by Len Lear
Yangming in Bryn Mawr received a blizzard of publicity three years ago when Chinese Restaurant News, a national trade publication for Chinese restaurants, named Yangming the number one Chinese restaurant in the U.S. (The magazine estimates that there are about 50,000 Chinese restaurants in the country.) What was overlooked in the resulting tsunami of press coverage, however, was the fact that Yangming may also be the only Chinese restaurant in the country with an Italian-American executive chef.
In the summer of 1990, eight months before Yangming opened for business at Haverford and Conestoga Roads, Viola was hired as one of the two co-executive chefs (the other, Muyang Shen, who is Taiwanese, has also been there the entire 24 years) by Yangming owner, Michael Wei (pronounced “Way”). (Wei also owns Cin Cin in Chestnut Hill with managing partner Henry Lee.)
On the roulette table of life, what are the odds that an Italian-American chef would even apply for a job in the kitchen of an upscale Chinese restaurant? “I’ve always been fascinated with Asian food,” explained Vince, 57. “For years I would experiment with things like egg rolls and spring rolls, and then in 1990 I just happened to see a sign that said ‘Restaurant Auction’ in Bryn Mawr. When I went in, I met Michael Wei, who told me he would be opening Yangming there. (The auction was held to sell the furniture and other property that had belonged to Conestoga Mill Inn, which Yangming was replacing.)
“He said he would have chefs from China, Taiwan, Thailand and Vietnam, so I thought this would be an ideal opportunity to learn about Asian cooking. Also, I had a great feeling about Michael Wei, and I turned out to be right. He is a true gentleman. You could not have a better employer. That’s why I’m still here.”
But why did Michael Wei hire an American chef who had never worked in an Asian restaurant before? “My idea was to have a new type of Asian restaurant,” Wei replied, “that would have two kitchens, one Western and one Asian. I planned to infuse Western dishes with Asian seasonings, for example, and use a lot of wine in reduced sauces. Vince had a very good background for what I was looking for, and he seemed like a nice guy as well. He’s been here the entire 24 years, and he can do everything in the kitchen, Western or Asian, and all of the Asian staff people like and respect him.”
Vince is short of stature and somewhat deficient in the hirsuite department, but his temperament is as smooth as chocolate mousse, and he has clearly found his sweet spot in the upper echelon of Delaware Valley chefs. Although he is surrounded by food 24/7, Vince has clearly practiced girth control. He grew up in Manayunk and attended Roman Catholic High School. He definitely started at the bottom, picking up dirty towels in the locker rooms and washing dishes in the kitchen at Merion Cricket Club at age 13.
Since he was making good money for a teenager by working at a Main Line country club, Vince “decided to put off college for a year to build up my bank account, but then I met so many great chefs who encouraged me to develop my talent as a chef that I could not pull myself away from it. There was nothing else I really wanted to do.”
In the early 1970s country clubs were an excellent training ground for many young chefs. Vince spills out his opinions of those experiences, both positive and negative, like a tipped bottle of wine. “Some of the older European chefs were nasty and arrogant,” said Vince, “but some of the American chefs I worked with were absolutely wonderful. “For example, Frank Garde and Anthony Lombardi at Merion were real gentlemen. They were patient and understanding, and they would build you up, not tear you down. In fact, Frank made me feel like I was so important that if I didn’t do my one job, the whole place would fall apart.”
Some chefs have more baggage than an airport carousel at Christmas time, but Viola has left nothing but good will and a stellar reputation at every stop along his career journey. From 1970 to 1980 he worked at Merion. He then worked at Green Valley Country Club in Conshohocken for two years, Torresdale-Frankford Country Club for three years, Philadelphia Cricket Club for two years and Radnor Valley Country Club for three years. “I’ve worked for Jewish, Catholic, Italian and Irish country clubs,” said Vince. Then came Yangming.
In an industry where many chefs and other kitchen staff change jobs as frequently as some movie stars change lovers, why has Vince stayed in one place for the last 24 years? “Because this is an ideal situation for me that I don’t think could be improved on anywhere else,” explained Vince. “Whatever I say I need, whether it be new equipment, caviar, truffles, whatever, Michael (Wei) makes sure we have it. And he also has an incredible palate. He is able to add subtle flavors to dishes that I don’t think anyone else could do … And I really admire the work ethic of my co-workers. It seems that they are almost never late or sick, and they have so much pride in their work and are very loyal to the owner.”
And according to Michael Wei, “After 24 years later its hard to believe what a treasure I discovered in Vince Viola, and it has been a real lesson in cultural blending for both of my co-chefs, Muyang and Vince. There never was any competition between the two. Today they are involved in each other’s lives. They are almost like brothers.”
Yangming, by the way, is situated in a building with great bones. According to historical records, it was built in 1765, when a man named Peter Evans ran it as a tavern. Throughout most of the 1800s it was a general store or a grocery and feed store. In the mid-1930s it again became a restaurant, Conestoga Mill, owned by Joseph Ferraro. Ownership then changed hands five more times before Michael Wei purchased it in April, 1990. An extensive renovation produced an inviting gray and plum-colored setting that includes eye-OK red oak woodwork with exquisite millwork and Deco-style etched glass room dividers.
At Yangming Viola works about 70 hours a week. “People have two reactions when I tell them that,” said Vince. “The first is ‘Nobody can work those hours week after week,’ and the second is ‘Are you an idiot?’ We do about 1400 to 1600 covers (dinners) a week, but that does not include, lunches, parties or take-out. As long as I keep myself in good shape with the help of my friend and chiropractor, Dr. Ted Glazer, I will hopefully keep working like this for years to come.”
In addition to Yangming, Michael Wei owns Mandarin Garden in Willow Grove (opened in 1985), Cin Cin in Chestnut Hill (opened in 1996) and Nectar in Berwyn (opened in 2005). “They’re like my children,” said Wei. “They’re all different, but I love them all.”
Vince’s wife, Theresa, is a graphic designer. They have two children, Amanda, 31, and Vince III, 28. Someone once said you cannot direct the wind, but you can direct the sails. When it comes to producing consistently excellent Asian cuisine with an inextricable Western influence, Vince Viola has become quite the proficient sailor, indeed.
For more information, call 610-527-3200 or visit www.yangmingrestaurant.com.