Fiery hometown celebrity chef Marc Vetri is fueling the flame wars once again on social media.
Vetri is known on Twitter and other online networks as a mercurial host. Much to the probable chagrin of his public relations chum Craig Kaplan, Vetri takes on all comers, publicly calling them out with the zeal of a Broad Street Brawler. This time he calls out a persnickety “gluten intolerant” diner and her trendy ilk in a rant on Huffington Post. Vetri vents his frustration in no uncertain terms. “Truthfully, unless you have celiac disease, which is a major issue in 1 percent of the population,” Vetri writes, “you probably don’t know what gluten is.”
As a person with an official medical diagnosis of the auto-immune disorder known as Celiac’s Disease, I am in that 1%. Unfortunately it isn’t the right 1%. Mr. Vetri’s establishments attract the elite Philadelphia 1% who can afford to effect whatever trendy malady they like. For Vetri to whine about his rich clientele and their false idiosyncrasies on HuffPo is bad form.
Most people, disease-fakers or not, won’t have the chance to dine at a place like Vetri Ristorante. For the 2 million Americans who suffer from Celiac’s (according to the National Institutes of Health), it’s hard enough to afford a gluten-free diet on any salary less than 6 digits. 12 ounces of Schår pasta, a gluten-free European brand that doesn’t taste entirely like wet cardboard, costs roughly $4.50. Compare this to 16 ounces of San Giorgio spaghetti at around $2.00, and you’ll start to see why the other 99% doesn’t play at having Celiac’s. If we could go back to eating more affordably, we would.
As a freelance writer married to an Assistant Dean at Penn, normally I would never be able to experience Vetri’s flagship bistro at 13th and Spruce streets, but 2 years ago when a grateful client gave me a generous gift certificate, my husband and I got a babysitter and set a date. With much apprehension, I called ahead. The staff was more than welcoming. “Of course we can accommodate you,” the hostess said. “We’ll make a note on the reservation.” I hung up the phone feeling nervous anyway. Well before his rant in HuffPo, I knew what chefs like Vetri thought of me. I half-expected to be “glutened,” as it is called in Celiac forums, because the staff wouldn’t take me seriously. I hoped that one of the finest Italian eateries on the east coast would be a safe bet.
The dining room in Vetri’s converted brownstone is more than cozy. We sat so close to start-up entrepreneur David Bookspan and his companion that it felt like a double date. The tight quarters made me even more nervous, as other diners would hear of my medical condition. I asked the server to bend down so I could whisper in his ear. With a nod, he disappeared into the kitchen to start the process. Vetri serves a “tasting menu.” For my fellow common folk, this means the kitchen has a pre-set spread for the evening, based on local sources and seasonal flavors. The stream of tiny meals is constant, one taste complementing another until you reach dessert. If you have a couple extra Benjamins, you can add a wine pairing experience to the meal. My husband and I stuck with water.
I had a different menu than my husband, but it was nonetheless amazing. Delicate meats, tender seafood, creamy side dishes, and crispy vegetables with freshly ground spices kept appearing like magic in front of me. All of it, unbelievably, was gluten-free. Numerous times during dinner, I found my eyes quietly welling up with tears. Until that moment, I’d thought a Celiac’s diagnosis precluded me from heavenly tastes like these. With just a few bites, I realized I didn’t have to settle for sub-par gluten-free food. Delicious meals, with a little extra effort from me, were always within my reach. This experience at Vetri changed my life.
That’s why I find Vetri’s latest screed sad and ironic. Instead of discouraging his high-maintenance debutantes and jet-setters from demanding special treatment, it will simply close the door on my fellow Celiacs, some of which are undoubtedly in the populations his nutrition-education Vetri Foundation serves. The 501c3 claims to “give children the nutritional foundation they need to grow and thrive,” but its founder’s rant will only encourage people to stay home and remain frightened to try new things. With his charitable efforts and his 6 venues (including the original Vetri Ristorante, Osteria Restaurant, Osteria Moorestown, Amis Trattoria, Alla Spina and the new Lo Spiedo set to open in Fall of 2014), Vetri seems serious about bringing fine dining experiences to Philadelphians of various socio-economic situations. Although I share his disdain for trendy posers, I hope Vetri sees the damage his public voice can do. Instead of closing doors, he should be opening new ones like he did for me that fateful night two years ago. Marc Vetri should build a gluten-free/allergen-free restaurant; I guarantee he’ll never know a more grateful crowd.