Kneading Lessons & a Learning Legacy on the Road with the Vetri Family

Growth happens when we are exposed to new things — or sometimes, the same things but new ways of doing them.  When we have those with the experience, passion and patience to teach us, something beautiful happens in the exchange.  An invitation to cook at the annual Great Chefs Event for Alex’s Lemonade Stand in Philadelphia last week presented such an opportunity for The Genuine Hospitality Group culinary assistant Dillion Wolff — to stage at Vetri Cucina, thanks to Michael and friend Marc Vetri.  A chef respected by his peers for his talent and heart, Marc has cultivated a stable of acclaimed chefs and restaurants since his flagship Vetri Cucina opened in Philly in 1998. It’s hard enough to be a for-profit business in this business, so 20 years is many lifetimes in the restaurant world, especially when you are also running a foundation in tandem.  Vetri Cucina set the tone and proved a solid foundation from which to build, recognized for the level of care taken in honoring and elevating the traditional Italian kitchen.  Its special tasting menu has minted this gem in the canon of American dining and won multiple James Beard Awards for its offspring, Jeff Michaud and Mike Solomonov to name a few.  If Marc is the OG progenitor, Vetri Cucina is the primordial Italian wedding soup.

The dining experience at Vetri is an ode to the mother country and its love of food unlike any other. In addition to the dining room, guests can arrange for private dinners, as well as partake in cooking classes on site.  As Dillion found out, perhaps the education most important happens daily among its cooks in service — a recipe of teamwork and technique.  It’s a place where bread, pasta and even polenta made from scratch means milling the flour in house.

“Going into it there were a few things I was curious about, like making fresh pasta, for example,” Dillion reflected on the phone Monday.  “How they run service is so different than Harry’s or Genuine Pizza — even Michael’s Genuine or Amara.  We are talking a 30 seat restaurant where 40 covers is a crazy busy night.”

TGHG Culinary Director Bradley Herron snagged Dillion for his team in February 2017 from Michael’s Genuine, where he had been working the line for a year after interning there during culinary school.  The culinary assistant role is a unique one, providing support to all Genuine group entities — from Amara at Paraiso to Fi’lia in the Bahamas to our commissary kitchen — with ongoing training, their chefs with last minute help on the line, working Michael Schwartz Events including private parties from cocktail receptions to cooking classes and off-site catering, and handling special projects.  Really everything under the sun.  Most recently, Dillion worked with the Genuine Pizza cookbook team on a week-long photoshoot.  The 150 pictures of recipes and lifestyle shots due to publisher Abrams Books quickly became 180, including several step by step instructive images for which he and colleague Brandon Green served not only as prep cooks but subjects.

Some of the Genuine Pizza cookbook photo wall, most of Dillion’s hands!

“This job requires flexibility and versatility, but it demands a good attitude,” Bradley explained.  “You have to be able to jump in to help and get things done at a moment’s notice, and they need to be done right. Dillion is as fast as he is proficient, but these are strengths that as a cook you always want to be improving upon.  That comes with experience, time on the line and repeated exposure to new environments and things.”

Dinner at Vetri is conceived based on each table, and everything isn’t the same.  The on the fly structure is part of the challenge, the fun and the instruction.

“It was cool to see how dynamic the approach is with the tasting menu,” Dillion reflects.  “It’s not just what the chef wants to do, it’s trying to make the diner’s experience as custom and to their tastes and food preferences as possible.”

The first day, Dillion was a fly on the wall for service, and they would make him an extra of each dish to taste. Tuesday was spent with the baker, milling fresh flour and baking bread.  He worked service with “pasta guy” and also helped with private events upstairs.

“Matt, the executive chef… On Monday he was the dishwasher.  I mean, it really sets the tone when the first courses come in heavy and the pasta cook comes in to help put it out.  You could tell in the kitchen that it was a huge team effort,” he reflected. “Everyone will do whatever. The whole operation is impressive, the attention to detail and craft but also people being genuine with each other — and incredibly welcoming to me.  They didn’t want to ask me to do things, like the stuff that’s not glamorous, and I’m there to work and to do anything. I had so many questions and no one got annoyed with me!”

The City of Brotherly Love indeed. Something we can all benefit from emulating!  Follow Dillion on Instagram @dillion_wolff.

