Philadelphia chef Marc Vetri was in L.A. on Tuesday, making pasta upstairs at Bucato. He was there to promote his new cookbook, Mastering Pasta, and this was an intimate gathering of local food media.
So I wanted to ask Vetri whether he actually hates the food media, and also how he ended up making out with his good pal and fellow Philly chef Mike Solomonov in this Instagram video below:
A little background: In January, Vetri wrote a Huffington Post piece headlined “How Food Journalism Got as Stale as Day-Old Bread.” In it, he called out, among other things, clickbait-y lists, social media (even though he’s a savvy user), the abandonment of proper reporting, and how a need for speed and a lack of context destroys the process of reviewing a restaurant.
“First, major critics have abandoned their sense of discretion,” Vetri wrote. “They no longer believe in standards for restaurants. One that invests heavily in a wine or cocktail program is no better than one that only serves food. A full-service restaurant is the same as a sandwich shop, pizzeria or even a hummus stand. Nice hummus at a counter? Give the joint three stars.”
What many in the food media read as a cantakerous screed resulted, not surprisingly, in some lively responses. Helen Rosner, who quickly wrote a rejoinder in Eater, accused Vetri of being jealous of Solomonov, who happens to have a hummus spot that got three bells in its Philadelphia Inquirer review.
Rosner wrote: “[Vetri] was the crown jewel of the Philadelphia restaurant scene for a long time, and then the city underwent its recent culinary renaissance and he and his restaurants stopped being mentioned in every single story. (You think his jab at a hummus restaurant getting three stars sounds random? You haven’t been paying attention to the rocket-like ascent of Philly’s new golden boy, Mike Solomonov.)”
Reading Rosner’s piece and a Philadelphia magazine piece by Jason Sheehan that was headlined “Marc Vetri: Philly’s Angry Grandpa,” only fortified the chef. He says those responses made his point because nobody ever called him or Solomonov to discuss what he wrote. The assumption that Vetri was throwing shade at Solomonov was wrong. The two men have long been good friends, and Solomonov knew what Vetri was writing in advance.
Look, Vetri is a thoughtful guy. He understands that it can be difficult to summarize something that somebody has said or written without being reductive. He, of course, doesn’t hate all food media. But he’s happy to have a discussion about how he’d like it to change.
As somebody who works for a daily website and spent years at a tabloid, I’m as guilty as anyone of finding out about something, reacting to it swiftly, and posting my opinion and analysis almost immediately. That’s often been my job, just like it’s Vetri’s job to serve elegant meals made with flour and water and eggs. There are some days when that’s the exact food that I want, and there are others when I’m elated to have a box of De Cecco spaghetti and whatever semi-premium red sauce is on sale for less than $7 that week. Just like there are some days I want to read long, deeply researched magazine articles and other days when I’m tickled that somebody made a list of the Top 5 Spicy Tuna Rolls in Dubai.
Anyway, here’s a quick interview with Marc Vetri:
Do you feel brave at all coming into something like this [with the food media] after you kind of said you hated all of this?
No, because that’s not what I said. You can look at it that way, which I don’t think you actually do.
Yeah, but I could be really reductive and write the first sentence of the piece and say, “Marc Vetri hates me.”
Yes, you could… [Vetri stops to stay goodbye to departing guests.]
Did you expect a backlash like Eater writing a big piece quickly after yours was published?
No, but that actually validated everything that I said in the piece. It was, like, thoughtless. She said I went after Michael Solo. I mean, me and Michael, he’s one of the best friends of my life.
He’s told me, which means he’s told many other people, that you’re a mentor and a great friend. That’s still true, right?
Yeah, the fact that she says I went after him was just ridiculous. I actually mentioned it to him, we discussed the article earlier. I told him, “You know that that they’re going to say…” He’s like, “I don’t care what they say, it doesn’t matter.” I think articles like [the Eater one] and the guy from Philadelphia, they completely validated everything I wrote about.
The funny thing is, you’re obviously talking about how speed and trying to be first are the enemies of precision.
But I’m going to publish this interview tomorrow. That’s still the same world to you?
