Conducting a Culinary Symphony
Chef Marc Vetri Hits All the Right Notes in Philadelphia
It was tough,” Marc Vetri explains to his assistant with an air of relief and weariness. “We scored only once.”
On the morning after Thanksgiving, Vetri, the owner of three Philadelphia restaurants, was telling Carolyn Pagnotta about the hard-fought Thanksgiving flag football game, the “Turkey Bowl.” For the third time in four years, Vetri’s restaurant group beat the team of Jose Garces, a fellow Philadelphia restaurateur who is also an “Iron Chef” on the Food Network. The silver trophy, a football with turkey wings and drumsticks, will stay with the “Vetri Family.”
Vetri had just gotten back from Los Angeles, Chicago and New York promoting his second cookbook, Rustic Italian Food, a sort of narrative of how Vetri’s culinary philosophy has evolved. Vetri, whom everyone—EVERYONE—describes as a “mild-mannered, nice guy,” is a chef intensely focused on his craft, but not captive to it.
A 42-year-old, yoga-practicing, guitar-playing, cigar-smoking, philanthropic native of Philadelphia, Vetri, married with three children, was born to an Italian father and Jewish mother.
“There’s a lot of us around,” he chuckles. He swipes his arm across the table as if to clear it and explains that when it came to food, he chose to “keep the Italian and not the Jewish.”
As the saying goes, Marc Vetri might be “the best chef you never heard of.” He is a culinary master whose “mothership” restaurant, Vetri, was again nominated for a James Beard award in 2011 and 2012, both times as “Outstanding Restaurant” in the nation.
Restaurant critics and super-celebrity chefs like Bobby Flay, Michael Symon and Mario Batali, in one way or another, have called him the “best Italian chef in America.”
In October of 2010, Vetri appeared in “Battle Veal” against Iron Chef Symon on the Food Network. The two have known each other for years. Vetri bested Symon by a score of 51 to 47.
Vetri has been invited to be on shows like the Next Iron Chef and though he has wondered whether he shouldn’t have more vigorously pursued the TV celebrity chef thing, he ultimately felt it wasn’t a good fit.
“The thing about these reality shows is that they’re not really real,” Vetri says while sitting at his namesake first restaurant, opened in 1998 in the same building that housed the original iteration of Philadelphia’s iconic French restaurant, Le Bec Fin. Vetri didn’t reveal any trade secrets about the way Iron Chef conducts its culinary confrontations (let’s just say it’s not all that spontaneous). He was just referring more to the way the TV shows portray chefs as combatants.
“You know, you have to have that tension on TV to make the show interesting,” Vetri explains. “In reality, chefs are much friendlier with one another and share a lot of things. I mean, Michael [Symon] and I were hugging on Iron Chef. Whenever I cook with Mario [Batali] and other chefs,” like at a charity event, “the media asks me if we were fighting for space in the kitchen. And that’s not at all how it is. We’re helping each other and we’re always asking each other to taste things.”
Vetri allows that in the not-too-distant past, and to a degree today, chefs were more competitive. Now, he sees the bigger problem in the profession being with chefs who graduate culinary school and “maybe go to learn something in France or Italy or Spain and come back and think that because of that, they know everything.”
“But what they learn is technique,” Vetri says, “And that’s important, but you also have to understand flavors and how to taste.”
“We had a corn flan on the menu,” Vetri recalls, describing an incident in his own restaurant. “One day I come in and taste it and it tastes like nothing. I asked the person who made it what happened. ‘How did you make this?’ He said that he followed the recipe. I asked if he had tasted the corn. He said he hadn’t. So, I took an ear of corn and told him to taste it, then I asked him what it tasted like. ‘Like nothing,’ he told me. That’s why the flan tasted like nothing.”
“I had to work harder than a lot of people because of my stutter,” Vetri explains matter-of-factly referring to the condition he’s had since childhood. “Having a stutter made me both more compassionate and less compassionate. I could understand if someone had a handicap, what they were going through. But I also knew that if you worked hard, that you could overcome the problem. I was less compassionate sometimes because I would not accept excuses.”
Vetri acknowledges the stutter was a factor in not pursuing TV.
“I think that the impact my stutter had was to lead me to choose being a chef, in the kitchen, because that way I wouldn’t have to talk to anyone. And it turns out that now,” because of the book and his public appearances and the work done through the Vetri Foundation, “I have to talk more than in maybe any other profession.”
Vetri made the decision to become a culinary professional after going to Los Angeles to become a rock star. That was 1990.
Vetri, who had worked in restaurants around Philadelphia since the age of 13, landed a job in Wolfgang Puck’s now defunct Malibu restaurant, Granita. Some days Puck, probably the first real modern-day celebrity chef, would be working next to Vetri at the pasta station.
“Wolfgang still loves to cook,” Vetri says.
During his four years in California, Vetri learned to smoke cigars.
“And when I smoked my first Fuente Hemingway, that was it,” Vetri smiles, recalling discovery of his favorite cigar. “I like smaller cigars because I still get a little dizzy if the cigar is too big.”
Vetri also smokes Ashton, La Gloria Cubana and Cuban Montecristo No. 2 cigars. Vetri’s favorite occasion for a cigar is with his father, Sal.
“We just walk around Philadelphia and talk about things and enjoy the cigars. I’ll smoke maybe one a week now because of the demands on my time, but I can have periods when I’ll smoke three or four days in a row,” Vetri says. “Then, when I’m really busy, I just don’t have the time to enjoy a cigar.”
While in Los Angeles, Vetri met Piero Selvaggio, the owner of Valentino and a friend of Puck. Selvaggio arranged for Vetri to go to Bergamo, Italy, as a stagiare, or apprentice, so that Vetri could learn Italian cooking at the source.
“It’s completely different in Italy,” from, say, France, Vetri explains. “You get to touch everything. Italian chefs are very collegial. They’re like, ‘Hey, come here, look at this.’ And they also want to learn from you. At the end of the night, I would sit with the chef and smoke a cigar and we would talk about everything.”
For Chef Vetri, even as his interests have broadened and his own life has become more complex, simplicity is a guiding principal. His recipes are clean and generally robust. Very Italian, but not traditional Italian-American. A relatively experienced palate can discern the seasonings in the cotechino sausage on, say, the Lombarda pizza at Vetri’s second restaurant, Osteria.
“I need to know all my scales,” Vetri says, comparing cooking to playing guitar, which he still does every day. “But I would choose to play something in three notes rather than 30.”
That approach is evident in the way Vetri and his team cook. Vetri’s experience in Italy has clearly influenced how he develops his chefs, even sending them to Italy to learn.
“I still expect them to touch everything, to slice their own fish and do some of their own prep,” Vetri explains, standing in the kitchen. The advantage of that approach is that the chef knows the quality of every ingredient. “Every chef who has been at Vetri for two years or more and has left, has gone on to open his own restaurant.”
But before they leave, they cook at Vetri, the first restaurant, which has morphed from a casual Italian restaurant to a fine-dining, $135-per-person tasting menu.
“This is where people come for a special occasion,” Marc Vetri says. “Or to try something new.” Like pastrami foie gras. Or chestnut fettucini with boar and cocoa. Perhaps a Texas antelope with squash and Amarone sauce?
“We started offering the tasting menu a few years ago on Saturday only and we’d be booked in five minutes,” Vetri explains. “So, we just put it in all the time.”
When Chef Adam Leonti arrives at Vetri restaurant one morning, he and Marc Vetri bump fists.
“Chef,” Vetri greets Leonti, who just keeps walking into the kitchen he now runs, without a word. Chef Vetri pitches in when he cooks three or four nights a week.