A Little Lechon & Wine Pairing Competition? Amara Sommelier Amanda Fraga is all Cheers

Fraga in her element at Amara!

Amanda Fraga is no stranger to competition.  For the third consecutive year, our now sommelier at Amara at Paraiso has been invited to participate in Cochon 555, the heritage hog, chef and wine professional bout of brains, brawn and creative brilliance.  This is great news of course, since we get to come along for the ride not only at the event, but for the training in preparation which we found is just as strategic and mind bending as it is for their culinary counterparts. Amanda’s mission: select any wine she’d like, unhindered by sponsorship obligations, that will pair best with the presentation plates of each of the 5 chef candidates.  Yes, here’s the catch. She won’t know the dishes her wine needs to work with until she’s vying for attention to pour it amidst her four peers.

“For me, my job lies in how I figure out where my wine can be highlighted on the playing field and how I can get these judges to try it with what I think on the fly it will work best with. Under the clock, of course,” she explains.  “You want to pick a pig-friendly wine that will play well with an array of dishes.  It has to be versatile, but to a large extent you are playing the odds.  What you can control, you try to.”

It’s all timed.  Every 10 minutes, the pack of judges descends on each station and systematically hears the chef’s point of view for their offering, tastes through the dishes and also is approached by the sommeliers, who are also judges of the competition.  Everyone has an agenda and everyone votes on everything.

“I try to not stand next to the same people the whole time, and it’s not easy because the focus is on the pig and the chef,” Fraga continues. “I haven’t won yet, but I do think it’s important to find something in your approach that’s memorable.”

Fraga decided to pick a Cava in méthode Champenoise — Juvé y Camps “Brut Nature” Reserva de la Familia. This is the real, old school deal, a grower Cava from a family-owned house making wine since the 1700s.  When a Juvé married a Camps in the early 20th century, this sparkling was born.  A 40th anniversary edition, the Reserva has two years age and is made from the Spanish grapes traditional to its sparkling wine. It is bright with a little green apple but with some gravitas and toastiness thanks to the time in the bottle.

“Even the label is super classic,” she notes.  “It is even rumored that Dom borrowed the shape. The family cares about tradition and have kept the label.  Chefs are so visual, and this is the OG. I also wanted to honor the heritage aspect of what Cochon is all about.”

Clearly Fraga’s not concerned about showing her hand which is one of the many reasons we love her.  To support our fearless super somm and to partake in the pigging, grab tickets to the main event in Miami on June 10, with winners advancing to Grand Conchon finale, here.

Ready for Its Cheese Pull Moment in the Sun, Better Pizza at Home is the Star of Chef Michael Schwartz’s New Genuine Pizza Cookbook

Puttanesca with marinara, stracciatella, anchovies, capers, olives and basil.

Feast your eyes on Genuine Pizza! Shooting on location this week on Miami Beach, Chef Michael Schwartz and a crack team of cooks and creatives are preparing the final elements of Genuine Pizza: Better Pizza at Home, due to publish in Spring 2019 with Abrams Books. With more than 75 recipes, the Chef shares his genuine approach to making better pizza at home.  The pictures make the book after all, and we’re serious about capturing the experience true to hand-formed!

“My philosophy is simple and straightforward—the secret to good food is good food, and it starts with sourcing great ingredients,” says Schwartz. “Genuine Pizza is my approach as an American chef who puts quality and simplicity first. Pizza has always been an important part of all my restaurants.  It’s an opportunity for expression and I want the home cook to feel like they now have a great resource that they can turn to and enjoy using.”

Teamwork makes the dream work (left to right): Prop Haus’ Martha Bernabe, TGHG culinary assistant Dillion Wolff, chef Michael Schwartz, culinary assistant Brandon Green and camera assistant Sophie Fabbri.

The popularity of pizza at Michael’s Genuine® Food & Drink inspired Schwartz to open a casual pizza restaurant, Genuine PizzaTM, and this book reveals the chef’s tried and true approach for making his signature pies. Schwartz believes that the home cook can and should eat better pizza at home, and so Genuine Pizza is inviting and fun, covering the basics first, so that readers can then be adventurous in their own kitchens, mixing and matching ingredients that appeal to them, to create the perfect pie.

