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.

Michael Cooks at Osteria to Celebrate 10 Years of Brotherly Love

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Study the few restaurant success stories in our business, and the reasons for staying power may not immediately be clear.  Why a concept resonates, and how it stays relevant, is even harder to understand when so many fail with so much working to ensure the opposite outcome.

Vetri, popping at Harry's in 2012.

Vetri, always working. He was the 3rd (of now 33) guests of Harry’s Chef Pop Up Series, visiting in February 2012 – before there was a Pizzeria Vetri!

In Michael’s Genuine® Food & Drink’s story, one I’ll venture has a lot in common with Philadelphia’s Osteria, success can be defined by a zone in which we are challenged daily to hover, vibrating like an atom, staying true to original vision while innovating just enough to stay one click ahead.  Without the microscope, this molecule is fresh, simple, pure equilibrium.  With the right lens, things are – must be – in constant motion.  Everything is fair game, under review.  Responding to shifts in the environment, proactively evolving.   But not too much!

Next month, when Michael travels to Philadelphia for the annual Great Chefs Event, Marc Vetri’s flagship culinary philanthropy event to support Alex’s Lemonade Stand and the work of his Vetri Foundation, there’s another reason to celebrate — a brotherhood.  It’s coming up on the 10th anniversary of the James Beard Award winning chef and restaurateur’s Osteria, which, like Michael’s flagship, he opened in 2007 in a not-yet-neighborhood that was to become one.  Over 10 months, the restaurant is welcoming 10 simpactico guest chefs for a dinner series celebrating this milestone occasion, and Michael is the second to cook (Marco Canora kicked things off in May.) The format offers guests an opportunity to savor what the restaurant does best with James Beard Award winner Jeff Michaud at the helm, with a culinary love letter from the guest chef — one dish from each, per course.  Marc and Jeff have done multiple dinners at The Genuine Hospitality Group restaurants; Jeff for his cookbook launch at Michael’s Genuine in 2014, and the two have taken over Harry’s Pizzeria® for its Chef Pop Up Series in the years prior.  It’s about time Michael does his part for the first time!  Make your reservation ASAP while you still can, at 215-763-0920.

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In 2014 for Jeff’s Eating Italy cookbook dinner at MGFD.

The second restaurant to join the Philadelphia Vetri Family fold, Osteria, as its name would imply, draws its inspiration from traditional osterias found in Northern Italy, and is the realization of a dream Vetri Family partners Jeff Benjamin and Chefs Marc Vetri and Jeff Michaud had while standing amongst the grapes of the Ca’Marcanda vineyards in Tuscany.  Since opening in 2007, Osteria has become one of the country’s most critically acclaimed Italian restaurants, receiving a 3-out-of-4 bell review from the Philadelphia Inquirer, and earning Chef Michaud the 2010 James Beard Foundation Award for “Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic” for his work helming the kitchen.

Jeff popping at Harry's in 2013, pre-cookbook.

Jeff popping at Harry’s in 2013, pre-cookbook.

Convivial and inviting, Osteria’s heart is its open main kitchen from which its award-winning menu of antipasti, homemade pastas, house-cured salumi, authentic Neapolitan and Roman-style pizzas, wood-grilled meats, seafood and decadent desserts are crafted. Signature dishes include Chicken Liver Rigatoni with cippolini onions and sage; the Lombarda Pizze with baked egg, bitto cheese, mozzarella and cotechino sausage; and the House-Aged Rib-eye “Fiorentina” for two. And like all Vetri Family restaurants, complementing this menu is a fine selection of wine, handcrafted cocktails and craft beer.

Can’t make it to Philly? Follow our travels and watch the dinner unfold at #Osteria101010.

 

Chef at Home: Drinking the Rainbow

It’s no secret we like juice. Call it what you want, a health kick or just keeping things fresh in the kitchen, but we’ve been incorporating more grains, seeds and nuts into all our menus in Genuineland lately — whether featured in something hearty and satisfying like MGFD’s new Veggie Burger at lunch or unexpectedly as a garnish in salads at Harry’s Pizzeria.  And you can’t get more fresh, simple, pure than juice.  Roel Alcudia plates his crudo now with cold-pressed peas, asparagus, cucumbers and herbs at The Cypress Room.

