Marc Vetri: La Dolce Vetri

With wild accolades from foodies far and wide and plans afoot for a third restaurant, Marc Vetri has surpassed Georges Perrier as the city’s most influential chef. But can a quiet, speech-impaired guitar-hero wannabe really cement Philadelphia as America’s next great food city?

“DUDE. I AM so going to get you a cape!”
 
It’s around midnight, and a noisy, cresting Saturday swell of drinkers in Pub & Kitchen has made the place far more pub than kitchen. Television producer Adam Vetri looked weary and distracted a little while ago, having flown a red-eye from Los Angeles to arrive early enough for his nephew’s bar mitzvah at Beth Sholom in Elkins Park. He socialized through a day of family gatherings, then stopped for dinner at Osteria, one of Philly’s best and most popular Italian restaurants. He has now landed here, for a nightcap with the guy who more than a few people think is one of the best chefs in this country: his older brother Marc. There’s no better source of second wind than a chance to tease your older brother.
 
The cape Adam is talking about is the long, shiny kind superheroes wear. “And it’ll have a big ‘P’ on the back,” he says, then imitates a proud and relieved citizen: “Look, it’s Polenta Man!”
 
Marc Vetri is wearing some weariness himself. His normally bright, wide eyes are sinking into furrowed dark crevasses that separate his stubble-covered cranium from his stubble-covered face. He got up early for the bar mitzvah, too — and later donned his chef’s togs, spending the afternoon and evening shuttling between his famous, high-end intimate-townhouse eatery, Vetri, and his much bigger and more bustling rustic-industro second restaurant, Osteria. He’s fed almost 400 people today, everything from sea bass crudo to wood-smoked and braised baby goat to pizza with chickpeas, broccoli and olives. That could wear a guy out. But right now, mostly, he’s tired of being teased.
 
“Polenta Man,” Marc Vetri repeats. “I get it. Yeah, yeah, yeah — funny.” He’s hunched a little in his seat, gripping the shank of one of those fancy English bottled beers whose names sound like apothecary shops from Dickens novels. The chef is dressed like an off-duty artisan: work boots, heavy wool Italian ski pants with a gangster-ish chalk stripe. A ribbed snowboarding sweater festooned with Italian logos hugs his torso, which is trim and fit from near-daily sessions of Ashtanga yoga and regular pickup basketball games at the Sporting Club.
 
The man sitting in this crowded bar tonight isn’t really Polenta Man, but rather mild-mannered Marc Vetri.
 
“Polenta Man” is, in reality, a portrait of Vetri painted on the west wall of the three-story Spruce Street townhouse that is home to Vetri, the narrow, 10-table dining room that has been anointed by the scribbling fooderati as either on or atop the short list for best Italian restaurant in America. (See GQ, Food & Wine, Gourmet, Bon Appetit, New York Times, et al.) Just a few days ago, an artist employed by the Mural Arts Program put the finishing touches on the colorful landscape of Tuscan hills, vineyards and farms that slopes down the wall to a foreground focused on a terrace teeming with feasting diners and drinkers. As an afterthought, off to the right, back toward the service entrance to the small and narrow kitchen where the chef has earned so many kudos, the artist painted Vetri himself, a little larger than life-size, hovering alone, dressed in his kitchen whites, seeming to float toward those happy diners in the main mural, bringing to the feast … a big copper pot of polenta.

THE PORTRAIT HAS an apparition-like duality. On one hand, it seems that Marc Vetri is being immortalized as the Patron, like the vain and supercilious Medici who forced their visages into the frescoes of Venice and Florence. On the other hand, his expression appears so gentle and servile (“I’m-a just bringin’ out some-a nice hot cornmeal here”) that the image seems no more than that of an anonymous craftsman who, on a whim one day, carved his own face onto one of the hordes of gargoyles perched on the rising spires of a great cathedral. Absorbing the abuse from his brother (friends and co-workers piled on, too), Vetri swore that he was going to force some changes to the mural. He threatened to paint over Polenta Man.
 