No, because you’re interviewing me, actually. They just read something and went, “Oh, he must have meant this, and I’m going to write about it.” You’re saying, “Hey, let me ask you what you thought about this, what you actually meant.” You’re taking some initiative.
A lot of times they don’t even call.
They don’t even call. And they knew nothing. Jason Sheehan, he wrote so many things that were his interpretations of what I said that just made zero sense at all. [The chef’s publicist reiterates that nobody called Vetri or Solomonov for comment after the HuffPo piece ran.]
So let me ask the question.
You two made out on camera…
Let me sign this real quick. [Vetri stops to sign a book for a patient guest, who insists that she’s interested in this line of questioning.]
It’s really not that interesting.
It’s interesting to, like, eight people, but we’re all going to tweet it tomorrow.
It really is, the funny thing is, my last article, we live in this world, they think, “Oh my God, he wrote this thing, everybody knows…” Nobody knows about this thing! I wrote an article four months earlier about the gluten stuff. [That piece about being gluten-intolerant has 33,000 Facebook likes compared to 1,400 for his piece about food media.]
But the writers all saw [the piece about food media]. I got so many emails from chefs but also from writers that were like, “Thank you for writing that because it was exactly how we all think, but nobody wants to say it.”
So I heard that the whole makeout session might have been Mike’s idea, but can you tell me how it happened?
It was completely Mike’s idea [laughs]. It wasn’t mine. So I’m like, “Dude, look at all this hate, everybody’s hating on me.” He’s like, “Don’t worry about it. I have an idea. Meet me at your restaurant tomorrow morning.” I meet him there at 9 o’clock. He walks in, he’s like, “OK, here’s what we’re going to do, we’re going to walk up, I’m going to slap you, you’re going to slap me, and then we’re going to make out.” I’m like, “What? Why do we have to make out?” He’s like, “Dude, just do it, it’ll be hilarious.”
So we did it. One take! You can look at it, we were laughing the whole time. He whacked me, I was not expecting it. I whacked him back hard, and then he just grabbed me and he lipped me to death. It was really fun. But the whole thing was nothing, it didn’t mean anything to him.
Onto your book, which obviously…
I’m going to read your book after this is posted, as you know.
Yes. You’re going to bring this back to life. Nobody’s even thinking about that article anymore. Everybody’s going to be like, “Oh, yeah, f – – – – ng Vetri wrote that article.” I stand by it, I think it was a well-thought-out article and I had a lot of help for it from some major writers.
I know a book about pasta is something you’ve been thinking about for years and years, more than a decade, right?
But a lot of what you’re doing is stressing simplicity, telling people to use whatever salt is there, to use the water that’s there. How do you balance the idea of doing something in a way that can be so imprecise with the fact that you’ve spent so much of your life working on this and trying to perfect it?
Well, I think, like anything, you accept the imperfection. When you start off, you’re young and you want to make everything exact, you want to use 453 grams of this, and then you start to realize that there is always an X variable that you don’t necessarily know about. You have to learn how to adapt because it’s not always going to be exactly as is. Number one, you have to almost embrace that imperfection in the food from Italy because that’s what make it so amazing, I think. It’s not that this has to be half an inch.
With precision, you can make it close enough to the taste memory.
And that’s just what you’re going for?
Yes, because these almonds aren’t going to be like those almonds or those almonds. These eggs are not like the other eggs. This flour is not like the other flour. You’re only as good as the ingredients you have with you, but you have to learn how to roll with it and to manipulate the ingredients.
How much longer are you in L.A.?
About six hours.
I saw that you Instagrammed from In-N-Out and from Gjusta…
Oh, man, that was great.
Anywhere else you’re going before you leave?
We’re eating here [at Bucato]. I’m so excited to eat here. I didn’t make any phone calls or meet anybody else because I was literally here for 48 hours, I had two radio interviews and this. I had to get a lot of stuff done. I figured, I’ll eat here because this looks incredible.
You thought Gjusta was fun?
That place was ridiculous. I was in love with it. It was really cool. And Marc Vetri does not hate you.
[Interview has been edited for length and clarity.]