A Chat With Chef Greg Vernick

Since opening his self-titled restaurant, Vernick Food & Drink, in Spring 2012 in the Rittenhouse Square neighborhood, Chef Greg Vernick and his crew have gotten a lot of positive attention. A glowing 3-bell review from Craig Laban (wherein he calls Vernick "one of the year's most exciting new restaurants"), and a flurry of other positive press peaked just this February with a James Beard nomination for "Best New Restaurant," and an invitation to cook a "Spring Elegance" dinner at the James Beard House in New York City on April 8th.

Vernick's concept – small and large-enough-for-sharing plates of fresh, innovative food, paired with great cocktails, beer and wine seems to have struck a chord with Philadelphia diners. Customer reviews on Yelp are heavy on five stars, and reservations can be hard to nail down on weekend nights.

We sat down with Chef Vernick to talk about his background, the experience of opening his restaurant, working with his wife Julie, and why Philadelphia feels like home.

The Daily Meal: What is your background with food? How did you become a chef?
Chef Greg Vernick:
My mom had a restaurant in Haddonfield, New Jersey where I grew up, that's where everything started. A lot of my childhood was in and around her restaurant. My grandfather worked in her kitchen, my dad's office was around the corner, so a lot of my memories take place there.

When I was 12 or 13, my parents told me I had to work instead of going to summer camp. So I put together a makeshift resume that we took down to the Jersey shore and my mom drove me up and down this strip so I could drop my resume off – my first real job was working in Margate in a kitchen, on the beach at a walk-up café stand right by Lucy the Elephant. I scooped water ice and washed dishes and put hot dogs on the rollers. I did that for four summers, by the end I was the short order cook.

When it came time to go to college, it felt like a natural progression to go to culinary school. I went to Boston University for undergrad which had a culinary program that was also part of the business school, and I worked in restaurants around Boston. I went to the Culinary Institute of America right after graduation.

What inspired your move back to Philadelphia?
Philadelphia was always home, always the goal. I had good opportunities in New York and Boston, but I always paid attention to what was going on here, and my family is here, so whenever I would come home, my mom would help me find the 'restaurant of the now' to go to. There are other variables in opening a restaurant, of course – finances, timing – but we made Philly our first choice and our goal, so it was never a question of looking at other places. I loved living in New York, don't get me wrong, but it didn't feel like home to me. There's an emotional investment for me here that guides me.

What was the trickiest part of opening your restaurant? Any surprises?
How many surprises can you manage a day? That's part of being any business owner. We call them the "oh s**ts," like every day it's something new. How do you manage all the troubleshooting? Every day is a challenge and every day you advance half an inch on the learning curve. You take what happened yesterday and grow from it. One thing that I'm grateful for is that with my last job, I was working with a chef who opened so many restaurants. I opened seven with him, and I was like a fly on the wall.  I saw blueprints and plans and the whole process, that part of the curriculum was worth its weight in gold for this opening, just being able to be prepared for certain things that had nothing to do with the restaurant or the food.

You and your wife Julie run Vernick together. Any advice for couples looking to go into the biz together?
It's couple to couple. For me, I was working so much I wasn't seeing Julie that much to begin with because of my crazy hours, so for us it was like, 'Let's do this to be together.' Make sure you enjoy the company of your spouse. I like working with her, and she's ten times smarter than I am. It's fun for us! There's still a lot of troubleshooting, but things are smoothing out a little bit. We can actually get a bite to eat after work now instead of just passing out.

Whatcha eating on your days off?
We're closed on Mondays, so I try to go to a normal hours place on Mondays. When we're open, we don't close til one, so we're limited to late night spots. I go to American Sardine Bar a lot, Grace Tavern, and places in Chinatown. We just went to Fork for our Monday night outing, and it was amazing. Zama, too that place is also amazing for sushi. Zeppoli I also love.

What's the vibe like in your kitchen? Serious? Fun? Listen to music?
It's a combination. We listen to music during prep, and we walk this line. There's, like, a switch, an understanding when you need to hunker down and push and other times when you can be more relaxed and have conversation and be more casual. We open at 5pm every day, so between 4 and 5 everyone's racing to get their stations set up and there's this big push. Then there are idle times, when we can all talk – one of the things I enjoy most is talking to my guys about food and cooking. We'll talk through dishes as a group, we'll sit together and talk about what works, we'll taste things. I think I have maybe the best crew I've ever worked with.

Congrats on the James Beard Nomination and the "Spring Elegance" dinner at the James Beard House in NYC. How did you handle this news?
We don't plan for accolades, but they're very nice. As a business owner, it really helps bring new people in. I would be lying if I took a cold shoulder approach to it, however, it wasn't our goal. We're so honored to be doing it and excited, but it wasn't written in our business plan.

Any menu changes, or new stuff we should keep our eyes peeled for this spring/summer at Vernick?
We're doing menu changes now, we're rolling out a spring inspired menu, and a spring inspired cocktail program. Ryan, the GM, is starting to put a lot of rosé wines on the list for spring, and Vincent our beverage manager is working to seasonally focus the cocktail menu with ingredients like basil and mint.

Also, we're in discussions about teaching classes at the restaurant. We have that open kitchen, so we're getting the plans ready for a dinner party/class on Mondays when we're closed and have a different theme every time.  First Monday of the month, it's looking like. The space in the back is so great for a classroom setting. We're still in the works for a late might menu, and are considering keeping the kitchen open an hour later, until midnight.