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.

Wellness in the Schools is Right on Target in Broward County Public Schools!

Like father, like son!  Class is always in session with Wellness in the Schools and last night was no exception at Wynwood Yard where we celebrated some important school year-end milestones with cooking class led by Chef and inspired by recipes from Genuine Pizza and Michael’s Genuine Food & Drink, with help from Harry Schwartz and TGHG culinary assistant Brandon Green.  The tireless team behind this cause close to our hearts in NYC and Miami reached this year’s goals with the Broward County Food & Nutrition Services including first annual Cook Camps.  This week they will train 10 new schools and their cafeteria staff on new menu items from local chef partners including:  Michael Schwartz Kale inspired Pizza, Clarke Bowen’s Black Bean and Plantain Quesadilla, Chef Aria’s Pesto Panini, Roasted Veggies from Chef Julie Frans, and Whole Foods Pesto Pasta with Tomatoes.

Back in October, when Chef launched the Kale Pizza at McNicol Middle School, he got to experience a day in the life of the cafeteria. Spending time with Ms. Naomi, the heartbeat of that kitchen, the students and watching them try a new food item such as Kale, made his day.   Every chef who participated in “Chefs Move to Broward” worked to generate excitement in the cafeteria, amongst the students and to get their recipe on the line!  Next year will only get better.  Amazing job as always by NYC founding leaders Nancy Easton and chef Bill Telepan and the team on the ground in Miami led by Allyce Perret-Gentil, our in-school chef partner Leonor Azpurua, and so many more.   As Michael says, they do all the work! We’re just humbled to be along for the ride.  Here are the recipes from last night’s festivities for your home use.

Stirring Things Up for Negroni Week at Michael’s Genuine® & Amara at Paraiso

If you’re a lover of a cocktail that leans a little bitter, you’ll want to visit the bars at Michael’s Genuine® Food & Drink and Amara at Paraiso ASAP.  It’s Negroni Week, the annual celebration of our favorite early evening Italian ritual that piques the appetite for all things nocturnal – especially poppable bar snacks like cheesy yuca puffs.

Amara at Paraiso’s trifecta of sultry red deliciousness.

Beginning today through Sunday, both restaurants have a list of special twists on this classic cocktail known for its amaro bite but celebrated for its exquisite balance.  We can and do conjure the classic at a moment’s notice — 1:1:1 of equal parts sweet vermouth preferably Carpano Antica, gin and Campari — but this week gives us a little license to get creative, and the juices have been flowing!  A portion of proceeds from each cocktail purchased will be donated to causes close to our hearts — at Amara assistant GM Maria Pottage offers 3 specials which support Outside In, helping homeless youth and marginalized people move towards improved health and self-sufficiency.  Michael’s Genuine’s bartender Jorge Hernandez offers a new negroni each day as its “Market Special” to benefit Wellness in the Schools, a national non-profit we work with in Miami that teaches kids healthy habits to learn and live better. Menus are listed below, so plan accordingly.

Below, pictured left to right.

Amara at Paraiso ~ Special Negroni List (13)
Negroni at Paraiso – Sotol por Siempre, Barsol Perfecto Amor pisco, Campari, orange peel
The Agroni – Campari, Russell’s Reserve bourbon, Carpano Antica sweet vermouth, lemon, aqua fava, bitters
Negroni Punch – Macchu pisco, Campari, Aperol, pineapple juice, rosé, Carpano Antica sweet vermouth

Today’s special at Michael’s Genuine.

Michael’s Genuine ~ Market Special Negroni (12)

Monday –
Botanist Gin
Lychee Infused Cocchi Americano
Campari
Rinomato
St Germain

Tuesday –
Gin Mare
Sage Lime Syrup
Campari
Massican Dry Vermouth

Wednesday –
St George Terroir
Peach Infused Campari
Combier
Antica Carpano

Thursday –
Ransom Old Tom Gin
4 Roses Small Batch
Campari
Antica CArpano

Friday –
Botanist Gin
Passion Fruit Syrup
Campari
Massican Dry Vermouth

Saturday –
Love Eden Gin
Campari
Averel Sloe Gin
Cocchi Americano

Sunday –
Classic Negroni

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.

IMG_4475

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.

image5-1

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.

IMG_4483

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.”

Chef Derek Dammann is Like a Great Bar. He Owns a Restaurant with One, Too.

 

About an hour after I hang up from my interview with Derek Dammann, he sends me some images to illustrate this post. There is no pristine beauty of Baked Oysters with Mushroom and Marmite, now iconic at the chef’s beloved five-year-old Québécois gastropub, Maison Publique — the dish he mentioned over the phone that began as half-serious, half-joke until they realized it was really fucking good.  Also not included is a table full of Sichuan dishes from that place back home in Vancouver that doesn’t look like much but serves some of the best Asian food the city’s immigrant nooks and crannies have to offer.  No.  He has sent me two images.  One is of a wood burning stove for heating not cooking — and the other, a flood-lit house and shed fronting a wood disappearing into the night.  Leading to it, a pathway has been plowed four feet deep and is soft with footsteps fresh from the evening’s snowfall.  For someone for whom affability seems to come more naturally and fluidly than most, who makes a living playing host to both friends and strangers daily, Dammann has chosen to live of all places out in the woods.  “This is home,” he writes, and suddenly I realize he has shared all I need to know in this one text message.  I can relate.