“I’m hoping Marc is going to get used to it,” says the mural artist, Ann Northrup. “I think it’s so funny and so cute. And it’s really meant to represent all the chefs who have worked in that building.”
 
Those chefs include James Burke, Michael Solomonov, Chip Roman and Dionicio Jimenez, who worked under Vetri and went on to open their own places with his blessing and encouragement. And, perhaps most important, Georges Perrier, who opened his first iteration of Le Bec-Fin here, in 1970.
 
Perrier, of course, became Philadelphia’s first real celebrity chef. The fiery Frenchman went on to bigger, fancier, costlier digs, opened spin-offs, fumed and fussed, and for three decades nearly single-handedly kept Philadelphia on the world’s culinary radar.
 
The toque has been passed. (As if we needed any more proof of the changing of the guard, Vetri wears a weathered orange kerchief around his shaved pate.) Italian is the new French. Informal is the new formal. The charred, homely polenta pot has replaced the polished cloche. Nowadays, when culinary culture vultures think of a world-class chef in Philadelphia, it’s Marc Vetri, a 42-year-old guy who really wanted to be a guitar hero. That dream took him for a time to California, where he started a band called Mild Mustard. He still strums nearly every day; lately, he’s been taking private lessons to learn the gypsy jazz style.
 
Vetri’s true talent turned out to be cooking. He spent youthful Sundays in South Philly helping his father’s Italian relatives cook dinner; his Jewish mother came from a restaurant family. He ended up in a Southern California kitchen rife with the trendy techniques of Wolfgang Puck, pre-conglomerate period. Vetri went about studying the trade the way any good and serious musician would, with lessons learned one-on-one, under a master teacher. He embarked on what he would later dub his voyaggio — a nearly two-year pilgrimage through Italy, where, working in the traditional indentured-servitude system called stage, he walked the stations of the culinary cross, learning pasta-making, butchering, roasting techniques and, yes, how to stir a bubbling pot of polenta. In 1998, he opened Vetri. And almost overnight, he became the biggest thing to happen to the Philadelphia food scene since Perrier.
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?”
AT THE STROKE of noon, the partners grab their coats and trundle downstairs, passing through the quiet and disheveled dining room, where a pretty hostess is confirming reservations. They push into their famed kitchen, where Vetri stops to confer with Brad Spence, his chef de cuisine, the first he has ever trusted to run his namesake restaurant. (Jeff Michaud, who went through an Italian apprenticeship similar to Vetri’s, is the chef and partner at Osteria.) Spence is a friendly guy whose red hair and moderate girth make him seem like a younger, less flashy sibling of Mario Batali. (Vetri met Batali more than a decade ago, when both were young up-and-coming chefs in New York. He’s appeared on Batali’s Food Network show, and recently a picture of him with Batali sat in his kitchen, on a shelf between the stoves and the credit-card machine. “Wow,” he said when he showed it to me. “Look how drunk we look.”) Spence worked a while in a Manhattan satellite of the Batali universe, then returned to be near his family in South Jersey. Vetri grabbed him.

“He’s a chef’s chef,” Vetri says of Spence. “He likes the same flavors that I like. He understands the same food that I like. We have the same philosophies about food.” 
 
Later, I asked Vetri to explain his philosophy of food. He e-mailed me about taking research trips to Italy, eating at Michelin-rated restaurants. But then he wrote, “We go to my friend’s house up in the mountains, and we smell wood burning on the way up. His mother is out in the field picking wild greens, his brother is jarring fruit so it lasts until next season, and his father is watching the lamb leg he had on the spit since the morning. There are vegetables marinating, salumi being sliced, and fruit from the trees roasting in the oven in the form of a cake or pie. The cafe moka pot is filled and ready to be put on the fire after lunch, the wine is opened and ready to be poured, and the stash of grappa is unlocked, so we know it’s going to be used. We laugh, drink, eat, reminisce, tell stories and carve memories in our minds that will last a lifetime. Somehow, we forget about the meals and ideas we learned at the Michelin-starred restaurants and say to ourselves on the plane home, ‘That could have been the best meal of my life.’”

