Staff Love: Dave Harrison and Nicole Zuppo.

Steven Burns

“We both kinda went over there and did dishes for the next three hours.” Nicole Zuppo and her then boyfriend, now fiancee, Dave Harrison met over a mountain of dirty dishes at The Restaurant School at Walnut Hill College. “We realized it’s a four hour class and we’re three hours in and no one is doing the dishes. We thought, if we ever wanted to get out of here we should probably start doing them.” For the next four weeks, Nicole and Dave bonded over piles of porcelain and steel - until their teacher told them to pass the job on to someone else. Since graduating The Restaurant School, Nicole and Dave entered the industry as culinary professionals, started a fantastic food blog called Lighting the Pilot, and, more recently, got engaged. They’re also City Tap veterans. Nicole is both a server at City Tap and part of the culinary team at Penne Restaurant and Wine Bar; Dave, a former sauté cook at City Tap, is now the Sous-in-training at Zahav. I visited Dave, Nicole, and their cat, Bruce, in their cozy West Philly apartment to talk about how to get creative with craft beer. I also tried some beyond amazing mango shrimp tacos marinated with Troegs First Cut Mango IPA.

Nicole first attended Temple University intent on studying music education. At the time, however, she was reading and exploring different food blogs and was reeled in by the bright, fresh emerging trends in New American cuisine. Dave, on the other hand, originally planned to study Environmental Engineering, but his interested waned and began to feel a bit lost. With his nose constantly buried in Cooks Illustrated and constantly trying his hand in the kitchen at home, Dave’s father eventually pushed him towards the culinary field. Once Dave and Nicole started at The Restaurant School the rest, as the saying goes, was history. Dave’s knack for precision and research, combined with Nicole’s rich intuition and curiosity, inspired their blog, Lighting the Pilot. Dave explains.

“I hope to offer [home cooks] some basic knowledge that helps me to cook every day. There are techniques - and this is how we, as professionals, bring them home. It's a little different comparing a commercial kitchen to a home kitchen.”

And Dave is right. Most apartments don't have Salamander Broilers. But that’s not the point of their project.

“"How can you get those same results at home? That's what we try to figure out.”

Nicole adds, “We're used to cooking things a certain way and getting things a certain way. You have to figure out how to do that here.”

“We take all that out and make it easy,” says Dave.

If the goal of Lighting the Pilot is to elevate the home cook by imbuing them with the techniques of the professionals, then Dave and Nicole can certainly teach home cooks a thing or two about craft beer infused food. They got their start with craft beer at City Tap.

“I didn’t know beer at all,” says Nicole. “When Dave started working [at University City], I started going there. The beer list is ridiculous. I had like Allagash, which was the first one I liked. You're used to drinking Yuengling and Natty-Light. I wouldn't even drink that now. I just sat down and started tasting beer and I was like ‘Oh, certain flavors can be part of beer.’ That really helped out.”

Under City Tap University City’s previous head chef, Chad Vetter, and then Sous, Ashley Grim, Dave was exposed to work ethic and working with beer. Despite its challenges, beer proved to be a versatile ingredient.

“Chad [Vetter] and Ashley both had fantastic work ethic. I always looked up to them. Still do. Chad knew how to cook and manipulate beer. Beer hollandaise or something crazy like that. You have to deal with carbonation. You need to cook that carbonation out...You can reduce the beer down to a syrup so you have a more intense flavorful ingredient. Natural sugars, yeast, all that.”

Smoky, roasty stouts make for a great addition to desserts like creme brûlée. Wheat beers, with their notes of banana, compliment breads and baked goods rather nicely. While on vacation in St. Thomas, Dave and Nicole drank (they admit) their fair share of rum punch while brainstorming their next beer-infused dish. Surrounded by fresh fruit, they hoped to craft a summery, quick dish anyone could prepare. Nicole explains. 

“Mangos, pineapples. We were drinking rum punch every day. We were thinking we wanted something island inspired. Something with mango, something different. We like fish tacos when they're battered and fried, which you could totally do with a beer batter, but for home cooks that's not as simple. Shrimp marinades super quickly. You can also glaze them with the beer.”

When I asked them why they decided to use Troegs First Cut, the answer was simple: mangoes are awesome, and so are local breweries.

“We're using mango in the recipe. The Troegs Fresh Cut Mango IPA works perfectly. In my cooking,” Dave explains, “I like to use a specific ingredient in multiple ways. In this case we have raw mango and mango in the beer.”

While Dave and Nicole’s West Philly pantry is packed with a variety of ingredients spanning both their Italian and Middle Eastern influences, they strive, above all, to be accessible. ““[Troegs] is local,” says Nicole. “Lots of people have heard of them. When we're making something we want it to be accessible to people. If they want to use Troegs, they have to be able to get it.”

What’s most surprising about Dave and Nicole’s blog is that they find time to do it at all. The culinary lifestyle is a hustle. Most Executive Chefs and Sous Chefs work anywhere from 40, to 50, to 70 hours a week. One might think, Why would two industry professionals want to cook more at home? Because they love it.

“It's a playground here. I've had a lot of fun working on the recipes we've come up with so far. It's enjoyable. The food is always better when it's fun and enjoyable,” says Dave.

Lighting the Pilot also gives Nicole the freedom to create and experiment. “When you're not a Sous Chef, you don't have a lot of influence over what gets put on the menu. This way, we can do all the recipe development at home.” 

Together, Dave Harrison and Nicole Zuppo are carving out their own space to cook just the way they want to. Home cooks looking to learn from two of City Tap’s finest, should head over to Lighting the Pilot to learn more about stepping up their at-home culinary game — and those delicious shrimp tacos! Visit Lighting the Pilot here.