Most young cooks dream of achieving the kind of success enjoyed by Charleston's Sean Brock and Philadelphia's Marc Vetri. The pair claims a bounty of hardware, including James Beard Awards. They're captains of burgeoning restaurant empires.
But with the glory comes the complexity of managing it all. Just being a chef in one place can be an 18-hour-day job. So how, then, are they supposed to run some restaurants, open new ones, write cookbooks, and train staff? It's not possible to be everywhere at once. And more important, when are they supposed to find time to toy with new ingredients, develop recipes, and then test and refine them?
Such a level of success seems almost a curse for those who can't figure out a way to hold it all together.
For Brock and Vetri, that often means rigorously structured schedules and unfortunately saying no to many food and wine festivals. "You could do one a week for 52 weeks," Vetri says. "I prefer staying in Philly, staying at the restaurants, and working."
But everyone seems to make an exception for South Beach. There's something about escaping bitter winter for seaside drinking. Vetri will pair with Valentino's Giovanni Rocchio for a sold-out dinner during which he'll ply guests with pastrami foie gras on rye toast and his famed lobster spaghetti. It's an iconic dish. Philadelphia Inquirer restaurant critic Craig LaBan described it as "so intensely infused with lobster-ness — the sauce enriched with tomalley and roe, plus a stock fortified with shells — that casual seafood pasta eaters might not love it at first." Still, it's become impossible to resist.
Meanwhile, Brock will partner with David McMillan and Frédéric Morin from Joe Beef's in Montreal. The two are committed to the Greek god Bacchus, the patron saint of excess. On deck is an unbelievable dessert from Brock's grandmother called hillbilly fudge. "It's a superdense black-walnut fudge that actually has Velveeta cheese in it," Brock says. "It was one of those handwritten note cards my grandmother passed along when she passed away."
Other than that, he'll be making what is perhaps one of the South's most iconic dishes: shrimp and grits. But this being Sean Brock, they won't be just any grits.
"I'm going to cook the simplest form of shrimp and grits using this corn that I've saved the seed from 2007 called Jimmy Red," he says. Despite once being a staple of Southern pantries, the varietal has been grown only in small plots in recent years. Brock is well known for trying to restore many of those plant species that have fallen as mass agriculture began growing most of what we're familiar with today.
For Jimmy Red, Brock snaked his way through a labyrinthine collection of farmers and seedsmen until he was introduced to Ted Chewnin, who had saved a few samples that were handed off to Brock. Farmer Greg Johnsman then spent nearly a decade sowing the seed to produce the red-flecked grits. Now they've begun to appear on increasing numbers of Charleston menus. Late last year, an Eater article said the corn is slated to reach cult status thanks to its increasing availability. "When you smell it and taste it for the first time, you get what all the fuss is about," Brock says.
This seems to be the purpose of his work these days. He also oversees five restaurants that stretch from Nashville, where his second outpost of Husk is located, to Atlanta, where his taco shop Minero has planted its second flag. Now his time is dedicated to poring over old cookbooks in search of long-deceased recipes to reanimate or backstopping many of his team's creations.
"I'll guide everyone through the creative process and then adjust if need be, but my guys have been with me so long they're better cooks than I am," Brock says.
Marc Vetri is similarly looking for what comes next. That's because of his highly controversial deal to sell most of his company, save for Vetri Restaurante, to retailing giant Urban Outfitters.
In the days after the deal was announced, both Vetri and Urban were lambasted. Vetri sold out, critics said. Urban didn't know anything about the restaurant business, many claimed. But according to Vetri, the deal got him out of the complex and risky business of looking for new real estate for restaurants.
"We want to stay on the East Coast and probably open up about one to two places a year," Vetri says. Miami just may be in the offing. At the same time, he says, the marketing staff Urban Outfitters brings to his restaurant is unlike anything he would've been able to assemble himself.
Of course, going corporate doesn't mean he's going to button up and lie back. Vetri has long been known as one of the nation's most outspoken chefs. He criticized food media in the Huffington Post in early 2015 for being "as stale as day-old bread." When Pope Francis made a historic visit to the City of Brotherly Love, Vetri chided Philadelphia for cleaning up for the Holy See but not for its own people.
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"I have valid things to say that most likely everybody wants to say anyway and they don't have the balls," Vetri says.
At the same time, he's focused on Danny Meyer's high-profile move to end tipping at his restaurants. "I think it might put them all out of business, but let's let the master give it a whirl," he says. "If he could figure it out, that would be awesome."
Dinner hosted by Marc Vetri and Giovanni Rocchio, part of the Taste Fort Lauderdale Series: 7 to 10 p.m. Friday, February 26, at Valentino, 620 S. Federal Hwy., Fort Lauderdale. Tickets cost $250.
Dinner hosted by Sean Brock, David McMillan, Frédéric Morin, and John Kunkel, part of the NYT Cooking Dinner Series: 7 to 10 p.m. Friday, February 26, at Yardbird Southern Table & Bar, 1600 Lennox Ave., Miami Beach. Tickets cost $250.