Chef Elijah Milligan, recently back in his hometown of Philadelphia after a few years running restaurants in northern California, is taking over the kitchen at South, with big plans for the Bynum brothers’ North Broad restaurant and jazz club. Milligan, who made his name working for celebrated restaurateurs Georges Perrier, Greg Vernick, and Nick Elmi, is giving South a modern upgrade with a new menu focused around the wood-fired oven and grill. A few of his dishes are debuting now during Center City District’s restaurant week, with the rest slowly rolling out over the coming weeks. It’s a welcome home party, he says.
“I’m coming back to Philadelphia and showcasing what I’ve put together over the years,” Milligan says. “My goal is to do some things not currently done here, and source some items not normally available. I did that in California — the first time I put scrapple on a menu, people were going crazy about it.”
The food at South will still be influenced by the cuisines of the American South, he says, but “I’m gutting the entire menu. We’re going to focus on the beautiful wood-fired oven and wood-fired grill, with fresh, local seafood and more vegetables. Southern cuisine is a melting pot, with so many techniques and flavors behind it. We’re keeping gumbo and jambalaya and etouffee, but with a much more modern approach.”
Since getting back to Philly, Milligan joined up with Kurt Evans to put together Cooking for the Culture, a collaborative dinner series highlighting talented black chefs in the city. South, where Evans was already a sous chef, signed on to be the venue for the first and second dinners in the series (the third event is October 1 at Fine Palate). After weeks of conversations with South’s Robert and Benjamin Bynum, Milligan was convinced to stay.
The chef brought in Gregory Headen and Malik Ali. Like Milligan, Headen, who’s coming from Stephen Starr’s Dandelion, also spent time working under Georges Perrier. Ali got his start at Joncarl Lachman’s Noord, then went on to open Lachman’s now-closed Neuf.
“I’ve known Kurt since he first decided to get into the culinary industry, and Malik too. And we all cooked together for Cooking for the Culture,” Milligan says. “Greg, he worked for Perrier as well — anyone who worked for Perrier, you’re almost like family. If you worked for him, it shows, in how your food is and how you handle the pressure.”
Milligan’s own restaurant background goes back all the way: His parents run three branches of a soul food restaurant, Just to Serve You, in West Philly, Olney, and Wilmington, Delaware, and he started cooking as a teenager. He went on to hone his skills at Perrier’s famed Le Bec-Fin.
Part of the deal at South was Milligan would have complete control over the menu. He’s adjusting the classic appetizer-and-entrée lineup, adding several smaller plates and a few dishes made for two, like whole fish with a citrus and herb stuffing or a 32-ounce rib-eye steak with a garlic-charcoal rub and bone marrow custard. That etoufee he mentioned will come with lobster, sea urchin foam, and watercress puree. There’s also an oxtail pappardelle with hen of the woods mushrooms and a crispy chicken roulade with smoked and dirty grains. For dessert: hummingbird cake.
Look for new menu items to be released in batches, as the old dishes are phased out. Milligan also has a venture in the works back in California and his Philly residence may not be permanent — so get to South now.