Well Done
With expansion on the horizon, philanthropy-minded chef Marc Vetri prepares to turn up the heat
by Leigh Stuart

Marc Vetri has a hell of a reputation—culinary badass, opinionated blogger and, as the occasional black eye proves, Brazilian jiu-jitsu enthusiast—but, underneath it all, he’s just a kid who liked spending Sundays cooking with his grandma in South Philly.

“I used to love Sunday dinners down in South Philadelphia at my father’s mother’s house,” Chef Vetri says. “We used to go Sundays for these big Italian meals—the meatballs and the lasagna and the macaroni and all that stuff—and I just used to love it. It was kind of one of those things that I really looked forward to. From there, I started to want to head down there early and, you know, help her cook and all that stuff. It started [at] 8, 9, 10 years old.”

The man behind a growing culinary empire in Philadelphia—the eponymous Vetri and Pizzeria Vetri, as well as Alla Spina,  Amis, Osteria (a second Osteria in Moorestown, N.J., recently announced it would be closing its doors) and, his newest venture, a rotisserie meats joint in the Navy Yard, Lo Spiedo (Italian for “the spit”)—has no plans to slow down. In fact, he’s expanding into the suburbs, with a new Amis location in Devon, and elsewhere, with a pizzeria in Austin, Texas.

Vetri is also a family man and philanthropist. He spearheads The Vetri Foundation for Children, an organization he founded with Jeff Benjamin, COO of The Vetri Family, in 2009 with the mission of promoting nutrition and the link between healthy eating and healthy living. The foundation’s signature program, Eatiquette, has already served more than 430,000 healthy lunches to kids in its 11 partner schools since its inception, and Chef Vetri has lofty goals for expansion. In addition, the foundation partners with My Daughter’s Kitchen, an initiative started by Maureen Fitzgerald of the Philadelphia Inquirer, to teach kids how to prepare “healthy, affordable meals from scratch.”

Chef Vetri’s ever-expanding philanthropic efforts all began, however, with the Great Chefs Event benefiting Bala Cynwyd-based Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation for Childhood Cancer. Having held its 10th annual incarnation earlier this year, the event draws chefs from all over the world together for an evening of great dining for an even greater cause. We spoke with Vetri about the event, his foundation and his plans for “world domination.”

What inspired you to start The Vetri Foundation for Children?
“We initially started to have an event for Alex’s Lemonade Stand. We did that for a couple years, then we decided that as much as we love this event, we would love to be able to help out with something that’s kind of more in our wheelhouse, we know a lot about, so we decided on, obviously, healthy eating, healthy living, educating and empowering.”

Has the foundation’s mission evolved at all since it started in 2009? If so, how?
“It has evolved a lot, and it’s actually on its way to a huge evolution just because we went through a whole strategic plan and we’re getting ready to rebrand with a new name and new initiatives and everything; but, obviously, the focus is still [on how] healthy eating and healthy living have a … direct correlation. Instead of only doing the Eatiquette school lunch program that we’ve been known for, we’re doing a lot more culinary education in the classrooms and, you know, teaching and learning and linking up with other like foundations and things of that nature. So, a lot more to come.”

Do you plan on expanding the number of schools you serve as well?
“Absolutely. I mean, I plan world domination. That’s the goal so maybe I’ll fall a little bit short, but as long as I have that goal in mind I think that we’ll do OK.”

What is it exactly about nutrition that is so important to you, and why pass this along to the next generation?
“I mean, you could write 13,000 books on that. … Your eating will dictate how you live your life, from how you feel to how you feel about yourself to your energy level to your brain power—I mean everything. If you live a healthy life by means of what you eat, it’s just inevitable that you’re going to feel better about yourself and you’re going to have the stamina to work harder, to be happier—everything. It’s life changing.”

In a video on your foundation’s website, you mention “a sense of community.” How are those two things—community and dining—related?
“If I think about all of my childhood memories, all of the ones that have any meaning to me at all, they all sort of happened around the dining room table. Whether they’re holidays, whether they’re just the family eating together—all the laughing, all the stories, everything kind of comes out. Food brings people together. And it produces dialogue and it makes you interact and it makes you collaborate, and [those are] all healthy things for you to have a healthy, interactive life.”

How can kids get involved in the program?
“Schools hear about it and their leaders or their principals or whoever comes to us. In order for these programs to work, you have to have the buy-in from the school, and that starts at the top. … It has to be from the top down, like any organization, like any team, like anything. You have to have that leader who builds a culture, and that culture has to be, you know, very in favor of this healthy lifestyle.”

Speaking of your foundation, your restaurants offer donation matching. How is that program going?
“It’s going great. It’s going a little bit too well; I’m out a lot of money [laughs]. It’s going really well. We get, you know, $2 here, $2 there, sometimes they’re larger; you know, obviously we match everything that our customers give us, so it is quite a bit of money every year.”

Can you tell me more about the Great Chefs Event?

“We started that event with Alex’s Lemonade Stand, and we are huge supporters of Alex’s Lemonade; we have … helped launch these events in many other cities—L.A. Loves [Alex’s] Lemonade, Chicago Lemonade, New York Lemonade—and we just remain a huge supporter of Alex’s Lemonades, so that event will always be a benefit for Alex’s Lemonade Stand, with obviously a collaboration with The Vetri Foundation.”

Back in the beginning, how did you go about deciding what the event itself would entail?
“It just happened. I mean, we met Jay and Liz [Scott, who are Alex’s parents and also co-executive directors of Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation] and we just really felt connected to them, and we decided to have an event to support their foundation. We raised a little bit of money and then just throughout that year we became closer with them. We really felt strongly about growing the event, and we just started to organically evolve the event. We started to invite local chefs, then we started to invite out-of-state chefs, and it just kind of grew and grew and grew and grew. We just kind of went with it. I mean, there was not a whole lot of planning; it just kind of happened.”

Photograph by Jeff Anderson