Chefs Bradley Herron and Niven Patel are in Philadelphia with Michael for the Great Chefs Event, the annual summer gathering of chefs to support the Vetri Foundation and Alex’s Lemonade Stand.  After scrapple, frita and whole roasted caja china pig, it’s time for a cleanse. Tonight’s offering? Warm wild king salmon with green juice, puffed rice, herbs. A big thank you to Breville for always coming to the table to support this event, this time with a juicer.

Before heading out of town, I asked Brad if I could visit his home and learn the basics of good juicing, both as a beverage and an ingredient in a dish.  Lucky for me, the whole family was there — wife Marisa, and two little rascals Jaxon, 7 months and Dominic, 21 months, clearly feeling the benefits of a daily homemade juice regimen.

“I’ve been juicing every day since a little bit before Jaxon was born, so like 9 months,” Brad explains. “As a chef, I don’t really get to sit and get a vegetable meal in. I’ll taste the whole line. Chips and dip, thousand island… There was a time in my career when we’d go through 20 pounds of butter in a service, when I was a line cook back in California at this French-American place where 2 quarts of sauce equalled 4 pounds of butter. At Michael’s we use olive oil as our base fat for cooking. Butter is for bread service, the finishing the pastas, mashed potatoes and a little garlic butter on the bread for the chicken liver crostini.”

Brad alters between green, orange and red blends.  He had the first summer mangos falling from his backyard Haden tree on the sill, so we made orange together.  The chef 100 percent believes in the medicinal qualities each blend brings, whether it is the red and golden beets that help clean your blood by filtering the kidneys, or ginger, from which there are so many benefits, he doesn’t even know where to begin.

“We go through two quarts a day. I drink a quart, my wife will have a quart and Dominic will have a little bit,” he says. “The important thing with juice is that it’s balanced. So I’ll put a whole lemon and a banana in everything I make. We go through 5 a day. My favorite is green juice. Like really dark and chlorophylly. Marisa likes that the least.”

Brad explains that you should always start with banana first, that way the harder, juicier fruits and vegetables that follow will push the creamy purée through.  Like the banana, apples are essential to every blend since they round out the other more intense flavors and bitter notes from ingredients like beet and carrot. He goes through about 10 pounds of apples a week. When Fuji are on sale, that’s his favorite.  They go from $1.50/pound to $2.60/pound, so he sticks with regular bags of small juicing apples for $1/pound when they’re not.  It’s smart to alternate soft and hard fruits and vegetables for the best extraction.  The Herron’s Breville is fitted with a blade and centrifuge, not a pressurized mechanism that crushes and then presses the ingredients.  At first he thought about a cold press model, but then bagged the idea in favor of his current machine’s efficiency and economy. There are arguments for both methods.

“I go to the market like three or four times a week. I buy so much stuff it’s crazy,” he continues. “The worst part of juicing is clean up ’cause you can’t clean as you go. I’ll save the pulp because there is still juice left in it. The fiber is like a bran alternative, so I make Dominic muffins. I wish I had a farm because I’d use it for compost. 1 pound of veggie scraps a day!”

IMG_7956IMG_7964 Brad always has cooked grains in the fridge, packed in several quart containers from his massive cabinet stash. He favors quinoa and short grain brown rice from Whole Foods for its texture.  On one of his favorite plates, 5.99 from Ikea (“They hold the juice!”) he composes the dish in layers right on it, in typical Brad fashion.  There’s sliced cooked golden beets, shaved red onion, crushed pistachios, pumpkin seeds, cooked quinoa, torn mint and slices of frenso chili, a great fresh pepper for a little heat and a little sweetness.  He likes a little sweetness in foods to add what he calls “a different kind of fat.”  To dress, splashes of homemade kombucha, with a little extra-virgin olive oil, kosher salt and fresh cracked pepper. Think of it as the vinegar in the vinaigrette. (“I don’t let it go until it’s fully acidic. There’s still some residual sugar or RS, as [Eric] Larkee would say…”)  He recommends taking juice like the orange blend he prepared that day for me and cutting it with a little apple cider vinegar, as a substitute for the kombucha.  This perfect light lunch of course takes all of 2 minutes to produce, thanks to his advanced planning and quart container hoard. Note to us civilians — this method is not just for chefs!

According to Brad, the secret to juicing is to not over-think it.  But a little thinking doesn’t hurt. For the morning in pictures, see our album here.