepping into the smokehouse at his great-grandparents’ farm in Culpepper, Va. Junto’s menu often draws upon the Pennsylvania Dutch flavors and family recipes he grew up with in York County. “My mom let me cook from the time I could reach the stove,” recalls Mann, 33. “I remember sitting out back of our farmhouse at 5 years old, shucking corn and sorting vegetables. Then we’d come in and help my mom prepare that night’s dinner.”
While Mann doesn’t source reindeer moss like he did at Noma, he and his team regularly forage the local countryside for the wine berries, wood sorrel and wild asparagus often spotlighted on Junto’s specials board. Several days a week, he can be found at farm stands, poring over a bounty of Brussels sprouts, Doc Martin lima beans, heirloom tomatoes, mushrooms, butternut squash, cauliflower and sweet potatoes.
Mann has built an impressive network of local farmers, including Chadds Ford’s SIW, Pete’s Produce in Westtown, and an Amish produce auction in Oxford. “We’re trying to move forward—eat in a more wholesome way,” he explains. “We’re also trying to take a step back and a step slower.”
Junto has been cleverly and carefully planned out with all aspects bringing you back to one central theme: the American farmhouse. Mann has worked with local Amish farmers to learn centuries-old pickling and protein-preservation techniques. To make his menu true and authentic, he has read and re-read countless books on local food history to bring back some of the cuisine and culinary practices of Pennsylvania’s food heritage. “Sometimes how they did things hundreds of years ago might be better than the way we’ve done it for the last 30 years,” he says.
“Local, sustainable—it’s all going back to where we should be. We’re trying to limit the miles to plate as much as possible. It’s all stuff that should be native around here, to showcase what these ingredients are—and were 150 years ago.
Mann’s personal vision of seasonality and his updated traditional local flavors rings true. Diners are welcomed with corncob-shaped cornbread treats served with apple butter—the recipe courtesy of his mom and one of an array of family dishes showcased at Junto.
One of the most intriguing small plates is the egg yolk ravioli, served over crispy smoked pork, sassafras pork jus, red kale, peaches and shaved walnut. Dive into the ravioli, and the egg yolk melts into the pork jus, creating a savory blend of flavors. The peach adds an enticing sweet note. It took sous chef Joe Lux two weeks to develop the technique, getting just the right amount of ricotta to surround the yolk in its pasta pouch so it would be perfectly runny.
Mann’s kitchen turns out one home run after another.