Expansion Team
With the addition of Whetstone Tavern, and likely more to follow, husband-and-wife chefs Jeremy and Jessica Nolen expand their culinary reign in Philadelphia
by Erica Bauwens

Philadelphia’s South Street has earned a reputation for the unusual. From The Magic Garden to Tattooed Mom’s and everything in between, it’s a stretch of the city that welcomes the particularly bold and adventurous … which makes it the perfect fit for the Nolen family.

Chefs Jeremy and Jessica Nolen have quickly emerged as two of the biggest names to watch in Philadelphia dining, capturing audiences from across the area with their unique approach to food at their German beer hall, Brauhaus Schmitz, which they co-own with Kelly and Doug Hager. And with a new restaurant, cookbook and emerging bakery breaking out in the last year, it seems like these two are only just now hitting their stride.

Starting Off

Jeremy Nolen got his start at an early age. The son of Ron Nolen, who served as chef at the former Sheraton Berkshire in Reading, Jeremy cut his teeth in his father’s kitchens across Berks and Lehigh counties starting at age 13.

“My dad was brought up with classic French food,” says Nolen. “I started working with him, going in on weekends and learning how to work my way up. That’s what really got me into cooking, and then from there I started hopping my way around, working in catering and working with my dad.”

But being a chef wasn’t always in the cards for Nolen, now 37. “My dad didn’t really want me to do it,” he says. “He said the hours were long, you worked holidays and weekends, and he didn’t want me to live like that.” While at Penn State in the 1990s, Nolen’s ska band, Hitmen for Hire, was taking off and seemed to be a promising path until the ska genre fizzled out. Then it was back to the kitchen.

Nolen got his start in city restaurants for several years, landing him a head position at the former bistro Coquette, which is where he met Jessica, his future wife.

“I remember specifically having a conversation about the difference between smoked salmon and lox when we first met and he was so impressed,” recalls Jessica. “Those are things that we have always been able to talk about together and share.”

The couple also met Marnie Old, an East Coast sommelier with ties to the area. Old helped connect the Nolens to Doug and Kelly Hager, and the idea for Brauhaus Schmitz was born.

“I was introduced to Doug and Kelly when I was still working at Coquette,” explains Jeremy. “He knew he was trying to open up a German restaurant and coincidentally so was he. I grew up in Berks County, which has a very heavy German influence. There was a big German club that I grew up going to, and Doug and Kelly lived in Germany for a few years, so it was a natural fit.”

The fit wasn’t as natural for Jessica, a pastry chef, who was educated in French techniques at The Restaurant School at Walnut Hill College. “I was never really into that style of cooking, even though it’s a part of my heritage. It took a huge learning curve,” she admits. “I was so obsessed with that romanticized feeling you get from France. People go and have a croissant and a great coffee and sit for three hours with a newspaper; that’s so romantic. But as I learned more about the German culture, I learned that romantic culture is really universal.”

The Next Step   
Brauhaus Schmitz opened in 2009 to rave reviews, praised for its authentic menu and beer list that drew in German transplants and fans of the culture.

Nolen and team have since trekked back and forth to New York City to cook in the esteemed kitchen at the James Beard House, hosted events that have shut down blocks of South Street on a regular basis, and opened a second outpost in Reading Terminal Market, Wursthaus Schmitz. Most recently, Nolen and his team served German soccer icon and head coach of the U.S. Men’s National Team Jürgen Klinsmann. “I’ve known about him for years because he’s a legend in the German soccer community, and he was on the World Cup-winning team that I watched with my German group in Berks County,” recalls Jeremy. “Then two days later he came back in with his family to eat and didn’t tell anyone. He said he’s never seen a beer list like ours in the [United] States.”

A drink with a soccer star was just one of the smaller accomplishments the Nolens can list on their résumés in 2015. The couple also released a critically acclaimed cookbook, “New German Cooking: Recipes for Classics Revisited,” in January.

But it’s the Nolens’ next step that is taking up most of their time these days. Jeremy and Jessica have returned to their former Coquette corner—with the Hagers in tow—to turn the space into something entirely their own: Whetstone Tavern.

Opened this summer, just two blocks from Brauhaus Schmitz, Whetstone puts a modern spin on American classics such as tetrazzini, tartare and sandwiches, even pepper pot soup. A complete renovation rendered the space unrecognizable compared with the place where Jeremy and Jessica first met.

“We thought about what the neighborhood needed, and what people were looking for,” says Jeremy. “We never set out to be really ‘foodie’ centric; we wanted to be approachable. We really wanted to have a really neighborhood friendly place, something that anyone could come to. People could come often and have a good mix on the menu.”

The neighborhood-centric focus also means a more drinkable beer menu, bar snacks and a seven-day-a-week brunch. “You can sit down and get three or four courses or just grab some appetizers or a burger at the bar,” he adds. “Or you can come in at night and get charcuterie and a glass of wine. We have a kids’ menu as well, so the families are excited about that. A lot of people really wanted this location to work, and people think this can be the one that is really doing it right.”

Business is in full swing, and things aren’t slowing down for the Nolens. “It’s definitely busy, but we don’t know any other way, and I wouldn’t have it any other way,” laughs Jessica. “I would never want a life where I’m calling, ‘Honey, dinner is ready at 5 p.m.’”

Looking Forward
With Whetstone up and running, Jessica is now spearheading her own bakery just a few steps from their newest restaurant. The Little Bird Café & Bakery is her passion project, and her chance to create that intimate bakery of which she’s always dreamed.

“I’ve wanted to do this ever since I started cooking since I was 10 or 11; I just wanted to open my own place,” says Jessica. “The way the layout is all open, so I’m really excited about the interaction of the people. To me, that’s part of me that’s been missing—not being able to interact and watch people eat my food, which is what got me into this in the first place. I want to be able to produce something and have somebody come up and ask me about it, and I love knowing that people have this little secret that they got from me.”

The Nolens launched a GoFundMe campaign to help raise funds for the bakery, which will help provide them with a new mixer and coffee station. Meanwhile, the work continues at a full speed. “We were thinking about waiting a year, buying a house and doing the bakery in the future,” she says, “but we took it and [ran] with it. It’s been really fun but totally crazy and a little scary.”

As for the future, Jeremy says they have loose plans to expand the Brauhaus Schmitz brand outside of the city and, if possible, somehow discover the elusive 25-hour day. “Looking forward another year or so is tough,” he admits from his kitchen at Whetstone. “This place should be running pretty smoothly. I’d like to see the bakery running smoothly and successfully, and hopefully have a little more time to spare.”

“We were always looking for the right time for this to happen, and there was never really a right time—just like everything in life,” adds Jessica. “I have no problem learning and growing. To me, that is what makes a really good chef. There’s always so much more for both of us to learn. So we’ll keep on learning.”

Photograph by Jason Varney