Brad and Brandon.

Beginning with Pizza Fundamentals, Genuine Pizza explores everything from useful equipment and must-have ingredients to detailed, step-by-step techniques for how to make incredible dough, including recipes for gluten-free and rye-based options. Part two is all about composing nuanced, flavorful pizzas, with recipes that include classics such as Margherita and Soppressata, as well as pies with more unorthodox, yet irresistible topping combinations. Schwartz shares his favorites, like Zucchini with ricotta, anchovy, chile, lemon, grana padano, mint, and basil, BLT with bacon with arugula, tomato, and taleggio, and Pastrami on rye crust. Inspired by the Miami locale, pizzas also feature local Rock Shrimp and Slow-roasted Pork, Schwartz’s nod to the Cuban sandwich in pizza form.

Because no one can live on pizza alone, Genuine Pizza also explores Snacks, Soups, Salads, Main Courses, Desserts, and Drinks, forming a guidebook to creating balanced, vibrant meals, centered around everyone’s favorite food. “Pizza is just the beginning—it’s a jumping off point to colorful, delicious meals at home,” says Schwartz.

Follow #genuinepizzaathome and visit thegenuinekitchen.com for more information, events, and behind the scenes content leading up to the release.

Photographer Sidney Bensimon with TGHG Culinary Director Bradley Herron.

[RECIPE] Spring Cleaning the Grill & Your Plate — Lettuce!

Spring is clean up time. No matter where home is, we brush off something — dust from shelves or grimy remains of (so much) snowfall.  While wiping the shmutz from dark corners, we mind what’s inside by eating fresh and clean.  For starters, scrub down the grill and mark some lettuce — escarole to be exact.

“Try to buy lettuce in whole heads,” Michael says.  “The heartier the better, and make sure you cut thick enough on the vein so it holds together. It doesn’t take much time on the grill to get it where you want it — just wilted enough with some good marks, smokey flavor, and still with a nice firm texture.”

It’s always smart if you can to position your grill in a spot with great ventilation, and give yourself some good clearance on all sides. If you’re on wood, you want to light it at least an hour beforehand to get it up to temperature. Watch your fire and use a thermometer — add wood when necessary and have a spray bottle handy for flare ups.  Michael has both an indoor wood grill at home like many of our restaurants, as well as a Lynx gas grill outside — it requires less planning with great results.  Always clean your grill after you’re done eating, not cooking.  Elbow grease with a good brush will do and even a bowl of soapy water with a stainless steel scrubber.

When grilling with lettuce, drizzle liberally with olive oil and season, then use tongs to mark each side of your “steaks”.  Here’s how we serve escarole as a side at Amara at Paraiso, but this is more of a roadmap for running with it, than a recipe.  You can substitute radicchio, endive, romaine — whatever combination you like.  Same goes for the chile and hard to semi-hard cheese.  Just not the lemon, please!  It would make a great entrée salad with grilled shrimp.

Grilled Escarole with Idiazabal, chile, lemon

Serves 4

3/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 Fresno chile, thinly sliced
2 heads escarole, cleaned and split
1 tablespoon kosher salt
2 lemons, split in half
1/4 cup shaved Idiazabal cheese

Pre-heat the grill to high.  When hot, brush the grill grates with a wire brush, then rub with a paper towel blotted with vegetable oil.

Place small saucepan on the grill and add 1/2 cup of the oil and the chiles. Warm through until the oil begins to simmer.  Remove from heat and set aside.  Drizzle escarole heads with remaining olive oil and sprinkle with salt.  Place on open grill, cut side down with the lemon halves. Grill escarole and lemon for 3-5 minutes, without turning.  Watch the lettuce in particular — you just want it wilted enough with some good marks for smokey flavor, but still with a nice firm texture.  Pull off onto a cutting board and cut each piece in half.  Dress on the board or platter you plan to serve on, spooning the chile oil and topping with shaved cheese. Enjoy with grilled lemon on the side to squeeze.

