Philly Chef Tom McDonough Has Taken His Sandwich Talents To Florida With Soon-to-Open Flavor Palette

Tom McDonough got his start in restaurants at the age of 18 working at Tony Luke’s in his native Northeast Philly. He worked there for a few years starting in ’99 before diving into the corporate side of cooking with Sodexo—an experience he hated.

He left there to work at another sandwich shop: Benny’s Steaks [now closed] in the Northeast. His first chef job, at an off-premise caterer, followed at the age of 20.

“Wanting to know the fundamentals instead of just taking shortcuts,” he enrolled at The Restaurant School At Walnut Hill College where he got his associates degree on the accelerated path (~18th months, he says) while working at Philly Crab & Steak House [closed] in Warminster.

In culinary school, he met Chef Jeffrey Lin, who had apprenticed under Georges Perrier at Le Bec Fin. For a year after school, he worked with him as his sous chef at Aramark, handling off-premise events such as music festivals. Again, he couldn’t stand “the hypocrisy of working for corporate” where he had multiple bosses.

While moving on to work at the Hilton City Avenue wouldn’t, on the surface, seem like an improvement to some, the environment was conducive enough to get him to stick around for close to four years after he made sous chef in under five months.

“I went from cook to the only guy allowed to have overtime—basically I was young and I was hungry,” he says.

At the Hilton, he was mentored a year each by chefs Vince Alberici, Jean Francois Lassance of Belgium, and Mirko Loeffler of Germany who had worked in kitchens all over Europe.

Tom McDonough (far right) meets Big Willy Style with Scott Clarke (far left) & crew of Flying Monkey Catering.

Tom McDonough (far right) meets Big Willy Style with Scott Clarke (far left) & crew of Blue Monkey Catering. Courtesy of T.M.

“It was a pivotal time in my development,” he says, adding “that each brought different styles and strengths.”

Of the James Beard recognized Alberici, he says, “Vince is very classic Philadelphia Italian, an institution. He sent me to some of his friend’s restaurants, like La Buca on Locust St.”

As a chef, Alberici “was an amazing orchestrator.”

Of Lassance, he says, “he had a very classic French style with amazing technical skills and I really developed my production speed with him.”

During his time working with Chef Loeffler, who carried an array of influences—German, Carribean, French, Asian—he also shared a kitchen with an Indian banquet chef, Chinese garde manger, and a Jamaican production cook, among others.

“That international environment was a big influence,” he says.

A regrettable stint at a country club was followed by helping a friend from culinary school open Café Fresko [now closed] on the main line.

“It wasn’t your mom ‘n pop, souvlaki all day long. There was soy, ouzo, buerre blancs. It was fun twists on the cuisine,” he says.

“I was then offered a job when another friend from culinary school was opening Max & David’s—an international kosher restaurant [now closed]. We weren’t your average deli. We were bringing in things like duck confit and taking it to another level.”
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