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.

Summer Cooking School with Chef Michael Schwartz: Class is in Session After Hours at Ella Pop Café

Summer is just the time to learn something new, or polish your skills doing what you already love! All you need is a little motivation in the form of a great instructor — James Beard Award-winning chef Michael Schwartz!

For the first time, Miami’s beloved chef known best for his straightforward, delicious food at flagship restaurant Michael’s Genuine Food & Drink, teaches a series of cooking classes, including Pizza (June 14), Pasta (July 12), and Empanadas (August 9).

$125 per person, per event includes it all — each cooking class brings a three course meal, signature cocktail, wine & beer, take home gift and chef! Max 26 people per event.  Pizza is already sold out but you can snag your tickets to Pasta and Empanadas at these respective links.  The summer school is hosted at ella pop, the chef’s light and airy café in the Miami Design District’s Palm Court, from 7-10pm after regular business hours (140 NE 39th Street, Miami, FL 33137).

The new summer series is brought to us by the amazing folks at Michael Schwartz Events.  Our catering and private party division puts on special events like this, as well as a host of other offerings for your upcoming gathering large or small. For more information, menus and to request a quote for everything under the sun from weddings to birthday parties, visit michaelschwartzevents.com.

Chef’s Night In at Genuine Pizza: Michael Schwartz Spins 3 Special Pies in the Aventura Oven on Tuesday, April 3

It’s a dinner date!  Tuesday, April 3 from 5-10 p.m., Genuine Pizza Aventura not only brings three more special pizzas to the table, it’s adding the pizza cook who conceived them to the line.

Chef’s Night In features our pizza maker in chief, Michael Schwartz, working the Marra Forni oven with a few new creative topping combinations.  We hear he makes a mean margherita, too.

CHEF’S 4.3.18 SPECIALS 

MERGUEZ
harissa, scallion
halloumi
mint

BÉCHAMEL
pepper relish
bitter greens
parmigiano

CLAM
preserved lemon
parsley, chile flake
parmigiano

The special menu of pies will run all night until they run out and can be made with gluten-free crust for an additional $3.  They’ll be available a la carte, or bundled in a great deal — pick one with a salad of your choice and a glass of wine for $30 per person plus tax and gratuity.

So how would Michael slice his?  “It’s a tough one, but I think I’d have to go with the clam and the Sancerre,” he says. “But if I’m starting with the Brussels sprouts salad, I’d need a glass of the Au Bon Climat Chardonnay, too!”

Now that’s a party.

Genuine Pizza Aventura Mall
19565 Biscayne Blvd, Unit 956, Aventura, FL 33180
Get Directions
(786) 472-9170
Click here for our regular menu (including wine list!)

 

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 Ravi Kapur Has One Serious Poke Face

Ravi Kapur has strong feelings about poke. As he should.

“In Hawaii it’s kind of… Well, it’s really a treat,” Ravi explains. “It’s not this mass-consumed, everyday thing necessarily, because really poke should be pretty expensive if you’re using high quality fish. For me growing up, it’s a celebratory thing.”

At now 3 year-old Liholiho Yacht Club in San Francisco, this Oahu-born chef not only takes inspiration from his Hawaiian-Chinese-Indian roots, he takes them quite seriously.   Right off the bat this was pretty clear, even as we stole just few minutes in between phone tag on Wednesday.  There’s a sense of responsibility that informs his approach.  I have neither been to Hawaii nor eaten in his restaurant, but I have read Kapur is a chef-owner known for his cool, collected demeanor in the kitchen.  Schwartz had a great meal there. I get the feeling this attitude is an expression of the strength of his intention, to cook with principle and represent his culture correctly and with confidence.

Fresh fish, the best fish. From @liholihoyachtclub’s Instagram.

This means something to Kapur, that he stand for something and that his expression is one true to his identity as a Hawaiian.  We can relate to this — MS also stands for something, and akin to that.  It’s about quality and doing it right, or not at all.  This is in part why I began our conversation with poke. To poke a nerve.  With the relentless stream of DIY, paint-by-numbers, flavor-of-the-moment poke shops UberEatsing on my Miami doorstep, it’s also hard to ignore.

“The most important element for me is that the fish is extremely fresh and you let that flavor shine without covering it up with too many seasonings,” he continues. “The traditional version would not have soy sauce.  It would be Hawaiian salt, and sweet onion, and inamona or ground kukui nut.

From there he explains it can be embellished, which is fine, with a measured hand, as with most things. Seaweed, sure.  Still no seasoning though. You take this highly perishable product and then need to mask it when it’s inferior.  Often, when it’s about preserving meat or fish, something common all over the world to extend a product’s lifespan — typically out of necessity — it can be quite good.  But it’s transformed.  It’s no longer the thing it was.  For true poke, if you are using good quality there’s just no way it even can be mass produced — which is basically the benchmark for what my exposure has been to date, fast casual-style.  It becomes more about what you are putting on it, than what it is.

“I popped in one day to one of these places, because I’m interested in how they operate, how it flows,” Ravi explains.  “I understand the model, how this came to exist, but I’ll never do it because it’s in direct conflict to what I believe poke is.  I can’t wrap my head around culturally appropriating things for profit.  You won’t find sesame oil in traditional poke. I use some, but for me it’s always going to be all about the fish.”

The fish is Ahi traditionally, but now you can find all types, like Striped Marlin and large bill fish. It’s more sustainable too.  Ravi admits he just got back from Maui, and even there, there is a range of quality. Previously frozen… unknown origins at the supermarket. The place he goes to now, Kaohu store, will run you about $17, 18, 19  a pound.

“To me I taste the difference,” he adds.  “And you can see the fish.  It’s undressed.”

I don’t know about you, but I need my own #alohafloorselfie moment.

Ravi won’t know what species will greet him when he walks into Michael’s Genuine® on Thursday February 22, but he knows it will be fresh and that will produce the best first course on the plate whether it’s Cobia, Golden Tile or Little Tuny.  And there’s pork too, another ingredient that connects our food cultures.

“Absolutely. It’s pretty much pork all the time,” Ravi says.  “In the late 1800s, ranching formed a big part of the economy but beef is more expensive.  Pork is for everyone and it can be great and flavorful – it just depends on the pig and who’s raising it.  I’m doing something off the shoulder.  I like roasting those cuts and still having a little bite to it, so you can taste the meat. Some accents, of course, like chili honey rub for a little sweetness and spice.  I don’t think I told anybody, but I’m also bringing something else with me.”

We’re not giving that one away.  You, co-guest chef Derek Damman and hosts Michael and Tim will just have to squirm.  Now isn’t that cause for celebration? And some poke!  Find out for yourself.  For tickets and menu, visit sobefest.org/michaels.