Delco Profile: Chef Reeky’s Redemption Story Pays Off for Lucky Delco Diners
When Chef Tarik Ryant says he went to the school of hard knocks, he isn’t kidding. He did his on-the-job training at State Correctional Institute (SCI) Somerset where he landed after getting into some trouble as a young man. Luckily for Delco food lovers, Chef Reeky, as he’s known, got to pay his dues to society as he learned the culinary arts. He is living proof that hard work and redemption are sweet.
“I was arrested at 18, and I’m up front about that,” Ryant explains. “You can make a mistake and really turn your life around. For me, I landed in a kitchen unit at SCI, starting out as a line worker and doling out food to inmates. I learned that SCI had a vo-tech cooking program, so I applied. Over the next two years I did thousands of hours of training as a journeyman cook. I finished the program, graduated, got released a year early on good behavior, and went straight to the Restaurant School at Walnut Hill College.”
Eager to turn his passion for cooking into work, Ryant landed his first job at Jeffrey Miller Catering in Lansdowne as a party chef. He was part of a team turning out high-end weddings, cocktail parties and private events.
“This was an amazing experience,” he notes. “I learned so much there, and saw how my scratch-cooking training made a difference — right down to the desserts. I started to have dreams of my own company so I enrolled at Temple University’s Fox School of Business.”
Armed with an associate’s degree in culinary arts and a bachelor’s in business wasn’t enough for Ryant, however. Knowing the restaurant business is challenging (to say the least), he conjured up a Plan B and earned an associate’s in healthcare management from Community College of Philadelphia. “I got a great education; plus, I was staying busy and not getting into trouble!”
In 2012 Ryant acquired his first restaurant, but like everything else in his journey, he took a few interesting turns to get there. He took his now good credit and bought a home in Upper Darby. He says, “I didn’t want to rent anymore, so this was the next logical step. When my elderly neighbor passed away, I ended up talking to her daughter about the property. I was approved for a second mortgage, rehabbed and flipped that one, then bought two more units.” One of those ended up becoming Chef Reeky’s Cafe and Juice Bar — formerly Rhythm and Brunch Cafe — in Philly.
Ryant credits his work ethic and positive mindset for giving him the drive to take a shot at the things he knows he can do; the culinary and business degrees certainly helped!
It’s also about building relationships, too. Take the Cheezy Vegan with its 100-percent plant-based menu: During Ryant’s cook’s journey he met Paul Carmine of Philly vegan bakery Batter & Crumbs. Ryant sells products there, but also made a connection with a food service vendor. Seeing a great market for vegan food, Ryant acquired the vendor’s property in Woodlyn when it became available. It’s now one of the few places in Delco for vegan comfort food, like Chick’n Parm, Cheezy Mac & Me, Meat Loaf and Cauliflower Cheezesteak (yes, all plant-based!).
The restaurant that bears his nickname, Chef Reeky’s, his second Delco restaurant, is located in Chester and attached to the Days Inn by Wyndham Chester Philadelphia Airport. There are vegan options, but the menu is mostly packed with American, soul food, seafood and breakfast fare. Try a tofu scramble, strawberry short cakes or sweet potato fries for breakfast; seafood and spinach egg rolls or quesadillas, or salmon cakes when seafood’s the need; any of his signature gritz anytime (we love Links & Gritz, traditional grits with either split and grilled lamb, beef or hot beef links); sandwiches, burgers and steaks; unique rice bowls that come with dried fruit, onions, peppers and signature scampi sauce (we’re obsessed with the braised short rib of beef rice bowl); or something from the Big Bites vegan sandwich menu such as Reeky’s Ruben with seitan, vegan Swiss cheese, thousand island dressing and sauerkraut on rye.
“I’m still amazed at how things have run despite the pandemic,” Ryant adds, noting Chef Reeky’s opened in September 2020 amid the madness. “My co-owner, Frank Dolce, and I are just really excited to bring this spot to Chester. It’s a high-quality restaurant experience at affordable prices.”
Still, the frequently changing restrictions imposed on restaurants due to the pandemic have been a challenge. While he’s received some government assistant, it doesn’t cover the greater expenses.
“It’s been a zoo!” he says. “All fixed costs stay the same whether we’re closed, open at 25 percent, or for takeout only. Food costs continue to go up, but we’re not selling as much, especially when it’s takeout only. Labor costs went up because servers can’t make a living wage when tipping isn’t as good, so I’m paying them more. All restaurant owners get burned every time we’re shut down with virtually no notice — we have to buy food, which we can’t just throw in a freezer. It’s been crazy, but we’re determined to make it work for our customers and our staff.”
Ryant is definitely a multitasker, juggling multiple businesses at once. So how does he relax at home? What does he like to cook? “A simple fishless salmon with black bean beurre blanc, asparagus, garlicky mash or dauphinoise potatoes — similar to potatoes au gratin — with extra creamy oat milk and swiss cheese,” he says. “I’m vegan now and I’m loving it.”
Probably Ryant’s greatest triumph, though, is that of redemption, of how someone can turn their life around with renewed focus, determination, grit and drive. In December 2020 the Pennsylvania Board of Pardons removed his case from the records by pardoning him.
“I’d like to thank Attorney General Josh Shapiro, Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, Corrections Expert Harris Gubernick, Sen. Anthony Williams, the District Attorney’s Office in Philadelphia (CARES Division’s Pastor Myra), State Rep. Regina Young and Councilman Kenyatta Johnson for believing in me and assisting in the issuing process of the pardon,” he states. “Our new menu will highlight menu items named after members of the board.”
Keep up with the latest:@cheezyveganbychefreeky and @chefreeky on Instagram and Cheezy Vegan and Chef Reeky on Facebook. Cheezy Vegan, 604 Fairview Rd., Woodlyn, (610) 543-2300; Chef Reeky’s, 1301 Edgemont Ave. Chester, (484) 480-8846.
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All photos courtesy of Chef Reeky’s