Right now, the stakes are high for a bar. You have to be up front and do really great things food-wise because the competition is all over the place. We met and we talked. Where my mind is with food and drink is where he wants this place to be. Just reminds me a lot of Lloyd where I actually got along with the ownership whereas at The Rooster, the ownership was absentee at best. Here it’s very organized. It’s a company. There’s structure. Everybody’s got a role. Everybody’s focused. I remember, maybe a little more then ten years ago, you went to a bar and the food offerings were like, eh, ok. I remember when places like Standard Tap opened and people were like, shit. That’s really great quality food, really well thought out food in a dark, warm bar. And it took a little while for that to get steam but then more places like that popped up—like Good Dog and Royal Group (Royal Tavern, The Khyber, Cantina Los Coballitos, Cantina Dos Degundos). Everyone started upping the ante, bringing in real chefs for their kitchens in bars. I remember when bar kitchens were staffed by just kids and people who had no real love of food. Now, these kitchens are staffed by chefs and cooks who want to be chefs later.
You see ingredients in bars that you would never see there before. You see foie gras and truffles right next to fries and fucking potato skins. You can listen to punk rock or hip hop music while eating an awesome meal. The day of fine dining is coming to an end. You need the fine dining places a little bit for your special occasions but you’re not much unlike me where on your night off, you don’t want to get all dressed up and sit for a three hour stuffy meal. You also don’t want to go eat shit food either. Look at The Good King—it’s an epic of example of super casual with really cool music. Vibrant, energetic—and good, quality food. Quality drink, quality everything. That’s it. The bar is the new restaurant. What more can you ask for? You’re getting casual dining but with fine dining quality. There’s more money in it [for owners], but the flip side is that there’s more and more places opening—competition is high. There’s also a lot of young chefs where the only opportunity for them to get a kitchen for themselves is a bar. They’re gunning for it and they’re pushing the boundaries.
B: You came up in fine dining though.
V: Yeah. Up until Lloyd that’s all I’ve ever done. Llyod was my first bar. It’s a whiskey/cocktail bar. Actually, Lloyd’s not much unlike this. Lot of wood. Really dark. Really cool music. Very super casual. The owner and I weren’t a hundred percent certain that my concept would work and then sure as shit, we’re moving frog’s legs and snails, along with French Fries and mac ‘n cheese. I was burning through five to ten lbs. of frog’s legs a night. I was doing foie gras skewers and potato skins. Maybe my potato skins were hollowed out fingerlings filled with wild mushrooms and nice cheese…but it fucking worked.
B: You’ve been bouncing around a bit and the media makes a point of calling it out for you and some other people in the industry. Isn’t that a reality for a lot of people, though?
V: [For me]It’s a 50/50: it’s circumstantial and it’s personal at the same time. I didn’t know the Rooster was going to be what it was. I don’t go into a gig thinking, I’ll be out of here soon. When you’re a young cook, you do two years in each kitchen because you’re just learning and growing. When you start hitting management points and you’re a chef, it’s about making choices and decisions. I had it good at Lloyd but some reason, I thought—at Rittenhouse—I could push it harder and kind of get closer to getting my own place. With a.kitchen, I knew things were going to change [referring to Ellen Yin and Eli Kulp’s involvement] and Pierre and Charlotte [Calmels] offered me a way out.
B: And it just didn’t work out with La Cheri.
V: Yeah, I think that was a decision where Pierre and I—on paper—were very happy to have the two of us together to open La Cheri. I got us opened. Pierre and Charlotte used to come and see me all the time at a. kitchen. They’d bring their girls. They liked my style of cooking. They liked my food. They liked my work ethic. They liked me. But I think the reality versus the concept—I wasn’t all that happy with what was going on and they weren’t all that happy with my style of management and it was a just a mutual departure. And we’re still friends. It was more to save the friendship than anything else. The Rooster on paper was awesome. A couple months in, it wasn’t working out and I hated it. But now, I’m here. I’m no less enthusiastic. It’s not like I’m jaded or burned out. I guess it’s like this, especially in the kitchen world: it’s like dating. You don’t go into dating a girl thinking this is only going to be a couple of months and I’m out of here. You’re like, this might be something, and if it’s not, it’s not. You see the real personality three months into a relationship and you’re like aaahhhhhhh—or vice versa. And you stumble upon the one that’s the right one and it lasts. But you don’t pick who you’re going to have a lasting relationship with just as much as you pick which kitchen you’re going to be running for owners that really jive with you.
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