10/15/2012 02:26:00 PM

Chef Chat: Marc Vetri Talks Ratings, Social Media and Healthy Food

In 1998, when Marc Vetri opened the doors at his eponymous Italian on Spruce Street in the petite brownstone that was the original home of Le Bec-Fin, Philadelphia was not known as a serious food city. Times have changed, and for the first time, four restaurants (Vetri included) scored a chart-topping 29 for Food in the 2013 Zagat Philadelphia Restaurants Survey. The Vetri Family has expanded to include three other restaurants, with one more on the way. We caught up with the chef for a chat about what ratings and reviews can mean to a restaurateur, what chefs can do to help solve America’s eating issues and how social media has changed the professional food game.

Zagat: How useful or important are ratings like Zagat scores?
Marc Vetri: Ratings, reviews and guides all use different criteria, so they are good for diners as general guidelines. Zagat is definitely one of the main sources everyone starts with, and I like the way it's done: you get real people’s opinions, but then there’s an editor, a real food writer who looks everything over and organizes the information.

Even other rating sites - where everyone who wants to can be a reviewer - are useful if you take them as a group. You read things that people say, learn from them, and either it makes you want to eat at a place or not.

There’s also lots of random bloggers that write stuff - people read those too. There’s so much information out there for every restaurant. For any restaurant you can find someone who had the worst meal of their life there, and then someone who had best meal of their life there.

Zagat: Are professional critics’ reviews still relevant in this age of crowd-sourced ratings?
MV: Mainstream restaurant reviews - such as those in the New York Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, LA Times or the magazines - are still extremely relevant. Folks wait to hear what the professionals have to say, and that colors their opinion. When regular diners do write their own reviews online, you’ll often hear them reference the official write-up, like, “Oh, the reviewer was totally right about this place, it was amazing...” or “The reviewer didn’t know what he was talking about, he must have had his head up his ass when he was eating here.”

Zagat: How much influence do chefs have on the way Americans eat? Your Eatiquette program is all about changing school lunch - do you have to start with the kids?
MV: You absolutely have to start with the younger generation. They are the ones who are actually going to teach their parents, not the other way around. The adults are the issue, the ones who are resisting eating healthy. Kids are so open, and ready to absorb whatever new things you throw at them. Still, we often run into teachers and government agencies that are resistant to change. It must start with the children - we need to teach them why we’re in the obesity predicament that we’re in.

Zagat: Is the U.S. the only nation you’ve seen with this issue?
MV: It’s not as bad other places as it is here, but I’ve been reading articles and talking to people from Italy, from France, and sadly, they are starting to have that problem too.

Zagat: What’s next for the program?
MV: We’re adding schools every year, making partnerships - we’re going to announce a really large partnership in a couple weeks, actually. It’s very exciting. It’s going to help out with research and may also help to get us into the school district. We’re just slowly reaching out, slowly adding schools. Eventually we would love to start doing these things in other cities.

It’s a slow process. Everyone wants results right away. They say, “Look, the kids hate healthy food, they’re throwing it in the garbage!” Anyone can take a photo of some lettuce in the trash. But the truth is, if half is getting thrown away, half is getting eaten. You can spin it any way you like. People have to realize that when you plant a fig tree, you’re not going to get fruit on it for at least seven years. You have to nurture it, feed it, water it, work with it. In the end, you’ll get fantastic results.

Zagat: What role does social media play in spreading the good word? Your team is pretty active online.
MV: We’ve definitely learned how to have some fun with it. Today, if you own your own business and you’re not doing social media, you’ve missed the boat. That’s just how it is. It’s a different world, a very different world than when I was coming up.

When I was first in restaurants, when I was a line cook, we were all just working and flowing through with the goal of cooking. If you did awesome, did everything right, the ultimate thought was, “Maybe, just maybe, someday I’ll own my own restaurant.” That was the top! You had made it. Now everyone wants multiple restaurants, a book deal, speaking engagements...the top has hit the moon!

And without social media, that wouldn’t have happened. Before social media, if we got into a national magazine - that was like “whoa!” Now you post something on Twitter and the whole world is looking at it. You have to be aware of that and accept it as the reality - that’s what promoting your restaurant is.

It’s not that one philosophy is wrong and one is right. We really have lots of fun with social media. My advice is you have to just attempt it, just give it a try. Not everyone’s going to like everything - I’ve gotten my share of backlash.

Zagat: Do you think the food scene in Philadelphia has changed in the past few years?
MV: Definitely. I travel all over to do collaboration dinners and guest chef charity events, and more and more, when I mention I’m from Philadelphia, I get gushing comments like, “Oh wow, I hear such awesome things about that city, the restaurants, the art museums...” Ten years ago, that never happened.

Zagat: Do you consider yourself an ambassador for Philly?
MV: [Laughs] I don’t consider myself an ambassador for anything, really - I’m just a guy who loves the city he works in. I was born and raised here though, so I’m definitely an advocate.

Zagat: Last question: your next restaurant will be at the Moorestown Mall. Why did you decide to go across the river and open in New Jersey?
MV: South Jersey is an untapped area - partly because liquor licenses are so expensive out there - but so many people live out there, so many professionals, families. They shouldn’t have to drive 30 minutes into Philadelphia to eat at a great restaurant. But it’s growing. For example, Joey Baldino at Zeppoli. He took a chance in Collingswood and now he’s mobbed every night.

I was looking around at the Cherry Hill Mall, checking out lots of stuff, talking to the owners. They also own the Moorestown Mall, and it’s shaping up to be just as nice as the one in Cherry Hill. Osteria there is going to be amazing. We’ll have around 100 seats, and plan to open in around nine months to a year from now.

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