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Chef Justin Petruce joins Marquis' vegan restaurant group as culinary director

Petruce interviewed for the chef's job at Bar Bombon. Owner Nicole Marquis saw a bigger role for him.

Nicole Marquis, who over five years has built a mini-empire of vegan restaurants including the expanding fast-casual HipCityVeg shops and the bar-restaurants Charlie was a sinner and Bar Bombon, has hired a culinary director.

She said she didn't realize that she needed one when she interviewed Justin Petruce for the chef's job at Bar Bombon, her Latin-influenced bar-restaurant on 18th Street near Rittenhouse Square.

Petruce was in Jacksonville, Fla., having wrapped work at Sbraga & Co., the suddenly shuttered Kevin Sbraga restaurant. He flew north to do a tasting for Marquis, "and that was it," she said.

"I was honored that he was interested in this position," Marquis said. "But when we met and started talking, I realized more and more he was right [to take a bigger role]. I asked him, 'What do you want to do with this little veggie company?' "

"He just really showed an interest," Marquis said. "When you look at it, there aren't too many chefs interested in vegetable cooking because eventually they try it out, and it usually will be a steppingstone. They want to broaden their repertoire, but at some point they want to move on and cook with duck fat, and experiment that way. Which is fine; everyone has their own path. I realize I needed a partner who had a passion for this, like I do, and saw the big vision. That's why we ended working together."

"He's helping me finally bring to life the concept that I had in mind," Marquis said. "Simple vegetable dishes. Obviously, we do that at Charlie, and this is Latin-inspired. At my house, there are several plates on the table and we're sharing. ... We like to eat that way - take a little off this plate and a little from there. I imagined these flavors before but I was never able to find someone who could bring that to life."

"Coming from the not vegetarian or vegan side of cooking gives you an idea of what nonvegans and -vegetarians expect when they taste something," Petruce said.

How about a learning curve? Petruce said he was never too keen on butter and heavy cream, anyway, preferring olive oil and vegetable stock.

"You know how people would get excited, 'That's a beautiful cut of meat'?" Petruce asked. "I would see a case of Romanesco, and I'd be like, 'Oh, my God.' I've always been very attracted to vegetables, in that sense. The possibilities are endless for what you can do with them. It's a bit more of a challenge to present a sophisticated vegetable dish."

Petruce and his brother Jonathan hit the local food radar with their brief turn owning Petruce et al., a restaurant on Walnut Street near 12th. Jonathan, meanwhile, landed this year as culinary director for the company that owns Cinder, Bru Craft & Wurst, Finn McCools Ale House, and U-Bahn.

N.B. The HipCityVeg location at the North American Building (121 S. Broad St.) is expected to open in mid-December. That location will be open for breakfast (sandwiches, wraps, bagels, coffee, etc.). The other three HipCityVeg locations will pick up with breakfast at a later date.