 

Fairytale Eggplant & the Novel of South Florida’s Growing Season Charms

Beautiful Fairytale Eggplant from Mother Earth Miami

Michael’s Genuine® chef de cuisine Tim Piazza has his hands in a box of artichokes.  Peeling them, especially baby ones, is not exactly a stimulating activity, but Tim is wearing one of his wide-eyed smiles, the one that makes him look a little crazy.  Spring is here, and he is clearly in the zone.

“Last night Mother Earth harvested like 50 pounds of greens in the dark with little headlights, because that’s the best time to harvest greens — at night when the temperature cools down,” Tim explains.  “Katia just grows like the nicest, coolest stuff.”

Mother Earth Miami, sprouting from Litter River Cooperative’s Farmer Incubator Program, is a new source for us this season, with Tim bringing in vegetables and greens like turnip, carrot, spigariello kale and fairytale eggplant. This kind of organic growth in the local farming community is a definite reason to get excited. And to make Eggplant Tomato Curry.

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Eggplant Tomato Curry

The combination of Indian spices and local ingredients has proven to be a hit, maximizing the flavor potential of a curry.  Roasted eggplant is sautéed with cinnamon, star anise, cardamom, coriander, cumin, black pepper, lemon pepper, fenugreek, and fennel seed, served at room temperature with lightly-marinated chickpeas, some cilantro and a freshly-made cucumber raita served with a side of fresh pita.

“It’s cool to work with people who care about what they’re doing and are trying new things,” Tim continues. “Getting good ingredients helps us elevate the simplicity of what we do and these relationships are essential to the process.”

Katia last year at a pre-opening wine tasting for staff at Amara.

Ms. Bechara, a wine rep by trade raised in Colombia found she had a green thumb and founded Mother Earth Miami in November 2015.  The move began in her backyard after participating in various small farmer workshops with experienced leaders like Margie Pikarsky of Bee Heaven Farm in Homestead and John Gentzel of J&P Apiary.

“It was the best canvas for my budding farming career,” says Bechara of her impromptu home project.

She volunteered for urban farmer Muriel Olivares in 2013, to learn the ropes from one of the best who started small.  Olivares chose her last spring to participate in the incubator. Designed to educate and give urban farmers starting out that extra boost for success, it provides them with a plot of land and shared farm tools, as well as classes.  It’s the ultimate small business resource when you deal in seeds and soil.

“I consider Muriel, and Tiffany Noe, my mentors,” says Bechara.

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Gabi (left) and Katia working together

Her current business partner and friend, Gabi Serra, was a plot neighbor in the program.  Born and raised in Venezuela, Serra’s focus on the herbalism side of farming brings great balance to Mother Earth’s proposition. They also grow edible flowers, herbs, and medicinals like calendula, nasturtiums, and moringa.

“Gabi and I love working together and we have so many aspirations to help the Miami community,” say Berchara.

At its peak, South Florida’s growing season always brings fresh, local ingredients to our doorstep thanks to new farms like Mother Earth.  Their passion is contagious and brings new ideas to the kitchen.   But it’s the mainstays that keep the flagship humming.  With its 11th anniversary this week, Michael’s Genuine® Food & Drink continues to be the nucleus of activity for seasonal change, a north star for our restaurant group, setting the tone and the bar for our chefs. If you want to get a taste of what’s happening now in the fields and who is growing what you’re eating, you need look no further that Tim’s menu.

“So it’s really coming in now from everywhere… the tomatoes from Borek are obviously a big thing for us. The run is pretty long from the end of last year but they’re peaking right now, along with the kale and eggplant,” he says. “With a restaurant that moves so much, we have to stay on our toes and utilize the farm products we order in many different ways you know; in a pasta, on a pizza, with a salad, maybe showcase it in a dish of its own like we are doing with the eggplant.”

There’s always a method to the madness. But that madness is familiar to those in our line of work.

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Tomatoes from Teena’s Pride

Working with farmers is an ever-changing, ongoing process that he’s constantly adapting to. He’s currently working with 5 or 6 farms, with familiar names such as Michael Borek’s Teena’s Pride, who we receive beautiful heirloom tomatoes from, amongst other things, every season.

When asked what he was most excited to work with ingredient-wise this season, he simply shrugged with a baffled look on his face.  Always working with what he receives and changing things up, or using standard products in new ways — it is hard for him to narrow it down.

“As a chef, you are excited about everything.”