All of which sounds fantastic. But how do you recreate that feeling for a table of four at Vetri, which is also likely to recall the check for $700 at the end of the meal? “The more I think about it,” Vetri says to me later, “the more the end result — the spinach gnocchi, for example — is nothing without the experience I went through to learn how to make it, to stick it out there for you. My thinking is that you have to be able to taste that when you eat. Everything derived from an experience, the heart and soul of the food. Without that, the dish means nothing.”

 

ONE NIGHT, DURING the heat of weekend service at Vetri, its namesake stands shoulder-to-shoulder with Brad Spence, looking at orders coming through. “The lavender thing,” Vetri says. “Let’s stick that in the middle for everyone. Then we’ll do the grapefruit tart.”
 
“The hazelnut cake was with that,” Spence reminds him.
 
“It’s gonna be like … ahh … ahh … ” Vetri pauses a moment, gathering momentum to push past the stutter that has plagued him since youth. “People are gonna be like, You got the big hazelnut cake, and I got a little scoop of ice cream with olive oil on it. I got screwed.”
 
Spence considers this a moment. “Whatever, dude,” he replies, and the two laugh. While Georges Perrier was noted for his almost theatrically imperious bearing, Vetri runs a loose ship. At Osteria one night, I watched him walk into the open kitchen with an Ed McMahon shout to his cooks: “Heyyyyyy-oh!”
 
“Heyyyyyyyy-oh!” they shouted back.
 
His presence at Osteria means serious business, though. There had developed a disconnect between the kitchen and the waitstaff that was slowing service, reducing turnover. Vetri is trying hard to fix it. But within moments of mounting a little stand at the kitchen expediting station, he and Jeff Michaud are teasing and prodding and joking with each other and the staff. An Osteria manager whispers in my ear: “I’m constantly trying to get the busboys to act really professional. What am I going to do about the chefs?”
 
Alan Richman is one of the first food critics with a national audience to have raved about Marc Vetri. The two men have become friends, but the critic now sees something happening that worries him a little.
 
“It was a better world when chefs had no respect and no aspiration to fame or fortune,” Richman tells me. “When they were drudges, beaten down and boxed in, sweating and cooking for 50 years until their legs gave out and they dropped dead over their stoves.
 
“Why Mark is so successful,” he continues, “the thing he does that nobody who’s a star or celebrity wants to do anymore, is he’s the chef in the kitchen. Here’s the template: not too large a place, hands-on, with a vision of the kind of food you want to make and a dedicated clientele. If you’re talented and do these things, you’re going to be admirable and have a great restaurant.
 
“But it’s hard to make a profit, and that kind of model isn’t where you get rich. In the old days, chefs didn’t think it was their right to be rich. In the old days, you had the chef-proprietor. Now you have the chef- entrepreneur. When you go over to just entrepreneur, food goes out the window.”
REAL ESTATE DEVELOPER Eric Blumenfeld is all about the windows. Vetri and Benjamin are scanning a half-dozen: tall, bright Palladian windows that offer a view of the somewhat desolate corner of South Broad Street and Washington Avenue. The developer is giving the restaurateurs and their favorite contractor, a bemused Israeli named Ofer Shlomo, a sales pitch for the big, stripped-to-the-concrete ground-floor space of the Marine Club. The five-story Greek Revival building was built in 1904 to house a military quartermaster’s unit, was converted to rental apartments in the early ’80s, and is now being marketed by Blumenfeld for condos. “Look at that, look at those windows,” he says. “Aren’t they great? Isn’t this a perfect space? I think it might be even better than Osteria.”

Blumenfeld was the first successful suitor in a long line of smitten entrepreneurs who tried to seduce Vetri and Benjamin into partnership, to coax them from their tiny townhouse to start a new restaurant big enough to feed more people than, say, could fit into the Phillies dugout. Stephen Starr came calling several times. Tony Goldman offered to move Vetri — lock, stock and cappuccino machine — into one of his buildings. There were opportunities in Atlantic City and Las Vegas. The answer was always no. Vetri’s father, who made a good living running a string of costume jewelry stores, drilled one thing into him: Work for yourself, work for yourself, work for yourself.