He, wife Christina and six-year-old son Felix call the Laurentian Mountains home.  They are majestic, primal and not exactly the obvious choice for a man who has built his reputation on creating atmosphere and community at his popular restaurant ensconced in the residential Le Plateau Mont-Royal neighborhood of Montreal, just north of the park and mount for which the city is named.  As a young chef, Dammann set off to London to work for Jamie Oliver, and these quiet neighborhood streets remind him of his little corner there.  The commute is 45 minutes to an hour of rolling, fir-lined roads. Thinking time.  He wouldn’t have it any other way.

The Laurentian Mountains run through southern Quebec. They consist of Precambrian rocks over 540 million years old, making these soft peaks among the oldest in the world.(credit: Tourism Laurentians)

Eating at the bar and the sense of welcome it can cultivate in a restaurant is something important to us at Michael’s Genuine®, a feeling and approach to hospitality that Dammann shares.  When we knocked down the back bar in 2014 to make room for the now familiar horseshoe there today, it changed the entire dynamic of the dining room.  Everything opened up to the hearth and the energy shift was palpable.

“I love eating at the bar. It’s less serious and more convivial,” he explains.  “It takes a lot of pressure off —if you’re on a date, there’s other people to talk to.  Things come faster… Drinks come faster…. There should be lots of little things to look at. All the little details.  We added angled mirrors above the bar, and they reflect where we are, the street lamps and cars crawling in the snow.”

When he bought the place, there was nothing there except dirty carpets.  They ripped everything out and built the whole restaurant based around the bar.  They distressed it, made it look really old and lived in.  An enthusiast and practitioner of the national pastime, Dammann made sure there was a TV strategically placed so he could watch hockey from the pass.

“It’s something you think about when you get open. You feel out the space, where the best seats are in the restaurant,” he continues.  “Bar 1, 2 and 3 in the corner by the open kitchen were saved for walk-ins in the beginning. No one really wanted them at first. Now they’re the most sought-after in the house. There are people that hem and haw about sitting at the bar.  Then there are those that the bar speaks to. I’m one of those people. It says, ‘you’re going to have a good time tonight.'”

Next Thursday’s dinner for South Beach Wine & Food Festival will be his first time in Florida, but something tells us he’ll feel at home.  He tells of meeting Michael for the first time as his booth neighbor at one of the Alex’s Lemonade Stand chef events last year. They hit it off immediately.

“It’s one of those things that people say,” he notes. “‘You should come and do a dinner’ — and then you don’t hear from them.  But three weeks later, I got a call.”

In addition to the Marmitine oysters on the reception menu on February 22, he’s doing Smoked Mackerel with anchovy and lemon, a nod to his travels in Italy and affinity for the country of his mom’s heritage.

Spaghetti all’ubriaco.

“There are things in the flavor profiles you like that you either grow up with or you discover,” Dammann reflects.  “My grandmother’s house always had a lot of certain things — good salami, homemade pasta… It always stuck with me, the complex simplicity of it.  You can have the simplest spaghetti and tomato sauce and if you finish it with amazing olive oil, it kind of changes everything.  Canada is a big country. We don’t have white truffles, but we have insane pine mushrooms… They all go to Japan, they’re that special… We have 95% of the flour going to Italy for pasta. Lentils going to France, mustard sent to Dijon only to be turned around and sold back to us… It’s kind of crazy. This is a country full of prairies and rich resources.  Massive space for farming… You can stereotype the cuisine here, but we have a rich, hyper-regional history.”

The thing I find out about this chef is that, like a great bar, he’s disarming the moment you get acquainted.  It’s comfortable right out of the gate.  He’s also a good listener and answers questions thoughtfully, like he’s hearing them for the first time.  It’s like you’ve been friends for years. You want to take a seat, settle in and have a pint. He admits when he drinks beer, though, it’s really rare.

“It’s going to be a shitty after-hockey beer.  I just want something cold on tap and don’t care about the next new craft beer. I have people that actually care about that,” he says. “Maybe I’m crotchety, but I know what I like.”

Felix asked Dad to throw him in the lake.

He’s always been in love with the region his family now calls home — and the lake, Lac Barron, in particular.  He has fond memories of summers at a family cabin back home.  He always told himself that he wanted to live that lifestyle.  Now he wakes up some mornings to wild turkeys in the backyard. And there are plans for the place, rebuilding the shed, for one, this summer. He’ll fashion a wood stove inside so he can hang out in there when it’s minus 20 outside.  It’s a little piece of heaven he calls home, and that’s something we can toast a shitty beer to no matter what the weather.

Want a piece?  Dinner with Dammann, Kapur and Schwartz is almost sold out, but click here for tickets while you still can.