AND NOW HERE he is, our Top Chef. In the real, not the reality TV, sense. He didn’t win this prize by sporting strange orange outfits and flaunting a po’ troppo Falstaffian persona. Nor did he make his reputation by terrorizing his line cooks with hurled plates and crude epithets. He hasn’t made a fetish of serving Schuylkill-sourced seafood with a foam of baby watercress harvested from the banks of Passyunk Creek. Instead, Marc Vetri spent a dutiful decade serving hundreds of people over thousands of days — one delicious Italian dish at a time, most of which he actually touched himself. He did it all in the confident yet careful and humble style of Polenta Man. And now Polenta Man is ready for some new adventures.
It’s late morning in a spare office upstairs from the empty dining room of Vetri. (The restaurant doesn’t serve lunch.) The proprietors are seated at separate computers. Vetri’s dressed like some guy who’s been called in to repair something. And indeed, earlier this morning, before he finished inking in the weekend’s nearly 20-item (and quite pricey: $115 to $130) tasting menu, the chef grabbed a screwdriver and fixed a broken handle on the door to the restaurant’s vestibule. “In another life, Marc could be a construction worker,” says his friend David Alperin, a partner in the restaurant Twenty Manning. “And he’d be quite comfortable with that.”
Vetri’s cohort, Jeff Benjamin, is actually a few years younger, but has the mien of a man born at middle age. He is, as usual, dressed business-formal; friends joke that he puts on a suit to play with his kids. Though Benjamin isn’t lauded or written about like his cooking partner, people who know restaurants call him a masterful impresario of “the front of the house,” someone who knows how to schmooze celebrities and average citizens alike, who understands that restaurants are theater. Benjamin also has uncanny skill at picking good wine.
On another day, I’d listened while Benjamin briefed Vetri on the bottles he’d chosen for the party of 10 booked that night in Osteria’s Broad Street-view private dining room to celebrate Chase Utley’s birthday. Benjamin is careful not to be a name-dropper (“That’s why celebrities keep coming back”), but as I quizzed him about prominent Philadelphians who were regulars at Vetri, he offhandedly said, “Oh, I don’t know. Chase and Jen? M. Night? You mean people like that?”