Blumenfeld eventually got the Vetri guys to open Osteria in his 640 North Broad Street lofts by laying out a lot of money with no strings. “It would have been too much money for me,” Vetri says. “It’s a big place. It took, like, a million and a half dollars.” (By contrast, he and Benjamin started Vetri with around $200,000, much of it from a small business loan.) “I wouldn’t have been able to do it. But Eric said, ‘For you, Marc, I would do anything.’ So I basically made him eat those words.”

Vetri thought that for staking the restaurant, Blumenfeld would want a percentage. But Blumenfeld demurred. What he wanted — and what he got with the opening of Osteria — was the kind of buzz that the owner of an apartment building in the urban hinterlands could never buy. When the ultimate condo conversion comes, who knows how many hundreds of thousands of dollars a hot restaurant in the building could add to sale prices?

So it’s hardly surprising that Blumenfeld would like to bottle that vintage of lightning again. As the sinking afternoon sun streams through those beautiful windows, he leads the restaurateurs around his big, bare space, promising changes as needed — whatever it takes. Everyone parts with noncommittal hugs. But Vetri might extend the embrace if Blumenfeld offers the same incentives he did with Osteria.

“Marc understands what he wants and knows his value,” Blumenfeld tells me afterward. “I think I understand Marc and he understands me. Everybody has his different motives here. I’m trying to build a neighborhood. … He’s trying to continue his empire.”
IS POLENTA MAN pursuing an empire?

It’s easy to understand the motivation — or, more accurately, the temptation. Despite the current recession, these are what might be called the, uh, salad days for chefs. They battle like gladiators on television. They get big advances for books. There are movies about chefs in love and lovable rodents who want nothing more than to run a kitchen. The virus of celebrity chefdom is so strong that you can now pretend you’re dining on Wolfgang Puck’s famous food in a dingy concourse at Chicago’s O’Hare airport.

At first glance, Marc Vetri would seem a perfect candidate to be the nation’s next celebrity chef-entrepreneur. He’s a good-looking guy who earned a degree in marketing and finance at Drexel before leaving with his guitar for Los Angeles. Once he was there, Benjamin once told me, “He really wanted to be a rock star.” And he has become a star.

“A lot of people have become obsessive about food and restaurants,” says Frank Bruni, the New York Times food critic who made a rare excursion out of Manhattan to cover Osteria and Vetri (lukewarm and high praise, respectively). “As that’s happened, gems around the country that in another era might not have gotten any notice have rocketed to people’s attention.”

The most obvious explanation of why Marc Vetri has been slow to capitalize on his growing fame would seem to be his stutter. He’s had it since he was a kid, been embarrassed by it and abused for it, been treated for it in various ways, and now just seems to deal with it. “I have not had an offer to do a food show,” he says. “The stutter definitely hinders me in that. But even if I spoke fluently, I don’t know that I’d want a television show.” He readily walks around the dining rooms of his two restaurants, chatting and schmoozing; since his posh first cookbook, Il Viaggio Di Vetri, was published last fall, he’s done appearances to promote it.

“I don’t say no to things,” he says. “I go up onstage and I talk and I stutter. If people are there to listen to how I’m actually speaking, they’re there for the wrong reasons, I guess.”
“HE CAME REALLY close to proposing to Audrey,” says his friend and former neighbor, PR maven Tina Breslow. “He’s a quiet guy — and then there’s Audrey, who’s very outgoing. Sometimes I worried about that. He was going to lose himself in her. But he was very romantic and very much in love.” In the end, it didn’t work out, and Vetri says now that dating someone in the restaurant business is “crazy.” Four years ago, after yoga class, he struck up a conversation with a pretty, petite woman 11 years his junior. (“We practiced next to one another for a year and never said a word,” he reports.) He and Megan Williams-Kief dated for nine months and married six months after that. They have two children: Maurice, nearly three, and Catherine, nine months. At one point during the inauguration party in Washington, David Alperin sidled up to me and said, “You know, a few years ago Marc would always say, ‘All I ever want to do is what I’m doing: cooking at Vetri.’ But I don’t believe he’s thinking that way so much these days.” (Vetri and Benjamin recently set up the Vetri Foundation for Children; its main beneficiary is Alex’s Lemonade Stand, for which they throw an annual celebrity-chef dinner gala that raised about $250,000 last year.)

