I got to catch up with the one and only Amanda Shulman, founder and first editor-in-chief of Penn’s Spoon University chapter. To give a brief introduction, Amanda spent her undergrad years studying political science and journalism. On the side, she developed her passion for food and cooking. From interning for Food52 and the Tasting Table, to creating her own food insta Stay Hungree, Amanda now works as a line chef at Vetri Ristorante — one of the best Italian restaurants in the country. Being the super hip person she is, Amanda was more than willing to meet with me and answer all the questions I had about her recent culinary experiences. Here’s what I learned.
Spoon UPenn: Tell us how you got started into cooking.
AS: "Growing up, I loved helping my mom in the kitchen and reading cookbooks every second I got. Eventually, I gained enough experience and ambition to start cooking entire meals for my family. It’s funny remembering how in high school, I would text my mom during class to pick up all the ingredients I needed to make dinner. I also ran my own catering business in middle school, but my school eventually shut that down."
Spoon UPenn: How did you find yourself at Vetri?
AS: "During my senior year at Penn, I really wanted to be a chef. I was working at Amis and continued to work there after graduation, but they weren't hiring. Luckily, the chef at Amis, Drew DiTomo, helped set me up with a stage at Vetri. I decided to introduce myself to Brad Spence, one of Vetri’s culinary directors, and convinced him to let me work for free in the kitchen once or twice a week. I continued that position even after I graduated. Lucky for me, I was hired as one of the new line cooks. It was literally a dream come true."
Spoon UPenn: What’s it like working as a line chef?
AS: "Vetri’s kitchen is set up as a line of different stations: Garde manger, meat and fish, sauté, and pasta. As a line chef, I started at the Garde manger station, where I was in charge of making the salads and appetizers. Then I worked my way up to meat and fish – where I learned to butcher – then sauté, and eventually pasta. I’ve been running the pasta station for more than a year now. It can get intense because we’re known at Vetri for our pasta. In fact, whenever we make our pasta dough, we only use flour that’s been freshly milled hours ago upstairs. We take all our orders from the sous-chefs, who tell us what to do on a day-to-day basis. Almost all our sous-chefs have had years of experience in the culinary industry. There’s also the head chef, whose role is like the “captain of the ship”, because he’s in charge of everything that goes on in the restaurant."
Spoon UPenn: Do you get to rotate between stations?
AS: "Yes, but it’s best if you stay in your own station. The way stations work, yYou work your way up the stations, and you're on a station until you're promoted to the next one. Now that I've spent a good amount of time at Vetri and have moved through all of the stations, I am no longer "running" a station, but rather I work multiple stations on the people who run them day's off."
Spoon UPenn: How much prep goes into making a meal?
AS: "Vetri only serves dinner, but we tend to work a full 12-hour shift, starting around 11:30 am or 12 in the afternoon. Even though we offer the same menu for the entire season, we typically spend about 5 hours (sometimes more!) just to prep all our ingredients. A lot of people don’t understand why we have to come in so early if we don’t serve lunch, but it’s because we need that time to cook."
Spoon UPenn: What’s your favorite part of working as a line chef?
AS: "Everything about my job is so much fun. All of us are always laughing, singing, and making jokes in the kitchen. I would say my favorite part is the pressure. On the one hand, we are always being yelled at, which sounds terrible, but I’m addicted to the high-intensity environment. On the other hand, you’re always considering every dish you’re serving to customers because they’re paying about $150 for the entire meal."
Spoon UPenn: What about your least favorite part?
AS: "The hours can be hard, especially during days when I don’t leave the kitchen until 2 in the morning. Another downside is tailoring the menu for customers with “dietary restrictions”. A few weeks ago, we had a few people who requested gluten-free options, but after the main course, they requested the chocolate cake. It made no sense to me."
Spoon UPenn: What’s the weirdest thing you’ve cooked so far?
AS: "That’s a hard question, just because I’ve cooked a lot of foods like liver and heart that other people wouldn’t consider “weird”. For me, though, I had a really interesting experience learning to butcher and cook fresh eel."
Spoon UPenn: Was that actually served on Vetri’s menu?
AS: "No, we were just playing around in our kitchen one night. We have a few hibachi grills that we used to grill the eel fillets for a trial recipe."
Spoon UPenn: Any future plans after Vetri?
AS: "I’m actually leaving in about two weeks, so I can spend some time back home in Connecticut with my family. Afterwards, I’m planning a trip to Italy, so I can work for other restaurants and learn about all things pasta. I’m really excited to be part of the food culture there because the Italians take their food so seriously. Most Italians believe in seasonal cooking, meaning if one ingredient isn’t available or in season, they won’t bother trying to import it from another country. I also hope to open my own Italian restaurant one day! I’m not sure where yet, but I do know that my menu’s going to revolve around pasta, pasta, pasta."
Spoon UPenn: Can you give any cooking advice for college kids who've never been in the kitchen?
AS: "Don’t be afraid of recipes. One thing I can’t stand is when someone looks at a recipe that calls for something like oil and starts freaking out, ”Oh my goodness, how much oil do I need exactly? The recipe doesn’t even specify!” Part of learning how to cook is trusting your instinct to tell you how much of an ingredient is “just enough”. You don’t need to be perfect all the time. Another tip I have is to get over the idea that when you’re serving friends, your food needs to be steaming hot. I can tell you from working at Vetri, that doesn’t always happen."
Big shoutout to Amanda for spending the time to meet with me! Personally, I can’t wait to try her restaurant once it opens. To learn more about Amanda and her passion for food, you can also check out some of the articles she’s written for Spoon.