Delco Profile: Village Vine’s Executive Chef Krupa Patel on Mentors, Family Influences and the Wawa Pickle Sandwich
Krupa Patel’s story teaches that you never know where your journey may take you, yet it can be incredibly fulfilling to go along for the ride. Despite being a reluctant kitchen helper as a kid in her family’s home kitchen, she found that working at a local market/cafe, and support from its owner, put her on her path to executive chef.
Patel may have been born in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, but she was raised in Wallingford and lives in Swarthmore, so her Delco roots — and love for Wawa — run deep. Come meet the chef!
You have a really interesting background — tell us about your journey to Village Vine!
I was originally aiming for a paralegal degree, with an eye to law school. I’d completed my philosophy undergrad at Temple University, and was working at 320 Market Café in Media. I realized that I loved working there because I learned so much from Jack Cunicelli and the 320 Market Café family. There was an unbridled enthusiasm for cheese, and a laser focus on sourcing natural wines. I was working the front-of-house, but that wasn’t my passion, so Jack supported me and gave me a chance to develop my skills and my career. I started by making desserts and realized that I really loved making food professionally! I can’t say enough about Jack and the 320 family, who also supported me as I moved on to other Philadelphia restaurants: Philadelphia Country Club, a.kitchen + bar and Vernick Food & Drink. When the pandemic hit in early 2020, I left the city scene to be with family in safer conditions, and started looking for employment. I met founders Jill Bennett Gaieski and Lori Kettering Knauer at Village Vine, and fell in love with their “food rooted in community” vibe. They have strong values that align with the community-centric, harmonious way that I was raised. It’s a great fit!
How did your family frame your culinary journey?
Ironically, I spent most of earlier years resisting kitchen duty! My mom and aunts were always in the kitchen making fresh, vegetarian meals. At some point, I could no longer resist kitchen duty — and that turned out to be a benefit in the long run. My mom and aunts would just throw a project at me and, over time, I became proficient, in part because I was having such a good time around family. Few people had that same springboard into food prep! Or, into vegetarian food prep. We’d host 20 or more for Thanksgiving, but ours was non-traditional with lots of vegetarian choices: think an Indian-Mexican fusion Thanksgiving! I learned to do prep fast and right down to the wire. I relished those meals, because all those I love the most gathered there.
How did your grandmother, in particular, influence you?
My maternal grandmother is the most celebrated cook in our entire family — including my father’s family! In my culture, families are intertwined, and for us, so much so that they all celebrated her as the cooking matriarch. Because of that, I really relate good food to a maternal vibe. Because of my grandmother’s example, I never looked to “impersonate” a male mentor, although I celebrate them all. I never felt like I had to perform like men, physically or mentally. I’m able to see both worlds as vibrant and important, as independent and valuable. I’m very lucky to be able to pull from both sides, and I’m so grateful for all of it.
It sounds like all of your training has been on the job!
Definitely hands-on. I had pretty much free reign at 320 to learn pastry making, and that was priceless. I received amazing on-the-job training from Master Chef Fritz Gitchner at the Philadelphia Country Club. That team offered me the guidance and resources to learn how to perform next-level in a commercial kitchen. I learned about standards and systems there, too. All along, things came to me at the right time in my life to learn more and more from those who had been doing it successfully day in and day out. It’s inspirational when you let it happen, adapt to your surroundings and let the situation teach you. I also have to give a nod to my parents, who have scientific backgrounds! That made me meticulous about measurements and such.
What’s your chef philosophy?
It’s really a journey of authenticity based on my own experiences. I believe that I understand what makes food taste good — and that’s balance. So, I take my strong family background and see how it lines up with popular, accessible and familiar flavors to those who hadn’t been raised with family recipes. This helps me find the right language in menu writing, recipes and communication to convey what is authentic to me. That means my samosa is going to be a little different because of my experience with empanadas. Another example: Venezuelan cuisine. I’d worked with it and tasted it, and now I incorporate it into part of my story. I want to channel my voice into my cuisine to make sense to others.
Do you have a favorite thing to cook at home?
My husband, Dan Green, is the sous chef at Home Appétit, a local meal delivery service. Because we’re both in the food industry … well, we don’t cook well together. My favorite thing to do is to watch him cook, give him the stink eye, experience it, taste it and then admit how profoundly delicious it is compared to how I would have made it. His carnitas dish is really quite lovely.
Would you please share something no one would know about you?
Yes: my favorite Wawa order. As someone who started out as a vegetarian, and now has opened up to eating just about everything, I’m obsessed with a Wawa pickle sandwich. During the 2020 quarantine, my date night with Dan was eating in our car and people watching in the Wawa parking lot — in a weird way, we were connected but entirely safe. No matter what, my order was a pickle sandwich. I’ll even share the recipe! It must be on a shorti or classic roll, and include every single pickle available. Every one, right down to the cherry pepper relish. Ok, jalapenos are optional, but I recommend them. You can choose whatever cheese or cheeses you’d like, but lettuce, tomato and onion are a must. I’ll also allow you to choose your seasonings, but I’m a mayo fiend or, sometimes, honey mustard. I’ll try anything from Wawa, but the pickle sandwich can’t be beat.
Any other family you’d like to mention?
Alas, our hound, Flower, passed away during the pandemic. We had five good years after adopting her from the Providence Animal Center. I mention it because her illness illustrates the transformative power of a pet’s love: My vegetarian parents were cooking her gorgeous chicken dinners and hard-boiled eggs just to urge her to eat. In fact, my parents have been amazing throughout my journey. I was raised vegetarian, since it’s a part of their ethics and value system. Yet, they found a way to understand and respect what I’m doing as I follow my career path.
Is there anything that I didn’t ask that you’d like to tell us?
I must tell you that I have a “Wawa Test.” I basically ask myself, “Was this better than the Wawa pickle sandwich?” You laugh, so maybe we’ll call it “The Delco Standard.” It’s the feeling that you get when you taste something that you absolutely love. I hold myself to that standard, too.
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