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.
“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.