In the empty Vetri dining room, I pulled out an Amtrak magazine I’d grabbed in Union Station that weekend. On the cover was Gordon Ramsay, the poster boy for how to exploit the celebrity-chef phenomenon; he has restaurants on several continents. “It’s safe to say,” says food critic Alan Richman, “that no matter how talented a chef he is, no regular person will ever again go to one of his restaurants and actually eat a meal prepared by Gordon Ramsay, or even prepared by a cook who’s had Gordon Ramsay look over his shoulder.”

 

Vetri glanced at the cover photo of the famously profane Scot who now plays a chef on TV. “I don’t look at these guys as that they’re selling out,” he said. “I mean, these are the guys who are making the industry more — what’s the word? — more popular. Guys like this — or Wolfgang, Bobby Flay, Tom Colicchio. Every one of them I know, they all love to cook. They all kind of just want to hop on the line and work. They also have that certain quality that makes them want to do some other things. I don’t think it’s just a negative. People say, ‘Ah, he sold out.’ Why did he sell out? He’s working; he’s opening up restaurants. Why is that a sellout? Just because I don’t want to do all these other things, like I don’t want to open up a restaurant in Australia … It’s just not, you know, for everybody. I’m on my route.”

THE NEXT STOP is almost certain to be another Italian place. Vetri and Benjamin came very close to signing a deal to move into a boutique hotel being developed at 17th and Arch, running a restaurant, a rooftop cafe and the hotel’s room service. But the deal dragged and dragged.

One Saturday night, just before dinner service was about to start, I sat in the offices upstairs at Vetri and watched Benjamin try to tone down an e-mail his partner had written, but not yet sent, to the hotel’s developer, complaining of their impatience. “I’m just trying to make it a little more polite,” Benjamin said as he typed.

“How about this,” Vetri said. “‘Roses are red. Violets are blue. Go fuck yourself.’”

He was joking. Kind of. Within a week, the hotel deal was dead.

“Osteria we always wanted to do,” Vetri says now. “I always liked making pizzas. I’ve always liked working with wood, and I always wanted to do wood tables. Really casual. And I think we nailed it.

“And now I’d like to do this other concept, which is the Italian trattoria concept. A little bit lower, even more casual, but the food’s still awesome. And I would like it to be smaller than Osteria, but not by much.” The plan is for Brad Spence to become chef-partner of the trattoria. “And we’d like to do a real Italian coffee place,” Vetri says, “where it has the liquor license and it has the pastries lined up in the morning, and you walk in and grab one and go up to the counter and say, ‘I had this and this.’ Kind of the honor system.”

All of which hardly sounds like the crass designs of a jet-setting media-whore culinary mogul wannabe. But how much can a guy juggle and still cook? Can Vetri become a brand and really remain a chef?

“I was doing an event at Macy’s,” he says. “And somebody asked me, ‘What’s your dream restaurant?’ And I said, ‘I opened it 10 years ago.’” He spreads his arms a little, to draw in the tiny dining room of his eponymous spot. “This is the restaurant that people open up at the end of their career. This is the one that everybody, all the chefs who walk into it, says: ‘This is what I want to do.’ Small place. Make what you want. You don’t have to do 400 dinners a night. You can make almost everything yourself, touch every plate if you want to.

“I want to do these other things, right now, because it’s fun,” he continues. “But five years from now, when you’re wondering, God, Marc’s got all these restaurants, where is he tonight?, you’ll be able to say, ‘He’s at Vetri. He’s working the line over at Vetri.’ This is where everybody expects to see me. This is where I want to be cooking eventually. This is it. This is every chef’s, ah, dream restaurant.” The semi-secret, original lair of Polenta Man.