To say Nicholas Ugliarolo has been given a tall order is no understatement.
Ugliarolo, 32, the son of a police officer and respiratory therapist from Connecticut, is chef de cuisine at Jean-Georges, the posh restaurant opening in August at the Four Seasons Hotel on the 59th floor of the Comcast Technology Center.
Peripatetic chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten comes to town with promises of stellar experiences, just as he offers at his New York City flagship, which was awarded two Michelin stars. JG Sky High, a lounge, will open next to the hotel reception on the 60th floor.
For now, Ugliarolo is testing recipes and getting acclimated to Philadelphia after spending seven years in New York City, capped by a flurry of world travel on behalf of Vongerichten, whose empire encompasses all continents except Africa.
To get the feel for the city, “I ride my bike around a lot,” he said in a recent chat at Vernick Coffee Bar, on the second floor of the new Comcast tower. “I try to get lost and find my way back home.”
Side note: Vongerichten’s relationship to Philadelphia is through chef Greg Vernick, who oversees Vernick Coffee Bar as well as his own Vernick Fish, opening on the ground floor in August. Before the 2012 opening of his first restaurant, Vernick Food & Drink on Walnut Street, Vernick himself was the go-to guy for Vongerichten, putting out far-flung fires.
Ugliarolo said he has been charged with overseeing a la carte and fixed-price menus. The fare will be similar to what is served in New York — but without the stratospheric price tags (the fixed-price lunch in New York is $188, dinner $148 and up). “You are not going to be spending nearly that much money to come,” Ugliarolo said. “But it will be that style of food, executed at the same level. You know Jean-Georges is always going to have caviar, and you know the luxury things will be there.”
Ugliarolo said he wanted to be a chef since he was young. “I always cooked with my parents at home,” he said. "I went to a vocational technical school, and I wanted to [study] culinary. Part of the program is cooking lunch for the school for your first two years. Essentially, you were like a lunch lady. I couldn’t do that. I couldn’t listen to my peers giving me [feedback] about how much food they got or what they got. And I was like, `No way. I am not doing this. I don’t want to do it.’ ”
He took auto body instead. An aunt worked at a restaurant. “She called me and asked, ‘Hey, we need a guy who can work the fryer. You want to come on the weekends?’ I said, ‘Sure, I need a job.’ I fell in love with the kitchen. It was a little more barbaric, I think, at that time. It was really hot — fire, knives, crazy chefs yelling and swearing all the time. It was a very intense environment. And I loved it."
Ugliarolo then tried music, singing in a band. When that didn’t pan out, he got other work. “But I really missed being in a kitchen and I wanted to get back into it really badly.”
He went to culinary school in Connecticut, and started at a small-town tavern. From there, he climbed the ladder of the nicer, higher-end restaurants “until I felt like I was at the top.”
In 2012, while working at a fine-dining restaurant in West Hartford, he met a coworker who had worked for Jean-Georges. “He was like, ‘Hey, man. I think you should go and check it out. I think you might really enjoy it,’” he said.
The chef and Ugliarolo went to Nougatine, the more casual offshoot of Jean-Georges, for dinner, where Ugliarolo met Mark Lapico, the executive chef. Ugliarolo “trailed” for a shift and was offered a job as a meat cook at Nougatine.
But the job was intense. “Working at that level, working day in and day out, gets a little exhausting sometimes, and I wanted a little bit of a break, and to see something else,” Ugliarolo said.
After two years, he left for the more casual Il Buco Alimentari, where chef Justin Smillie had just won a three-star review from the New York Times. It also meant a different kind of intensity. “At Jean-Georges, we would do 160 covers on an extremely busy night,” he said. “At Il Buco, we would do 450 covers on a busy night. The volume was hugely different, but he ran it like it was a Michelin three-star kitchen.”
Two years in, Ugliarolo got an offer to help open Tartine Manufactory in San Francisco. But he scuttled his move after the restaurant was delayed. He moved back to Connecticut to consult but after four months, he missed the intensity. He reached out to Greg Brainin, the culinary director for Jean-Georges: "I said, ‘Hey, chef. I want to come back to Jean-Georges.’ ”
But he wouldn’t work at Jean-Georges. He was offered a job at abcV, Vongerichten’s vegetarian restaurant. “I was, really, honestly interested in that because it is a whole other style of cooking,” Ugliarolo said. “I was, ‘OK, what’s new?’ I want to learn something else and broaden my scope. Approaching vegetarian food in the way that [chef] Neal [Harden] does was. … I never really saw it before. As someone who is not vegetarian, it got me excited about vegetarian food. I never once ate something and thought, ‘Oh, wow. That was a great dish. It just needs a little protein in it somehow, some way, that comes from an animal.’ "
“Even my father, who is a 70-year-old Italian man who would never want to eat vegetarian food in his life, would come in and say, ‘Wow. I could be vegetarian every day if I could eat food like this,' ” he said.
In spring 2018, “I asked chef Jean-Georges and chef Greg: ‘What is going to be the next step?’ ” he said.
Out of the options presented to him, Ugliarolo chose Philadelphia. He left abcV in June 2018 and set out immediately to pitch in for Vongerichten in Singapore and Shanghai. “I helped training staff and menu development,” he said. “And then when I came back to New York, I worked at Public Kitchen for two months.” He arrived in Philadelphia in January.
What are they going for? Definitely not complicated presentation.
“Especially in fine dining, sometimes food can go in the wrong direction,” Ugliarolo said. “People kind of get caught up in ‘How many ingredients are on the plate?’ And a lot of extra stuff is on there and sometimes it gets lost. I think we have all been out to a restaurant and there is a whole lot going on on a plate and it looks beautiful, but when you eat it, it just doesn’t quite make sense.”