“If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.”
— J.R.R. Tolkien
PGN: I love your bowtie.
TD: It used to be clip-ons, then I transitioned to tying my own bowties and now I completely forgot how to tie regular ties!
PGN: Were you always a fashionable guy?
TD: Yeah, I’d say since I was a kid. Growing up, my mother used to dress me up. I had spikey hair with a little mullet. She’d put me in cowboy boots and suspenders — lots of accessories.
PGN: Tell me a little about the fam.
TD: My mom is a stay-at-home mom. She has a daycare in her house now. My dad is a heavy-equipment operator. He hopes to retire soon; we’ll see how that goes. I have one sister. She’s younger than me. She’s a pre-K teacher and works with special-needs children. She loves it. And I’m a chef, restaurateur, general manager — a little of everything moving up the chain.
PGN: Did you cook as a kid?
TD: No, it was something my mom did, but I’ve been in restaurants since I was 15.
PGN: How did you get started at 15?
TD: A cousin’s friend was managing a restaurant near my parents’ house. I got a job hosting and from there, went to serving, then barbacking and then bartending.
PGN: So you were at the front of the house.
TD: Yes. The only thing I did in the kitchen was expediting food, plating it for the servers to take out. It wasn’t until I was 26 that I decided to go to culinary school. I thought, ‘I want to open my own restaurant someday.” I’ve done everything in restaurants except cook. So I ended up getting my associate’s [degree] in culinary in less than two years and shocked my teachers and friends by graduating top of my class. After graduation, I took some time off and picked up a little job at the Philadelphia Country Club. That lasted two months. It just wasn’t my thing. It was too chaotic. Luckily, one of my previous mentors from school contacted me and said that one of her friends in South Philly was opening a restaurant and put me in contact with him. I’m all about helping someone start a new journey and then he offered me the executive chef position! I was four months out of school! At the same time, I’d decided to go back to school to learn baking and pastry[-making]. This was the summer of 2014 and it was crazy.
PGN: Where was it?
TD: In South Philly; it used to be a place called Charlie Bear’s. He wanted to completely gut the place, tear it down to scrap and start over. So I was doing everything from finding equipment vendors to mapping out the design. I was like, This is so crazy. I was just doing all this for my final project in school and now I’m doing it in real life.
TD: Yeah, we opened the restaurant in December. And on top of schoolwork, right before Thanksgiving, I got into an altercation downtown and my hand got broke. I had to get two pins in my right hand, which is my dominant hand, so it was all casted-up as I was trying to open a restaurant for the first time. But I managed to do it and graduate.
PGN: What was the altercation?
TD: Someone tried to rob me, tried to take my wallet and I fought back, I didn’t even think anything of it. I went in to work the next day and my feet were all bruised up and my boss said, “You need to go to the hospital!” It turns out my pinky was snapped in two places. So they had to shish-kabob me and put in two pins.
PGN: Wait, why were your feet bruised?
TD: They pushed me against a wall and stepped on my feet to hold me in place as they grabbed my throat and searched my pockets.
PGN: Dang! I’ve never seen that move on “Law and Order.”
TD: Yeah. I’m an expert. I’ve been assaulted four or five times here. About 12 years ago, I was actually stabbed right over at the pizza place on 13th. I’ve lived through some crazy experiences, but it just pushed me to do more to follow my dreams.
PGN: You’ve been mugged four or five times? You’re like that guy who’s been hit by lightning eight times!
TD: I know, it’s like I’m on my fifth life by now. But I’m a Leo so I figure I have four lives left. I just need to string these last ones out.
PGN: Let’s hope so.
TD: So after opening that restaurant, I was getting all sorts of offers to open other places and I turned them down, but once we got on keel with the first place, I took the offer to come [to Cibo]. I came here after the new owner bought the place. They were making changes in secret so I wasn’t allowed to go see the kitchen or check anything out because they didn’t want the staff to know that they were planning to shut down and start fresh. There had been problems with theft and people cutting corners so they made a clean sweep. I had to create a menu, find and train staff, get all new vendors, detail the kitchen, cost it all out and do a menu tasting … all in four days. But it was a great opportunity to go from a gastro pub in South Philly to a large restaurant downtown. The first night we opened, we did over 250 covers — just me and two other people in the kitchen. It was insane, people are still talking about it.
PGN: You mentioned that you didn’t cook as a kid. What were you into?
TD: I was really into sports. I played soccer for 13-14 years, I ran track at school. And I was also into art, drawing and painting, which I think helped me succeed in culinary school. I had an artistic mindset, which helped me with plating and infusing different flavors and ingredients together.
PGN: What were your best and worst sports moments?
TD: Best would have to be when I ran in the Penn relays — it was pretty amazing. I was a sprinter, we did the 4x100 relay.
PGN: I’d be terrified of the relay. I’d be the one to drop the baton.
TD: It can be scary. It’s all about practicing. I also did the long and triple jumps. We had an amazing team and it was fun having all the other schools afraid to compete against us.
PGN: What was the worst moment, tripping over hurdles, etc.?
TD: I actually wasn’t allowed to do hurdles; they wanted me to but my mother wouldn’t let me. When I was a kid, I used to have seizures so she was terrified I’d fall and hit my head. I wasn’t allowed to play football or do wrestling either. But they let me play soccer where you use your head to hit stuff, so it doesn’t really make any sense!
PGN: [Laughing] Sounds like mom didn’t quite think that one out. Were you a momma’s boy?
TD: I’m still a momma’s boy. She’s part of the reason I’m here now. I was supposed to be in Florida working as a private chef on a yacht. My mom and my sister are both my best friends, along with my friends here who are like family. All my friends know my family and hang out with them.
