Saturday, July 12, 2014
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That's Professor Vetri, thank you

Learning from the best: Marc Vetri is teaching a class at Drexel University.

That's Professor Vetri, thank you

"Who knows the parts of whole wheat?" Marc Vetri asks, turning to the blackboard to scribble.

"Germ!" comes one voice.

"Endosperm," calls another.

"Bran," from a third.

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You can't make pasta - Vetri reasons - without knowing about wheat.

And Vetri knows his wheat. He's also one of the more celebrated pasta-makers in this hemisphere, a man who has made pasta almost every day for the last 30 years, and he is here to teach the fine points to 11 students at Drexel University.

It's Vetri's Tuesday morning class in the Center for Hospitality & Sports Management's tricked-out kitchen on the sixth-floor of a building in University City. Vetri himself went to Drexel University in the late 1980s, studying marketing and finance; he was awarded an honorary doctorate last year.

Unlike these young people, Vetri had no formal culinary education. He worked his way from apprentice and grunt in New York and Italy to the opening of his first restaurant, Vetri, in 1998 in Center City to creating a critically acclaimed empire: two branches of Osteria, Alla Spina, Amis, Pizzeria Vetri, and later this year, Lo Speido.  

His students this quarter in CULA 400: Directed Studies with a Master Chef are mainly juniors and seniors, and many already have part-time jobs. There's Kaitlyn Hoefert, who works late nights as a garde manger at The Fat Ham, and David Klein, who works in the kitchen at Citron & Rose.

Each week has a new topic. The first class was an overview. The second was a field trip to Samuels & Son, the major seafood wholesaler. The left Hoefert in awe at the sourcing and volume. "It was eye-opening," she said. "I didn't know there was so much that went into being a seafood distributor."

The third class was hand-rolled pasta. On Jan. 28, chef Brad Spence will join Vetri with lambs for a class on whole-animal butchering. Following are such topics as risotto, "Eating Italy" (in which chef Jeff Michaud will walk them through recipes from his cookbook); bread and macaroons with Adam Leonti; and pasta extrusion. The last class will be a trip to Green Meadow Farm.

For students accustomed to the precision and science of cooking, Vetri's pasta lesson plan was a bit daunting. They would be working on oversize plywood boards and flattening out dough with long rolling pins.

They would make two doughs: one of bread flour, whole-wheat flour and eggs, and another simply of bread flour, salt, water and olive oil.

Oh, and there would be no recipes.

Silence.

"This is the only way you'll understand this," he said, as the students took notes, gauging how much to use. "Liquid first. Use your eyes." He dribbled warm water into a bowl, followed by oil and salt. Then he eased in flour through a sifter. After giving it a quick mix, he dipped in, forming a ball that he kneaded, rhythmically, shaking the table with each squeeze. "This is where you use your whole body," he said. "Like a masseuse." After about 10 minutes, he put the dough ball in a bowl under plastic to rest. Then he started on another dough.

The plain dough, he rolled out flat. He hand-rolled pieces into long spaghetti-like strands for a cut called pici.

The dough with whole wheat was cut into a wide noodle similar to pappardelle. He boiled those noodles in a pot on the stove, added some butter and Parmesan, and allowed the students to twirl in forks. "Sweet," one student said, assaying the pasta taste. "I taste the eggs," said another.

As the students worked on their doughs, Vetri toured the room. Most all of them needed help on the kneading technique, which required considerable upper-body movement. Few, if any, will make pasta professionally this way for hundreds of guests.

There's really no way to pack years of experience into a three-hour lab.

"Pasta," the professor said, "has a mind of its own."

Michael Klein Philly.com
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About this blog
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. Reach Michael at mklein@philly.com.

Michael Klein Philly.com
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