BY NIGHT, he serves dinner for $135 per person. By day, he serves . . . chicken tenders?
Philadelphia chef-restaurateur Marc Vetri is haute, yet dudelike: He's into fast bikes and light-as-air spinach gnocchi with brown butter. His business partners are guy-gourmets, too. Manager Jeff Benjamin likes country singer Kenny Chesney and fine Italian wine. Chef Jeff Michaud goes for boxing gyms and melt-in-your-mouth pasta. Still, no matter how rugged their pastimes, team Vetri has built a big-time business pleasing the hoity-toity set via superchic Italian grub.
Since 1998, Vetri, the chef's first place, has been Center City's most exclusive ristorante. North Broad Street's Osteria, his team's second, specializes in wood-fired pizzas topped with octopus or pistachio pesto. Amis, their newest, serves little plates - grilled veal tongue, Swiss chard ravioli, extra-fancy meatballs - that add up to big bucks.
Team Vetri's next trendy trattoria is expected to open in early 2012. Alla Spina will be a Boot-theme beer hall, neighbor to Osteria and collaboration with fellow important restaurateur Stephen Starr.
So far, critics and culinary know-it-alls have expressed endless acclaim for and bestowed umpteen awards on every one of Vetri's ventures. Philly's deep-pocketed eaters agree, booking tables weeks in advance - Recession? What recession? - and shelling out Benjamins to nibble asparagus flan with quail egg, one of the options in his first restaurant's celebrated multicourse, $135-per-person menu.
And if Vetri invites them to, say, a $300-a-pop fund-raiser for his eponymous foundation, they will come. On Tuesday, about 1,000 such fancy foodie fans are expected at the restaurant group's sixth annual "Great Chefs" event in Urban Outfitters' supercool HQ in the Navy Yard. (Past attendees have included Eagles offensive lineman Winston Justice, Phillies second baseman Chase Utley and his wife Jen, and former Eagle and now New Jersey Congressman Jon Runyan.)
The culinary extravaganza will feature snazzy nibbles served by a few dozen of the nation's top chefs: "Top Chef" judge Tom Colicchio, for example; James Beard best chef Gabrielle Hamilton; and Philly's own Iron Chef Jose Garces. The evening's highlight? A high-tech auction via smartphone app of such one-of-a-kind items as: dinner at Vetri with Iron Chef Michael Symon; a private pre-concert cookout by country musician Zac Brown; 90 minutes of tennis with Pete Sampras and Jim Courier - the sort of experiences "you can't get," said Benjamin.
Oh, and the charity part?
They're expecting to raise about $1 million to fight pediatric cancer via Alex's Lemonade Stand Foundation for Childhood Cancer.
Well, mostly for the Alex foundation. A few of the dollars they'll raise will go to feed the minds and stomachs of Philly school kids. This is the food dudes' new project. They call it "Eatiquette."
"Kids are not eating well in our schools," said Benjamin. The culprits he names are not new: high-calorie choices, overall rowdiness in the cafeteria, too-fast feasting, along with an overall lack of table manners. In Philly, it's worse, Benjamin said, because out of "270 public schools, only 70 of them have kitchens." The rest, he said, get less-than-fresh lunchtime fare bused in. "Talk about the cards being stacked against you. When you start busing in food, your standards go down."
For Vetri et al, Benjamin explained, changing in-school dining is "low-hanging fruit." Already, fellow food-oriented superstars first lady Michelle Obama, Jamie Oliver, "Molto" Mario Batali and organizations such as New York City's vaunted "WINS" Wellness in the Schools program have shined the spotlight on school lunches.
Plus, team Vetri already works with local farmers and purveyors to feed people for a living. Just that this time around, they're feeding smaller people - for a lot less money.
Last summer, the Vetri dudes did a trial run for gaggles of wee eaters at the ESF Dream Camp at Girard College. Vetri, Michaud and Benjamin planned and served fresh lunches made with good-for-you ingredients. It was food that kids liked, just healthier. For example: They used local, organic birds to make panko-crusted baked chicken tenders.
They explained to the campers where their food was coming from - even showed them the farms on a map. They also encouraged kid-friendly mealtime conversations. The result: "The kids' misbehavior incidences went down by a factor of 20," Benjamin said.
Next fall, the Vetri Foundation will plan breakfasts and lunches for the 424 K-8 students of Wissahickon Charter School. "Our cafeteria is what you'd stereotypically think of: loud, long tables," said co-CEO and dean of administration Kristi Littell.
Until last year, Wissahickon Charter used the Philadelphia School District's bused-in fare. "The food was highly processed, not fresh," Littell said. "We didn't know where it came from, only that it came on a Styrofoam tray in a cellophane bag that, after we reheated it, it would get condensation on it, which made it soggy."
Last year, the school contracted Linton's, an external managed food provider, to run its kitchen. The improvement was marked, said the co-CEO. Still, the students, 70 percent of whom qualify for free school meals and all of whom have learned about fresh, sustainable, local foods in class, clamored for more.
"The argument that kids won't eat healthy food if you give it to them is simply not true," said Littell.
Enter Vetri, most likely on his motorcycle. Next year, the kids of Wissahickon Charter will lunch family-style, learning how to eat well in every sense - learning, even, where their food comes from. "We're making the change from a quick filling of the gas tank to a dining experience," said Littell.
All at less than $3 per eater - not a bad price, for a meal from Vetri.
As of press time, tickets for the Great Chefs event were almost sold out. For more info, visit vetrifoundation.org or call 215-732-3478.