“I look for dedication, I look for passion, I look for how they watch and listen. I watch their eyes and their gestures. “ – Chef Marc Vetri
Although I have not had the opportunity (and I hope this changes) to dine at Marc Vetri’s restaurant here in Philadelphia, I may have met him at one of The Great Chef Events he puts on to raise money for Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation and didn’t realize it. This year the Reluctant Gourmet is a sponsor and I will be sure to introduce myself and say hello.
My wife and I know Alex’s parents, Liz and Jay Scott from when we lived in the same town and were introduced by one of my wife’s best friends from childhood who now works at the foundation. If you don’t know the story of Alex and her courageous battle with cancer while trying to raise money for research, I highly recommend you go to Alex’s Lemonade Stand and read her story.
If you have not heard of Marc Vetri, you will. He was named one of Food & Wine’s Ten Best New Chefs and in 2005, won the James Beard Award for “Best Chef Mid-Atlantic.” Although he never went to a formal culinary school, Chef Vetri started cooking with his Sicilian grandmother when he was just a young boy. As a young adult, he cooked his way through school while learning business and music.
He moved to California and worked at Wolfgang Puck’s famous restaurant, Granita but wanted to get back to his culinary roots and moved to Bergamo, Italy to work and learn his craft by immersing himself in Italian food. It is here where you learned the skills he would one day bring back to Philly and open two of the most successful restaurants in town Vetri and Osteria.
In 2008 he published his first cookbook with Ten Speed Press called Il Viaggio di Vetri: A Culinary Journey. You can read about it on my blog posting, but this has become one of my all time favorite cookbooks to read, look at the photos and try the recipes. I told my cooking friend Barbecue Bob that we should try to prepare every one of the 125 recipes in the book. It is truly expiring.
Here’s my interview with Chef Vetri:
I was wondering how you got involved with Alex’s Lemonade and started the Great Chef’s Event?
Jeff, my partner had wanted to help with the foundation because his father died of the adult version of the same cancer. So, he initiated the first event which was a night a Vetri and a percentage of the proceeds going to the Lemonade Stand. After that, we became friendlier with Liz and Jay and started to get more involved with the foundation. Through the years are relationship grew as did the event, and it turned into a big one.
According to the bio on your Vetri Ristorante web site, you started cooking “on the weekends with your Sicilian grandmother in South Philly” but I was wondering if you can remember exactly when you decided to become a professional chef and what influenced you?
It was really when I moved to Italy. I went to Drexel, I moved to LA to study music, during all of that I always cooked to make money. It was like something to fall back on. When I had the chance to go to Italy and live and work I took it. It was as if my first day there changed me. I knew then that this is what I wanted to do
Your bio also says you studied business and music while at school. I’m sure the business comes in handy with your restaurants but are you still involved in music?
Sure, I play just about every day. It is a passion that I imagine I’ll have the rest of my life. It relax’s me and just makes me feel good. I would love to do something more with it some day.
You left California to go cook and hone your craft in Italy. Did you have a job lined up before you left or did you just go over there and look for work?
Yes, I had arranged a starting place through Piero Selvaggio in LA. He owned Valentino in LA and was good friends with Wolfgang. I met him while working there. He arranged the initial restaurant that I started at.
How different is it to learn to cook as an apprentice in Italy compared to someone learning how to cook in the US?
Completely, you can’t have the same experience. You’re involved in everything there, you are immersed in it, it is your life, here, it can just be your job.
Lots of high school students interested in going to culinary school come to my web site to read these interviews but I didn’t see anywhere in your bio about you receiving a formal culinary school education so I’m wondering how you feel about our culinary institutions and what advice would you give these young adults?
Like anything else, you get out of it what you put into it. I think school is great if you are going to take full advantage of it. If not, it is a waste of time
So if someone comes to Vetri’s or Osteria and wants to apply for a job as a cook, what would you look for in their cooking experience?
I look for dedication, I look for passion, I look for how they watch and listen. I watch their eyes and their gestures. Resumes don’t mean anything
There are many home cooks out there like myself who are not beginners but nowhere near professional ability so I’m wondering what advice you would give us to take our cooking to the next level?
My advice is to stop thinking it is the next level. Simple food is the stuff that is and always will be what people migrate to. Trends don’t last at all. Cook simply, garden to plate, stop dissecting things and thinking they are so difficult. Roast a chicken perfectly..make a simple pasta and you will unlock everything you need to know about cooking.
On my web site I constantly remind my readers of the importance of learning a few basic cooking techniques and working with the best ingredients available but how do you learn which ingredients work best together?
Reading and trial and error. Practice makes you understand flavors and why they work,
I’m sure you must have to come up with new recipes every week for specials or just to change the menu around for what’s available. Is there a process you go through to come up with these recipes and how often do they just not work out like you expected them to?
We have just as many failures as we have creative new dishes. Again, it’s about trial and error. It’s about shooting ideas off of one another in the kitchen and playing with ingredients. Vetri is like a cooks wonderland. I think we play and create here more than in any other kitchen in the world. It really is fun.
What are your favorite cookbooks that you have learned from and would recommend every home cook own and why?
My favorite is a book in italian, it’s like the bible. Every home in Italy has one, if you can translate, you should have it. It is simply the best book on the planet. Period! “Le Ricette Regionali Italiane.”
Then there are a lot of others, but the recent ones that I love and that are accessible for home cooks are all of the River Cottage cookbooks and the A16 Food and Wine cookbook. Also, Martha rocks. Her cookbooks are so great, the recipes always work.
How did you become involved with the Celebrity Chef Tour dinner at the City Club of Washington Columbia Square on April 25th, and what motivated you to participate?
I try to support the beard house when I can. They have helped me promote my restaurants and they give up and coming chefs a great venue to showcase their talents. It’s really a worthy foundation and I like to help when i can.
Thank you Marc for doing this interview. I appreciate your candid answers and look forward to seeing you at the Great Chefs Event in June.
Thanks for the sponsorship!!!