On the coast of Venezuela, a five-year old was kneading ground maize, gently placing each round patty on an aripo with small, sticky, brown fingers. While her parents were working late-hours at the nearby mercado, she was feeding herself and her sisters, cooking for her loved ones rather than cooking for love.
Only time and circumstance could change the way that she would feel about preparing arepas. Only adulthood and time away from her country could awaken in Chef Judith Suzarra-Campbell a passion she had long repressed.
“I told myself that I would never, ever, get into cooking. I saw how hard that work was. The hours, the dedication. My mom was a cook, my dad was a cook, my grandma, my aunt. So, I studied accounting at Universidad Santa Maria, and for a while I had an assembly company in Philadelphia with my husband, but it was no use… Cooking is in my blood, it’s in my veins. I couldn’t ignore it.”
It’s a good thing she didn’t ignore her vocational call, for Philadelphia is all the better, thanks to that authentic abuela aura that Judith’s dishes have brought to the City’s table at Sazón Restaurant & Café
for over thirteen years.
Tequeños oozing with cheese that could make even the most-stuffed mozzarella sticks envious, guiltless gluten-free arepas with enough ingredient variety to satisfy even the pickiest of friends, and the king of caracas, the plate with the answer to the constant “sweet or savory?” question that haunts all diners.
This is only the beginning of a square meal at Sazón, because to top it all off, you languidly sip on an order of guanabana juice, so lavishly thick and creamy, you almost won’t want to make room for the homemade artisanal chocolates (but, of course, you certainly will do whatever gastronomical fengshui it will take to try a piece of goat marble).
And customers at Sazón do, as evidenced by the amount of “regulars” that the restaurant has garnered over the years, imbuing the space with a genuine sense of familiarity and hospitality. This steady stream of regulars is much-attributed to the delicious recipes of Chef Judith Suzarra-Campbell, yes, but the genial and genuine manner of the co-owners (she and her husband, Robert), is what really lures them back in.
Nevertheless, being married to a co-worker can raise tensions and break the allure of amicability, especially in an environment as demanding as restauranteering. When asked how she does it, Judith laughed and said she was grateful for a closed-kitchen, “so we can scream at each other and no one gets disrupted”!
In all seriousness, though, she notes that for her and Robert, this venture isn’t just a way to get money, it’s their baby, and it’s treated as such: with tender loving care.
Beginning with the ingredients used and the quality of Sazón’s dishes, everything is consistently made in-house, prioritizing health and rich tastes over ornamentation and marketing ploys.
In short, the food isn’t “Instagrammable”, but that’s not the point of a meal, now is it? Millennials- and even Baby Boomers falling into the trap of social media addiction -tend to forget that what makes you wish that one bite, that one chew, could go on forever, is not presentation or like-counts.
If taste could have a following though, Judith’s perníl and reina pepiada would be in the millions.
I would like people to be open-minded about my cuisine without criticizing. Eat, enjoy, and go with the flow of the experience.
Sazón’s space in Northern Liberties is adorned adorably with casitas peppering the mustard walls with sprinkles of color in low-light, personal photographs of Judith and Robert (from then and now), local and international art, a proud seven-star Venezuelan flag, a quirky cake-whisk candelabra, and a sign that states: “No Human Being Is Illegal”.
Unlike in other popular establishments, Judith is an all hands on deck chef. She waitresses, she buses tables, she bartends, she hostesses, she cooks, and she mingles, making sure to attend to all aspects of her restaurant. She is helped by her crew, her husband, and her mother-in-law (which she expressed sincere gratitude for in our interview), but for the most part, Judith says that, in spite of the demands of modernity, she keeps her management familial, traditional, and no frills.
Chef Judith excels at making an evening at Sazón
a truly inviting and memorable one.
Triple Minority, Triple Threat
A former professional volleyball player, an entrepreneurial woman, a force to be reckoned with in the kitchen… Though she be little- with a stature at (generously) five feet, she is fierce, and fiercely loyal to her restaurant. She has never played into the “popularity contest” of notorious Philadelphian restaurateurs or over-hyped chains, instead choosing to go at the beat of her own drum- or, maybe in this case, at the sizzle of her own cazuela.
Nonconformism has not always fared well, though. Judith remarks that being dark-skinned, a Latina, and a woman is burdensome and difficult, which only gets further complicated by her unique position as a leader. She notes that White America is prejudiced, but the Latino community in The United States can be just as ignorant, choosing to discriminate based on machismo, race, and class.
As a result, she often has to defend herself by reminding inquirers that, yes, she’s the chef, she’s the co-owner, she’s the boss.
Although this has been tiresome, Judith’s partner and husband regarded her as a “badass” multiple times throughout the interview, unable to hide how proud he was.
Overwhelming spousal support, three pitbulls to gush over, a willingness to work towards satisfaction, and a desire to change the conversation around Latin American food in The U.S., are what empower Judith to keep on going, no matter the obstacle.
Transforming Philadelphia’s Cuisine
Since 2004, Sazón has been a beacon of authentic Venezuelan charm and cuisine on 10th and Spring Garden Street, enticing both “Phoodie” adventurers who have stereotypical expectations of Latin American grub, and Hispanics who need a reminder of the towns they left behind, to return once more.
"I’m very proud of my cuisine, I’m very proud of being Venezuelan, so I try to do whatever I can to transmit that through my cuisine, and through my passion. I love bringing memories to Venezuelans, who say my food feels like home. This is the way I show my love for what I do and my country. My husband always says ‘You love your arepas and your cooking more than you love me’, jaja, that’s not true! But, you need to do it right, and you do it right through love."
Chef Judith brought the warmth of healthy homestyle Venezuelan cuisine to the public at Independence Live, for free, thanks to AL DÍA News. Specifically, along with Sazón favorites, Chef Judith contributed a taste of a unique and traditional Christmas platter, hallacas, which is only served at her restaurant in December. Likewise, Robert, the “Chocolate Alchemist”, brought his famous hot chocolate, which has been renowned and recognized by local papers as simply being one of the best in the City. Chef Judith, her husband, her crew, and her customers, joined us for our fifth live cooking demonstration series (“Meet the Chef’s Transforming Philadelphia’s Cuisine”) yesterday, November 28th.
We are looking forward to our sixth and final live cooking demonstration for 2017, coming soon on Thursday, December 14th. We will be joined by the owners of Café Liz, Jacinta and Felito!