PGN: What traits do you get from each?
TD: I mostly get all my traits from my mom. My dad operates heavy equipment all day so when he came home, all he wanted to do was relax. My mom was the outgoing one. She’s a Leo as well. So is my sister and my dad’s a Taurus. My mom and my sister actually have the same birthday. My mom is a loving, caring person and we both have a tendency to put everyone else first. We’re both fighters too. This October, she was really sick and she didn’t tell anyone. When we finally made her go to the hospital, they found a tumor the size of a baby’s head. She had to spend two weeks in the hospital. The last time she was there was when she had my sister. Usually, I’m the one going in. So this time, it was my turn to be the caretaker and I was at her side every day. So that’s why I didn’t go to Florida.
PGN: What was the deal there?
TD: A friend of mine is the captain of a yacht there and he’s been trying to get me to come down to work but I’ve always said no. Last year, I’d left my job. I was single and so I went to check it out. I had to take all these survival classes and get fire training and everything. I told everyone I was leaving and had a going-away party but the week that I was supposed to go is when the hurricanes hit. Once that passed, I was ready to head down again and that’s when my mom got sick. And then they offered me some consulting work here and when the new owner came in, she offered me a full-time position. And here I am; Florida will just have to wait.
PGN: What kind of safety things did you have to learn? Did you say, “firefighting?”
TD: Yes, I’m now certified in First Aid, CPR and firefighting. We were in Ft. Lauderdale in the scorching heat — 110 degrees — training in full-on gear putting out fires.
PGN: To be a chef?
TD: They want every member of the crew to be fully trained, so we had the masks, oxygen tanks — the whole setup. And we were on the fire field putting out real burning fires. It was intense. But it was fun too.
PGN: What do you like to do away from the food world?
TD: Movies, hanging out with my dog Oakley — he’s a pit-lab but he thinks he’s a lap dog at 70 pounds. I love exploring the city. I drive part-time for Lyft and I love finding new places that I never knew about.
PGN: What’s a new discovery?
TD: Belmont Plateau. You hear about it in the Will Smith song, but I never went there until recently. One day, I just decided to grab some lunch and go. It’s beautiful. you can see the whole skyline. I posted some pictures and everyone was like, “OMG, where are you?” It’s one of those little gems. Laurel Hill Cemetery is another; they have incredible statues and architecture there.
PGN: One of my favorites is the Japanese Tea House.
TD: Yes, I stumbled across that a few years ago, it’s right behind the Please Touch Museum, and I was like, “What is this?” It’s such a beautiful place and not many people know about it.
PGN: A cool celebrity encounter?
TD: Darren Daulton. My cousin was visiting from Connecticut and we were at Reading Terminal Market. He was there for an event and he took a picture with us. A few weeks later, I was at a Phillies game and I got a message from my cousin saying that he made our picture with him his profile picture! We were so excited. And recently when he died, he still had our picture up on his page.
PGN: When did you come out?
TD: When I was working at my first restaurant, I became best friends with a kid named Mike. We’d do everything together and after a while my mom started questioning me about how much time we spent together. He wasn’t even gay but when she asked me point blank, I told her that I had feelings for guys. She started crying and saying, “I don’t understand, you’ve had so many girlfriends!” And I said, “Yeah. And for the most part, they were all girl friends.” My dad and I got along … not great, we’d always be arguing and fighting. A couple of times, he broke a hand during one of our fights. It could be bad.
PGN: You seem like a little scrapper!
TD: At times, but we’re in a much better place now. As I said, they love hanging out in the Gayborhood now, I think even more than I do sometimes! Woody’s, ICandy — they’re up for it all. And they’re very proud of all I’ve accomplished.
PGN: What did you get into trouble for the most when you were young?
TD: I never wanted to listen to anybody. I hated elementary school and there were times that my mother would drive me to school and she and the principal would have to drag me out of the car, prying my fingers as I clung to the sides or chasing me as I jumped to the other side of the car. In sixth and seventh grade, I was a badass and would be suspended every month for something: talking back and interrupting teachers, you name it.
PGN: Why so troubled?
TD: I was picked on a lot. I would get bullied on the bus to and from school. I’d run home bawling my eyes out. I finally got sick of it and became angry.
PGN: What were you picked on for?
TD: Anything and everything. My last name is Day, so they’d call me “gay” [laughs] — a little ironic now. Fortunately, when we went from elementary to middle school, they merged schools so it was a whole new group of people and I did much better there. I’m proud to say that I made it through those earlier days and didn’t take a different route. It was hard. I had bouts of depression and went to the counselor and tried medication and then finally decided to fight it on my own. And now through social media, I’ve connected with some of those people and I’ve had several apologize for bullying me back then.
PGN: What’s happening at Cibo?
TD: We have a drag brunch starting Feb. 11. It’s going to be called “The Real Queens of Philly” drag brunch. That’s on Sundays. Saturdays, we’re doing rotating themes. Last week was the ’90s and we also did a special party for Bowie Week. Robert Drake helped organize it and we had a DJ from Amsterdam. We have live music seven nights a week and on Mondays, we’re doing what we call Musician Mondays where performers can come in and basically have a jam session hosted by V. Shane Fredrick.
PGN: I did his profile awhile back.
TD: That’s great. So we’re going to be doing things a little differently this time. We want to start partnering with organizations so that we can start to give back to the community, bringing in theater and arts kids from the community.
PGN: What makes you happy?
TD: I love seeing other people happy. I can work 60 hours a week and if people like my food and are having a good time, it makes me feel good inside. When someone leaves here with a smile, I love it.
Thomas Day III’s restaurant, Cibo, is located at 1227 Walnut St. For more information, visit www.cibophiladelphia.com.