by Len Lear
Everyone who eats out in the Philadelphia area knows there are countless talented Italian chefs, but how many are executive chefs at Chinese restaurants? Vince Viola may be the only one in the Delaware Valley.
For almost 30 years, Viola, now 63, has been an executive chef at Yangming, located at Haverford and Conestoga Roads in Bryn Mawr. In the summer of 1990, eight months before Yangming opened for business, Viola was hired as one of the two co-executive chefs (the other, Muyang Shen, who is Taiwanese, has also been there the entire 29 years) by Yangming owner, Michael Wei (pronounced “Way”). (Wei also owns Cin Cin in Chestnut Hill with managing partner Henry Lee.)
“I am still putting in the hours,” Viola said last week. “I get in in the mornings between 8 and 9, and that is Wednesday to Sunday, and I am usually out of the restaurant about 10 p.m. Wednesday to Sunday. I go into the restaurant on Monday and Tuesday just to check on things, place a few orders and try to get out in a few hours. I do try to take off an occasional Sunday if possible.
“The culinary business is truly a way of life, and the kitchen has a rhythm all its own. The cooks are serving lunch and prepping for dinner, and then about 4 o’clock the waiters come in and start their prep. You can hear the glasses and china clanging, the give-and-take of kitchen chatter and that rush that you feel, knowing that for the next 3-4-5 hours you gotta bring it! I still enjoy what I do, and I love being in the kitchen. So as long as I am healthy. I see no end in sight.”
Why on earth would an Italian American chef even apply for a job in the kitchen of an upscale Chinese restaurant?
“I’ve always been fascinated with Asian food,” Viola said. “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 replaced.)
“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,” Viola said. “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 after almost 30 years.”
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 three decades, and he can do everything in the kitchen, Western or Asian, and all of the Asian staff people like and respect him.”
Viola grew up in Manayunk and attended Roman Catholic High School. He started in the food business 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.
“Some of the older European chefs were nasty and arrogant,” Viola, “but some of the American chefs I worked with were absolutely wonderful. For example, Frank Grande and Anthony Lombardi at Merion were real gentlemen. They were patient and understanding, and they would build you up, not tear you down.”
Viola, who has had a serious back injury, also wanted to give a shout-out to Dr. Ted Glazer, a chiropractor at the Chiropractic Spine Center in Wayne who for the last 12 years “has kept me upright and body able.” (Many customers are not aware how physically demanding the life of a chef can be.)
Viola’s wife, Theresa, is a senior facilities designer at Corporate Interiors in the King of Prussia area. The Violas have a daughter, Amanda, 37, a son, Vincent, 34, and six grandchildren.
“Even though there is an enormous toll, both physically and mentally, that you sacrifice to be in this business, not to mention the effect it has on your wife and kids, it is very rewarding,” Viola said. “I have asked my son and daughter over the years if my job had any negative effect on them as they were growing up, and their responses have always been loving and kind. So yes, I would do it all over again.”
For more information, visit YangmingRestaurant.com. Len Lear can be reached at email@example.com