By AML Publisher
Photos courtesy of Kevin E. McPherson
Publisher’s Note: The two appetizers pictured within this feature are not gluten-free. However, the Spanish octupus appetizer highlighted on the AML homepage is a gluten-free appetizer available at Blackfish.
Blackfish owner and head chef Chip Roman is considered one of the Main Line’s top culinary geniuses. The shy, baby-faced 29-year-old Fishtown native and St. Joe’s Prep alum trained under George Perrier and Mark Vetri before starting Roman Catering at age 23—a business that would rapidly evolve into one of the Main Line’s most beloved BYOBS. Roman invited AML into his kitchen for a rare chat (he usually turns down interviews) on a recent December evening. The quaint, simply designed space in the heart of Conshohocken is constantly humming with couples and parties dining by candlelight.
Roman is known for keeping his clientele on their toes…changing his menu weekly to keep Main Liners coming back for more. Blackfish also prides themselves on individual service and will accommodate food allergies and intolerances, no matter how stringent the diet, how specific the request. Recently an AML couple tested the Blackfish kitchen and requested a gluten-free friendly menu— resulting in rave reviews. Our secret food critics reported that the staff was very accommodating; the food guaranteed gluten-free, gourmet and delectable. It’s great news for local celiacs!
This summer Roman opened up a second Blackfish in Avalon to much acclaim. He gave AML the scoop on his next venture: a hotel is in the works by his team – but he is keeping quiet (for now) about when and where. Speaking of quiet, on the night of our interview the kitchen is surprisingly calm, the staff discreet as Roman and I chat in the back corner near the walk-in fridge. His staff huddles with intensity over the precise presentation of a Spanish Octopus appetizer, gently placing parsley and cherry tomatoes on the plate. Meanwhile, the strikingly handsome top chef with piercing green eyes kicks back with me for a little tet a tet. Not a bad gig for a Saturday night!
AroundMainLine.com: Your background is amazing, everyone knows you worked under the esteemed Mark Vetri and [George] Perrier and trained at LeBec Fin. Explain what your philosophy is for Blackfish and how you have established a successful, growing name at such a young age.
Chef Roman: We started the catering business in 2003 first, Roman Catering, and it worked out well. Then it evolved into the restaurant. And, that came about fairly quickly. So, this is an established BYOB now, but I don’t think we really run it as a traditional BYOB is run. It started out of necessity to make money, and that’s not the focus anymore.
The philosophy changes every other day – when we first opened we might have shied away from more expensive items but that has changed. Now, we incorporate a lot of higher end ingredients and I don’t structure the menu anymore. Sometimes there is not always steak on the menu—that’s how we operate. I try my best to hire very talented people to surround me. Everyone’s name is on the menu so people don’t feel like it is all about me, and that’s my philosophy and how I run my business, a team approach.
AML: This kitchen is definitely one of the most controlled environments I have ever been in—usually you have some tension in this environment, this is not the show Top Chef with everyone flipping out!
CR: I am calm, this is a calm and controlled environment and it all starts with me. There’s no use in getting into fist fights over food. We have the menu, we have our customers and I am not nervous anymore and the clientele returns.
AML: As soon as you opened, there was a lot of buzz about you on the Main Line. You are young, you catapulted to the top of the local restaurant scene and Blackfish took off. How did that all come together so seamlessly?
CR: It’s the people here, again not me. I will acknowledge I do have an eye for talent and what type of people will support my vision and be as passionate as I am about my restaurants. And, we have been able to sustain almost the exact same staff here since we opened which, as you know, is very difficult in the restaurant business. When we first opened this place, I was the oldest guy who worked here.
AML: What can people who have not had the pleasure of dining at Blackfish expect when they come here or go to your new Avalon locale?
CR: A friendly environment and a group that is dedicated to giving you the best experience possible. Our menu is pretty ambitious which is challenging with a small staff. It’s never about us–it is about the customer. And, any request a customer makes we will accommodate that with no excuses.
AML: Thanks for the great segue which brings me to my next topic and very important focus. We are excited to highlight Blackfish as part of AroundMainLine’s gluten-free recipe series. Not every restaurant understands the importance of accommodating food allergies and intolerances. And, I have a few close friends who have celiac disease and have dined here and just raved about how seriously your staff took their requests! And, most importantly, how fantastic their gluten-free dining experience was.
CR: We have a celiac customer coming in tonight in fact. She called ahead and besides a gluten intolerance (Chef Roman gets out the piece of paper from his pocket which he personally planned her menu on) the customer has a lactose intolerance, and many other specific allergies and restrictions. So, the other day I created a custom menu for her and it’s important that she knows she can come here, relax and enjoy a great dinner without worrying she will get sick or have a reaction.
AML: That is great and we will spread the word. There are many restaurants in the city that have gluten-free menus as part of their regular nightly options, but not so much out here on the Main Line. Everyone should not have to traipse into the city to enjoy a great meal just because they have dietary restrictions, correct?
CR: Absolutely not, and we are more than happy to cater to those restrictions. We also want our customers to feel comfortable in those requests. I have a customer who comes in here once a week, has been a regular customer since we opened and he has strict kosher dietary guidelines. I honestly do not know much about a kosher diet other than what he has taught me to serve him. It’s not really a big deal to us [to cater to our dining room].
