Monday, August 3, 2015

Brad Spence and the James Beard watch

The Amis chef (and creator of the rotolo) is a finalist for a Beard award.

Brad Spence and the James Beard watch

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Monday, May 5 is the annual James Beard Awards ceremony in New York, the restaurant world's equivalent of the Academy Awards.

Philadelphia's Assimilation Design Lab and Otto Architects (David Whipple and Joshua Otto), who designed Tria Taproom (2005 Walnut St.), are among the finalists for the design award for restaurants with 75 or fewer seats, and Sam Calagione of Dogfish Head in Milton, Del., is a finalist for outstanding wine, beer or spirits professional.

But it's one man and his orbit - chef Marc Vetri - who have this year's Philadelphia-connected culinary nominations locked up.

Vetri himself is up for chef of the year, and his flagship restaurant, Vetri, is up for outstanding service. (Vetri won the best chef award for the Mid-Atlantic region in 2005, and one of his chefs and business partners, Jeff Michaud, won the Mid-Atlantic prize in 2010.)

This could be the year for Brad Spence, the Philadelphia area's lone finalist for best chef, Mid-Atlantic.

"And I don't really care one way or the other," said Spence, 37, of Haddonfield, chef and partner of Amis (412 S. 13th St.), the Vetri-run, concrete-clad, Roman-style trattoria set to a rock-and-roll soundtrack.

"If we win, it will be for all of us," he said, sweeping a hand around the restaurant before dinner one night last week.

Here is a guy born to be a chef. Spence, the son of a South Jersey judge, says his family pretty much knew this by the time he was 5 years old when he asked for a set of pots and pans for Christmas. "My dad thought it was strange. My mom thought it was the coolest thing," he said.

That said, "I didn't have any romantic upbringing with food," he said. After his mother died when he was 8, "my father raised me, and he didn't know anything about cooking."

Italian cuisine was young Brad's favorite, and he loved sampling everything. "I used to eat so much I would literally throw up," he said.

In his pre-Emeril, pre-Mario childhood, "I would love to watch cooking shows, but if someone would walk into the room, I'd turn it off. It was almost kind of embarrassing."

He landed a summer job washing dishes and doing prep work at Cafe Loren in Avalon, and fell in love with the "sports team environment" of the kitchen, populated by a crew of older guys.

He said satisfied his father's wishes by getting a college degree - in political science from West Virginia Wesleyan College. 

The summer after graduation, he returned to Avalon, where he worked at the Sea Grill before entering the Culinary Institute of America. His first job was with Tom Colicchio at Craft in New York City. He said he walked in, saw they were making their own prosciutto and "I'm sold." The food was presented simply and he said he learned how to cook properly.

Spence began working at Mario Batali's Babo, but chef Andy Nusser lured him away to Casa Mono, the Spanish restaurant he was creating.

Casa Mono presented another learning experience. "I was living in New York, having fun and partying and then my liver shut down from drinking so much," he said. "I remember walking into work one day, and Andy looked at me and said, 'Dude. Your eyes are yellow.' I was like, 'What?'"

He was in the hospital for three weeks and stayed home for four weeks after that. That was 10 years ago. He was 27. He said he has not had another drink since. He started working out; nowadays, he keeps in shape with boxing and jiu jitsu.

"I came out of that with a new fire," Spence said. A few months after returning to Casa Mono, he went back to Craft to open Craftbar.

That didn't work out, but at the same time he and his longtime girlfriend, Kim, got engaged.

They decided to move back to the Philadelphia, where both were from. (They now have two boys and a girl.)

"I didn't know anyone [in the restaurant business] here," he said. "So I called Mario and Andy, and they said, 'You gotta work for Vetri.' "

Vetri said Batali actually called him. "He said, 'I got this guy moving back to Philly. You should hire him.' "

Problem was, Vetri had no jobs for him at what was then his lone restaurant.

Spence went to work at Le Bec-Fin. "One day, after about four months, Marc called me," Spence said.

Vetri was preparing to open Osteria, his second restaurant.

Spence leaped at the cook's job, slaving away on the meat and fish station at Vetri. He worked his way up to sous chef, and then chef de cuisine.

Spence said that timing was "pure luck. ... "I managed to catch a guy [Vetri] right at a point of his career where he was there with you to teach you."

Spence moved into Vetri's inner circle of managing partner Jeff Benjamin and Jeff Michaud.

Amis, which opened in 2010, is his home base, though he also was part of the opening crew of other Vetri restaurants, including Pizzeria Vetri.

Spence's menu gem was the rotolo - a pizza roll-up that critic Craig LaBan described as "essentially a savory sticky-bunlike roulade whose layers of mortadella, paper-thin dough, and ricotta cheese form crispy-edged concentric rings beneath an emerald tumble of chunky pistachio pesto."

To Spence, "it's just a lot of the stuff I grew up with at Jersey pizza parlors, all put together."

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Michael Klein, the editor/producer of philly.com/Food, writes about the local restaurant scene in his Inquirer column "Table Talk." Have a question? Email it! See his Inquirer work here.

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