A New Restaurant Model in Philadelphia Is Helping Independent Chefs Thrive
Run out of a catering kitchen in South Philly, Kampar Kitchen currently offers dishes from seven of Philly's best chefs, with a waitlist of dozens more.
"Why don't you just sell pizza or sandwiches?" Ange Branca has been asked the question more than once, by landlords or well-meaning chefs trying to advise her on how to cover rent payments or raise profits.
Branca and her husband, John Branca, opened Saté Kampar on Philadelphia's East Passyunk Avenue in 2016. Within the first year, the Malaysian restaurant inspired by her childhood in Kuala Lumpur was nominated for a James Beard Award and garnered a loyal customer base. But when they had a dispute with their landlord over a rent increase just a few months into the pandemic, the Brancas decided to close up shop. Instead of taking a break, though, they continued working, serving frontline workers and hosting pop-ups.
As they fed the community throughout the summer, Branca saw other restaurants starting to shutter—Filipino food stall Lalo, Hawaiian restaurant and food truck Poi Dog. She was worried that the diversity of Philly's culinary landscape would suffer. By January, she opened Kampar Kitchen, a culinary marketplace run out out of a catering kitchen in South Philadelphia, where she hopes to grow Philly's rich food scene by showcasing a diverse roster of chefs and cuisines. Customers can order from a different chef each night, like Jacob Trinh's Wednesday Vietnamese Ba Vi platters, or Joy Parham's Soulful Sunday suppers with blackened catfish and tomato and okra stew. Meals average $60 each, and come with enough food for two, plus a menu that tells the story behind each dish.
Branca has set up Kampar Kitchen to handle the rent, the ordering platform, and the customer pickup or delivery. Chefs pay a percentage of their own sales, making it a much lower barrier to entry than opening their own shop and having to purchase these necessities up front. The organization currently works with seven chefs, and it has a waitlist of dozens more.
Branca requires that the chefs have already been doing pop-ups; she views Kampar Kitchen as their next step. "The gap between a pop-up and owning a restaurant is wider than it's ever been, because capital and space is disproportionately inaccessible for these types of cuisines," she says. This is even more true in the COVID-19 era, when restaurants writ large have suffered huge losses.
While the concept emerged just months after closing Saté Kampar, Branca says it's been brewing for much longer. "Everything I've experienced in the last five years owning a restaurant, coupled with the whole of a pandemic, it brought Kampar Kitchen together," she says.
Once a management consultant for firms like Deloitte and IBM, Branca opened Saté Kampar to introduce her regional cuisine to Philly while alleviating some of her homesickness. The restaurant also served to preserve a piece of her heritage. Recipes for dishes like achat—sweet and spicy pickled vegetables—were dictated over the phone by an aunt who instructed her to use "20 cents worth of turmeric" and "one bottle of vinegar." Standard units of measurement aren't necessary when shopping at the same spice vendor or corner store for decades, but Branca eventually nailed down the recipe.
There was a story for each dish on the menu: Branca recalls growing up, competing with her brother over who could eat more skewers of meat grilled over coconut shell charcoal. Nasi Lemak—deftly-wrapped banana leaves filled with coconut rice, roasted peanuts, crispy anchovies, egg, and sambal—she remembers, was made by a woman in the neighborhood who sold them for 25 cents a piece. These stories became an integral part of Saté Kampar, and propelled Branca's mission to tell stories of underrepresented cuisines and cultures.
In 2017, while also operating her restaurant, Branca started organizing regular charity dinners. "I decided I needed to do more to tell stories on immigrant foods," she says. "There's a huge diversity of food here in Philly, and a lot of this food has a story behind it that needs to be appreciated."
At these intimate events—called Muhibbah dinners, after the Malay word that translates to goodwill, friendship, or harmony—chefs served a dish that represented their heritage, and ticket sales went to local orgs supporting immigrants and refugees in Philadelphia. Branca's new venture takes inspiration from these dinners—it's a way for chefs to showcase a dish or cuisine of their cultures and to tell its story to a new audience. "When a chef focuses on one dish, they make that dish perfect," she says. And when you tell the stories behind those dishes, "you don't just remember the flavor of the food, you remember the experience."
Kampar Kitchen also took inspiration from Malaysian coffee shops called kopitiams. The word itself is a mixture of two cultures—"kopi" is Malay for coffee, and "tiam" is the Hokkien Chinese word for stall or shop.
"All Malaysians eat at kopitiams, where there's a huge variety of sole proprietorship within a single restaurant and there's always a diverse array of dishes in front of you," says Branca. "There's no first course, no French wine pairing, we don't think about transitions. You could go from curry laksa, to a rice cake dish, to toast and coffee, to a colonized version of a pork chop. It could all exist on the same table and be enjoyed in the same meal."
In a sense, Kampar Kitchen is a version of a kopitiam, with Branca bringing together cuisines like Chris Paul's Haitian braised chicken patties, Chilean fare by Cote Tapia-Marmugi, and more.
Filipino chef Daps has been working with Kampar Kitchen since its launch. He understood Branca's vision for the business, and is happy to introduce his food to a wider audience—not just because it makes business sense, but because it's helping some chefs tap into their own stories.
"With Ange's background, work ethic, and passion for the movement, I feel like I am amongst the right people with the same drive and pride of their culture," says the chef. "We can really learn a lot from one another, and it's a good part of my journey, decolonizing parts of myself and my culture."
Tapia-Marmugi, who was born in Santiago, Chile, and grew up in New York, agrees. "[In New York], I was surrounded by my Latin people … I somewhat adopted a lot of cultures around me, and struggled to grab onto mine." The chef is making pequenes, or mini empanadas filled with slow-cooked onion, served with pebre, "a ubiquitous condiment found on tables all over Chile … a family recipe, grandma-taught, aunt approved," notes the menu.
Chefs can also workshop new dishes, and get fast feedback from customers. "Given that we are doing authentic Polish food, the Kampar Kitchen platform allows us to see what food items work, don't work, and what could work if we just pitch it right, like our Zupa Ogórkowa, or pickle soup," says Constance de Uriarte, who runs Babushka Boy with her husband, Krzysztof Babik.
Fudena founder Ruth Nakaar makes food inspired by her parents' native Ghana, and sold her made-from-scratch bowls of jollof rice, curried goat, and tomato stew through Kampar Kitchen. "Ange has such a loyal customer base," says Nakaar. "It was great to access another population, and what she's doing for underrepresented chefs and cuisine is amazing."
It's Branca's mission. "A rising tide lifts all ships," she says. "That's what Kampar Kitchen is."