There’s probably no other place in town where you can find more food experts than at Reading Terminal Market, and the Market’s expertise quotient went up another notch when Chef Tess Connors was hired to manage the Market’s City Kitchen demonstration kitchen in November. Since joining the Market family, Tess has had a hand in almost every free tasting, cooking class, cooking demo and shopping tour at the Market (both managing guest chefs and often literally standing behind City Kitchen’s stove or counter).
So who is this new public face of cooking education at Reading Terminal Market?
A Staten Island, N.Y. native who has cooked a lot of Creole and Cajun cuisine and has two degrees in emergency management -- meaning she’s well-equipped to deal with the Market’s Saturday afternoon crowds?
Chef Tess looks up from the cabbage she is chopping for that afternoon’s Thursday tasting and smiles at the question. Then she says, “Emergency management looks at food in a scientific way. It’s about food distribution, vendor relationships, food safety and figuring out where the gaps are. All of which is relevant to a big public market.”
This might make Connors sound like an academic or a food policy wonk. But she also boasts a list of hands-on cooking jobs long enough for someone twice her 37 years. It started when she was a toddler helping her grandmother cook a week’s worth of from-scratch meals for the family in a single day, and included stints at the prestigious Mohonk Mountain House resort and Le Bouchon, both in New York’s Hudson Valley, and three years cooking for passengers and crew of the Delta Queen Mississippi paddleboat.
“When you start young, you can get a lot in,” she explains. “But at this point in my life, I was looking for something where I wouldn’t have knife-in-hand 24/7.”
Her RTM City Kitchen position provides that variety in cornucopia abundance. The job encompasses scheduling the Market’s relatively new free Thursday noontime tastings and sometimes planning and cooking them too. The Thursday of our meeting she was prepping peanut noodle and Asian coleslaw salads designed to highlight the fruits and vegetables but also some of the Asian grocery items at O.K. Produce.
Tess also assists with the free merchant cooking demos that are offered every second and fourth Saturday from 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., sometimes as sous chef, sometimes just narrating the merchant cooking action, as when Bill Beck did his Mardi Gras food demo and “we joked about how the two New Orleans experts in the Market are both from New York!”
Chef Tess also conducts the free Market shopping tours that take place the other two Saturdays of the month at 10 a.m. (not to be confused with the Market- and food-history-oriented Taste of Philly Food Tours led by yours truly every Wednesday and Saturday at the same time). Chef Tess’ tours are focused on helping people shop the Market’s fresh food purveyors to create at-home meals and cater to the interests of whoever shows up. Since the tours started in earnest in February, they’ve addressed participant concerns about money and prep-time (or lack thereof) and a wide variety of dietary issues.
She shows the time-pressed the many pre-stuffed fillets and roasts and pre-marinated meats at Market meat, fish and poultry stands and points out that a place like Downtown Cheese doesn’t just sell cheese. “They also have olives and crackers. So though you can, you don’t have to go to 17 stands to pull together your cocktail party.”
She also teaches City Kitchen cooking classes, including public ticketed ones offered several times a month. Among upcoming summer ones: a Father’s Day feast of fried chicken and barbecued pork and a shrimp boil inspired by her time in the South.
“Not everyone in a cooking class wants to be there,” she learned while working at the Langlois Culinary Crossroads school in New Orleans. That’s where she also learned “how to make them fun for the people that got dragged along,” by telling stories, offering helpful kitchen tips or just giving permission to not work/just hang out.
Early Philly food favorites include pizza. Generally speaking, she’s been impressed by “the authenticity of the Italian food here” versus in the South. And yet, Chef Tess is not a fan of the city’s defining Italian sandwich.
Speaking of the cheesesteak’s mushroom, steak and pepper variations, she says, “It seems to me to be a case of trying to get a lot of variety out of very limited options” [i.e. bread, meat, onions and cheese]. This is something to straighten her out about when you see Chef Tess in the Market.
Carolyn Wyman is the Market's news correspondent and operator of the Reading Terminal's bi-weekly Taste of Philadelphia Food Tour (www.tasteofphillyfoodtour.com).