AML: A little bird passed on the fact, not rumor, George Perrier dines here on a regular basis. So, I’m super curious, what is he really like and what in the world does he order when he comes in here?
CR: I think he is a very passionate, intense and an incredible businessman. Some people do not understand that intensity if they don’t have that type of drive. As far as what he orders…it is simple, simple—he usually orders roasted chicken and a Caesar salad.
AML: That’s so funny because…I can verify this story with my mother’s experience. Anyone who knows my mom (and she deserves a plug since she is a fantastic cook) knows my mom was Martha Stewart before Martha Stewart was Martha Stewart—you know what I mean?!
CR: I know those moms, they are great cooks!
AML: That’s my mother, a consummate gourmet. Well, a few months ago my mom was in Food Source in Bryn Mawr behind Perrier at the check out counter and she came home very excited. So, I asked her what in the world was he buying, because I LOVE that place and I wanted to pretend I was ‘in the know’ next time I went in. My mom said he had a roasted chicken and a bag of baby greens! So, I believe you, I’ll take that as a fact.
CR: That’s George Perrier.
AML: That’s your teacher, cool. So, tempt me with what you ‘whipped up’ tonight. I saw a celery concoction that looked intriguing.
CR: It’s called a study in celery: celery root taken in various forms. One is a puree; one is a juice, basically ten different variations of celery on one plate. I like to push the edge on the traditional and my chefs embrace that too—you just can’t do it for the entire menu, but we like to experiment and our customer base appreciates that.
AML: I am so hungry, what else?
CR: We have octopus, veal trotter, cavatelli, chicken…it’s always changing. I do not want to come across in anyway too proud of what we have going on here. There is always going to be someone better, so we keep it in flux. We never act like we have something ‘going on’ so we try to reinvent, change, evolve.
AML: You take the accomplished chef, the one the media has made into a sex symbol, a super star and television personality—you name it—and you just make it real, normal. That’s why you are good and people like you, want to work for you, stay here and hang in with your business vision. I can see it with your staff here in the back corner of your kitchen, it’s obvious.
CR: (Waitress yells, ‘Chip, you are THE best!’ and Roman blushes) At the end of the day, this is just food and a phenomenal passion I enjoy…so other chefs who buy into that hype and chit chat have to get real. The deal is I just love what I do, I’ve had a fantastic young career right now but this will not be my legacy–this kitchen. I want to be known as a great dad to Charlie and Carolyn (Roman’s children are 1 and 2) and loyal husband and friend. As far as my life, I’m just getting started.
Za’atar- crusted Tuna
Gluten-Free Recipe Provided by Chef Chip Roman
Blackfish, Conshohocken, PA
Merguez Sausage is a spicy lamb sausage. Blackfish purchases their merguez sausage from D’Angelo Bros. Meat Market on 9th Street in Philadelphia (www.deangelobros.com). AroundMainLine.com found a comparable lamb sausage mildly seasoned at Heebner Meats in the Lancaster County Farmers Market in Wayne. Za’atar is a Lebanese mixed spice. Semann’s Homemade Specialties, specializing in Middle Eastern and Greek cuisine, carries za’atar. Semann’s is also located at the Wayne Farmers Market.
12 plum tomatoes
¼ c. olive oil
1 ½ tsp. paprika
2 tsp. kosher salt
1 ½ tsp. chopped garlic
2 Tbsp. chopped shallots
1 tsp. chopped thyme
¼ c. chopped basil
½ lb. merguez sausage, casing removed
¼ c. sherry vinegar
1 Tbsp. olive oil
1 Tbsp. chopped shallots
1 Tbsp. capers
1 Tbsp. tomato sauce
½ tsp. kosher salt
¼ tsp. black pepper
2 tsp. chopped chives
3 Tbsp. canola oil
4 6-oz. portions tuna
Kosher salt and black pepper, for seasoning
1 c. za’atar
Chef Chip Roman of Blackfish uses bold flavors to spice up the winter months. The dish comes together quickly, but the tangy oven-dried tomatoes take some time.
Preheat oven to 200 degrees. In a mixing bowl, toss whole tomatoes with ¼ cup olive oil, paprika, salt, garlic, 2 tablespoons shallots, thyme and basil. Spread on a sheet pan and place in oven for 4 hours. In a sauté pan over medium-high heat, sauté sausage until nicely browned (it will crumble as you cook), about 10 minutes. Remove sausage and set aside. Drain all but 2 tablespoons of fat from pan, return pan to medium heat, and add vinegar to deglaze, scraping up browned bits, about 1 minute. Add 1 tablespoon olive oil, 1 tablespoon shallots, capers and tomato sauce; mix to incorporate, and then remove from heat. Season with salt, pepper and chives, and return sausage to pan. Meanwhile, heat a cast iron pan over high heat with canola oil until smoking. Season tuna with salt and pepper, then roll in za’atar on all sides, until well covered. Sear tuna, 1 minute on each side for rare. Evenly divide tomatoes and tuna among plates and lightly sauce; serve immediately. Serves 4.
Blackfish BYOB and Restaurant is located at 119 Fayette Street in Conshohocken, PA. Visit blackfishrestaurant.com for hours of operation or call 610-397-0888. Blackfish is also available for private parties.