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?

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.”