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Conducting a Culinary Symphony

Chef Marc Vetri Hits All the Right Notes in Philadelphia
Alejandro Benes
From the Print Edition:
The Brains Behind Homeland, May/June 2012

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.

“I start here,” Vetri says. “Then I might walk down the street to Amis [restaurant number three] and see what’s going on and then I might get a call to go over and help at Osteria because they’re getting slammed.”

Not being in the kitchen every day was a big change for Marc Vetri. Many restaurant critics who had come to recognize the high level of culinary accomplishments of the Vetri restaurant expressed concern that the quality of the food would falter. It hasn’t.

“The myth that you can’t run multiple restaurants is just that,” argues Vetri, who has since opened a fourth restaurant, a gastropub called Alla Spina or “From the Tap.”

Much like a symphony, Vetri’s is an extended culinary composition.

“If you’ve got the right people, you get the opportunity to step back and see things you couldn’t see before. My role has changed. I’m now the conductor.”

One thing Vetri recognizes is that eating in a restaurant is not just about the food. He understands that interaction between the chef and customers is vital, and that is apparent in both the new design—an open kitchen with the line near the tables—and the personalities of the chefs, all of them engaging the guests, sometimes quite raucously.

Vetri also ranks service as the primary challenge in his business.

“Service is more important than the food,” Chef Vetri says. “I mean, I’m a chef. I should know how to cook.” Vetri gives a lot of the credit to his partner Jeff Benjamin for making sure the service is hitting on all cylinders.

“Jeff Benjamin is the yin to my yang,” Vetri explains.

In this case, “yang” is usually dressed in a manner resembling a construction worker or lumberjack. “Yin” seems most casual when his suit jacket is unbuttoned.

“Marc is the most honest person I’ve ever known,” Benjamin says. “Diplomacy isn’t his strong suit. If he disagrees with me, he might say, ‘That’s a terrible idea!’ But you have to understand, it’s never malicious.  Malice is the furthest thing from his mind.”

Benjamin explains that Vetri has recognized the need to be a little more diplomatic in an age of social media. Especially in dealing with guests.

“We might have a guest who’s unhappy with what we do,” Benjamin says, “And Marc will respond, ‘Well, we did what we said we would.’ But being from a guest services background, I want to make the guest come back.”

“Without Jeff Benjamin,” Marc Vetri assures, “there is no Vetri Family.”

“Vetri Family” is the umbrella name given to the restaurants and the Vetri Foundation for Children, of which Benjamin and Vetri are founders and board members. Osteria’s chef Jeff Michaud is a board member. The mission of the foundation “is to support the development of healthy living habits and styles in young people.”

The second Vetri Family restaurant, Osteria, is “what Vetri [the first restaurant] began as,” Marc Vetri says. Osteria’s Michaud, the 2010 James Beard Award Winner for Best Chef, Mid-Atlantic (an award Marc Vetri won in 2005), cooked at Vetri before moving north on Broad Street.

Osteria is a relatively casual and bustling restaurant that is about four times the size of the first Vetri restaurant. On this particular night, Jeff Benjamin greets Ashton Cigar owner Robert Levin and his party. Ashton is based in Philadelphia.

“The only places I go to eat are Marc’s restaurants,” Levin explains. “I go to Osteria and Amis on a regular basis. I go to Vetri to celebrate special occasions.”

Go to dinner with Levin and be prepared to eat, and even suffer a little for eating way too much. At Osteria, before anyone has looked at the menu, a special vegetable platter hits the table. Two pizzas are ordered, one of them topped with grilled octopus. Roast suckling pig, “brined for four days and spit-roasted for five hours,” snapper and pastas make up the rest of the meal. No one ordered the pig head.

The night before, at Amis, Vetri’s most casual restaurant, Levin’s party arrived and immediately began to chat with Benjamin, who makes the rounds to the three restaurants every night, and Amis’ chef Brad Spence. The Ashton crew took out cigars and started distributing them.

“Brad is the real cigar smoker,” explains Benjamin. “He smokes more than Marc and me.”

Before the party was barely seated, five appetizers arrived. Mortadella mousse, eggplant caponata, imported bufala ricotta and black pepper, cotechino salami with a red onion marmalade, and an endive and green apple salad with a lemon-thyme vinaigrette. The latter was the perfect three notes.

Benjamin brought out a 2007 nebbiolo that worked with every dish and on its own. At this juncture, a critical mistake was made by Levin and his guests. They began to order entrees.

“I always order too much,” Levin says, shaking his head. “Then they send out more.”

Somehow, swordfish meatballs with creamy polenta and pine nuts showed up, and so did Sal’s (Marc’s father) old school meatballs. Then the pastas came. Tonarelli with pecorino and black pepper; rotini with wild boar ragu and pears; paccheri (a large, short hollow tube noodle) with swordfish and eggplant fries; squid ink linguini with octopus and scallion. (But wait, there’s more!)

Squash lasagna with a ton of parmesan came with the entrees. So did roasted lamb with potatoes. A veal chop Milanese topped with arugula and parmesan rivaled the best ever tasted by anyone at the table. (Everyone then lost track after going into food comas.)

When the waiter came to inquire about dessert, he was threatened with bodily harm, but in the nicest way. So, Chef Spence sent out only two sweets: Tiramisu, a special that night; and “Mom-Mom’s Rice Pudding,” a recipe from Spence’s grandmother. (Okay, the meal really should have started with the rice pudding. It was THAT good, yet no one could eat more than one bite of it.)

“Brad took the rice pudding off the menu once,” Vetri explains. “Of course, several guests ordered it that night. Never again.”
Spend just a little time with Marc Vetri and you will not worry about his losing touch with the kitchen, with the food or with what his customers like to eat. And it’s not so much your father’s Italian food. Unless it is.

About nine years ago, in the Vetri restaurant, when it was considerably more casual, Marc’s father was having dinner on his birthday.

“So we put a red-and-white, checkered tablecloth on one table in the middle of the dining room,” Marc Vetri remembers. When his father arrived with his party, “we put a big bowl of mussels and a big bowl of meatballs on the table.” That kicked off a typical South Philly Italian-American meal.

“There were more than a few envious diners that night,” Marc Vetri recalls, laughing fondly.

Sharing that moment makes it easy to imagine that not too long from now Chef Vetri, for whom “family and doing the right thing are what’s important,” will be back full time in the kitchen of his 30-seat restaurant in that famous Philadelphia townhouse. Still conducting. Still cooking.

“This is not only my dream restaurant,” Vetri explains. “This is every chef’s dream restaurant.”

Alejandro Benes is a regular contributor to Cigar Aficionado.

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