Shoppers co and go on a sparklmeing morning in Kennett Square. Beneath a yellow-striped awning of a gourmet market downtown, sit two women chatting, nibbling on sticky buns, and drinking lattes. A pal waves as she scurries to a counter brimming with luscious artisan cheeses then on to a vintage cabinet filled with just-baked baguettes. Staff glides about the cozy space fielding queries and lending suggestions. At Talula’s Table the sense of community feels alive and well.
Proprietor Aimee Olexy greets me with a bright smile and we settle down at a broad oak table beneath a rustic chandelier. In the evening when the market closes its doors, that farm table becomes center stage for an eight-course feast that has been tagged “the toughest reservation in America.”
Fortunate diners get to put everyday life on pause and enjoy an exquisite, unhurried meal. Prospective patrons (8-12 a night) vie to book reservations a full year in advance. By point of comparison, the French Laundry in Napa, Calif., which has a mere 17 tables, is lauded for its six-month waiting list.
The one-seating-a-night tastings have garnered a mountain of accolades and sparkling reviews from the New York Times and Saveur.com to NPR and actor John Turturro, who traveled down from Brooklyn with his wife.
“Each dish was a separate love affair. It was the kind of meal you’d request before your execution,” Turturro told Portfolio.com after a banquet of egg custard with Jonah crab, exotic mushroom risotto, snails in rigatoni farci, roast pompano, osso buco and house-smoked bacon, lamb, wildflower honey, and an array of winter blue cheeses.
Hand-crafted and usually sourced locally, the parade of delectable courses is explained in vivid detail by Chef Joshua Behm. A consummate hostess, Olexy stages an affair akin to dining in her Unionville home.
“Aimee is quite a force, sourcing the food, collaborating with the staff, setting the vibe, she orchestrates it all,” observes Abby Morgan, who joined the staff shortly after its debut in 2007 and has managed the Kennett Square farmer’s market for the past five years.
“She creates eater utopias. Like Rumpelstiltskin, Aimee can spin straw into gold.”
A restaurant worker since age 13, Olexy grew up in West Chester. “My parents were pretty hippie,” Olexy says with a laugh. “My mom was into art and had lots of big gardens. We ate simply and naturally.”
Olexy left 10th grade at Henderson High School to hawk open-face cream cheese sandwiches and bagels with sprouts and scrambled eggs in parking lots of Grateful Dead concerts.
“I was a huge Dead fan, still am,” Olexy says with a grin. “My brother and I would go out on the road for about two months. We pulled in a couple hundred bucks a day, dabbling in my first entrepreneurial food-related business.”
After getting her GED and an English literature degree from St. Joseph’s University, Olexy hit the road for Denver where she met and married chef Bryan Sikora. The pair worked at inns and cafes out west before turning up in Philadelphia in 1999 where Olexy managed the bistro Blue Angel for high-concept restaurant mogul Stephen Starr.
In March 2001 the two struck out on their own, launching Django. An offbeat and pioneer BYOB, to this day Django is the only BYOB eatery to have earned a “four-bell” rating from Philadelphia Inquirer’s Craig Leban, recognized as the city’s toughest restaurant critic.
Eventually, they sold Django and headed to the horse country of Unionville to decompress, raise infant daughter Annalee Talula Rae, and pursue a new culinary challenge.
Talula’s Table became an immediate and unexpected success. Patrons pour in daily for crusty bread, creamy duck rillettes, house-churned or European-style butter, olive oils and vinegars, spiced salts, Italian pastas, local fresh beef and lamb, and its own stocks, sauces, hickory smoked sausages, and 150 perfectly aged, ready-to-devour curds for Olexy’s beloved cheese course.
Dinner patrons rave about the big bursts of flavor from the hyper-seasonal produce and ingredients–picked fresh from Chester County and Lancaster farms–in the eight elegant courses of little plates. Olexy has cultivated a network of small but dedicated farmers who prize her commitment to quality.
Rich, tender lamb arrives exclusively to Olexy eateries from Meadowset Farm in Landenberg. Over at Bailey’s Farm in Unionville, grass-fed Lineback cows produce natural milk used for the coffee bar, chocolate milk, and luscious homemade ice cream. Lancaster Farm Fresh Co-op supplies free-range eggs that are served for Sunday brunch. Swallow Hill Farm in Cochranville grows multiple crops–rhubarb, asparagus, tomatoes, broccoli, and honey bear squash.
“We used to drive out and pick up everything from local farmers then I started counseling them on building restaurant relationships,” Olexy says. “Now they deliver to us and others. They can count on us and we can count on them. I’m really proud of that.”
Unlike at most restaurants, Talula’s employee attrition rate is very low. Olexy enjoys fostering her talented young staff, whose enthusiasm is infectious.
“Talula’s Table is the mothership,” says Olexy. “If I just did that, it’s a closed circuit and then some staff would go away. You have people that appreciate your vision and have supported you so you want to be able to see them grow professionally. It’s why I want to do cooking classes, recipe projects, gardening projects, a farmer’s market stand, or something big like another restaurant. By tapping into their interests I create added value for the overall team.”
All of the tributes come with a cost. Sikora and Olexy were divorced in 2010. She became the sole owner of the business. A creative dynamo who redefines multi-tasking, Olexy doubled down on running the market and the Farm Table’s sumptuous cuisine. She also began listening to Starr about a new restaurant concept in Philly.
In April 2011 she launched Talula’s Garden, an urban sibling of the “Table” in partnership with Starr. Set just off the western edge of picturesque Washington Square, throngs of foodies, scene-makers, and locals pack the place most evenings.
The garden patio is festooned with twinkling garden vines surrounded by a deck of old Philadelphia bluestone and brick. Herb boxes hang everywhere. Inside, the bi-level dining room is set off by high ceilings and lots of light. Redwood planks from pickle barrels at the Vlasic plant in Millsboro make up the restaurant’s ceiling. White pine reclaimed floor joists from the restoration of the Queen Theatre assumed a new life as tabletops in the indoor dining room.
Young adults from Wilmington’s Challenge Program handled the carpentry. “It’s a program I really support,” Olexy says. “The guys really put a part of themselves into each of the tables. All the reclaimed objects make the restaurant much more soulful.” The 102-seat area inside is cozily chic, with botanical prints, dangling silk lamps, and magnificent orchids poking out of flower boxes hitched to the shiny white subway tile wall.
At a slab of polished pink granite the “Maítre Fromager” holds court on the newest artisanal cheeses to a cluster of enchanted diners.
Still, it goes far beyond gorgeous ingredients and smart interiors for Olexy. It’s a synergy of all the elements. Like her Chester County culinary outpost, The Garden provides an exceedingly high hospitality quotient. As Olexy puts it, hospitality is –the degree to which it makes you feel good to make other people feel good.
“I want people to be able to lose themselves here,” she says. “The most memorable restaurant experience is when you can take your time, relax, and enjoy a meal with friends. A place people come back to, to feel at home.”