by Grant Moser
Carl Drake, 39, owner of Drake’s Gourmet Food & Catering at 8419 Germantown Ave., graduated from Chestnut Hill Academy in 1991. Shortly thereafter, he was studying to be a teacher at the University of Denver when he realized something: he didn’t like any of his professors. So in 1993 he came back to Chestnut Hill, where he was born and raised, to rethink his future. He found work at a local restaurant named Pollo Rosso in the Chestnut Hill Hotel, whose head chef was Amy Edelman, now the owner of The Night Kitchen Bakery.
“After working there for a year and a half, she said, ‘Carl, you should really look into going to culinary school. If you get a formal culinary background, you could do a lot more.’ So I went to look at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) and fell in love with it right away,” said Drake. In 1997, he graduated from CIA, located in Hyde Park, NY, with a two-year associate’s degree.
Drake enjoyed his time at CIA. The chefs were talented, and the facilities were state-of-the art. The guiding philosophy he still follows today is a piece of advice a chef at the school passed on to him: you’re only as good as your last plate.
“If at the end of the night,” Drake said, “you’re slacking and putting something together just to get it done, then you’re not a true chef. It’s what I tell my employees. Everyone is a VIP. If you have one bad customer, he’s going to tell 10 people.”
Carl’s internship at school was with the legendary Georges Perrier’s restaurant, Le Bec Fin. When school finished, he stayed on at the restaurant to continue learning. “It was intense, working 10-hour shifts, six days a week. But I was learning the different methods of cooking, whether grilling or broiling or sauteing. Because you’re at the restaurant more than anywhere else, the people there become your family. Hopefully you get along with them and kid around and have fun, but you also have to really work your butt off. You’re on your feet the whole time and moving non-stop.”
Drake proceeded to work at other well-respected Philadelphia restaurants after leaving Le Bec Fin, including La Terrasse, Opus 251 and Bacchus Market & Catering, but he was also thinking about venturing out on his own. In 2003, he and his then-pregnant wife, Claire, moved to Erdenheim from the city. His wife happened to be passing by the Flourtown Farmers’ Market one day and asked if there was any space available.
There was. Drake decided this was his chance to get his own business started because it didn’t require a lot of overhead to get off the ground, provided him a facility to cook out of and got his food in front of the public. Three years later he moved to his present location in Chestnut Hill.
Drake’s business has always focused on catering, even though he offers take-out food as well. In fact, 75% of his business is catering, and that suits him just fine. “There are plusses and minuses to everything. With catering, you know how many people are coming, whereas in a restaurant it’s a big guess. It’s also not every night of my life, so I have a bit more family time than a chef in a restaurant. But then, there’s times like May and June where I have only two days off a month. I initially wanted a restaurant and still wouldn’t rule that out if I found the perfect location, but I’m enjoying what I’m doing now…
“I can basically do anything, whether it’s Thai or Italian or German. I really like to do things I’ve never done before, and that keeps me excited about cooking. I do sit-down dinners for 15 to 20 people, cocktail hors d’oeuvres parties and weddings up to 300 people.”
Owning your own business is a dream-come-true, but comes with a lot of work. “It’s 24/7. If there’s a problem you’re the dishwasher, you’re the plumber, you’re whatever you need to be. There’s more stress, and your day isn’t done when the door closes; I’m still thinking about stuff.
“When you’re working for someone else, you at least get to go away and turn off a little, but it is nice that I can say, ‘Hey, I’m taking off for the morning and go see my kids play soccer or whatever comes up.’”
In addition to her maternal duties, Claire helps with music classes for children and works at several schools. The Drakes have three children: Natalie, 9, and Lucas, 7, who both attend Erdenheim Elementary School, and Nicholas, 5, who attends St. Thomas Nursery School. Claire is also is an actor who works with several acting companies, both locally and downtown. And Carl’s mom helps out in the business a couple of hours every week. “I couldn’t do any of this without them,” said Carl.
Drake’s is open for take-out Tuesday through Friday from 11-6:30 and Saturday from 10-5. And the third Thursday of each month for a sit-in, fixed-price three-course BYOB dinner, 6:30 to 9:30 p.m.
For more information, visit www.drakecatering.com or call 215-247-5911.
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