Interview: chef Ken Vedrinski (Trattoria Lucca)

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Chef Charleston

Ohio native Ken Vedrinski started cooking professionally in high school, at the Athletic Club of Columbus, and rose to prominence in the South. He presided over the kitchen at The Woodlands Resort & Inn in the South Carolina countryside before blazing a trail at Sienna, in the planned Lowcountry community of Daniel Island. In 2008, he transitioned to the city of Charleston to open Trattoria Lucca, returning to his Italian roots in the process. We met at the restaurant on December 27, and Vedrinski shared several insights while making fresh pasta.

Was it a given that you would become a chef, or did you consider other careers?

I didn’t consider other careers. It’s just what I’ve always done, from high school on. It started with my grandmother, but I’d say the inspiration was that I went right in high school and took occupational classes that pertained specifically to cooking, in a Home Economics sort of way. Home Economics was sewing, cooking…I excelled in the cooking part. My senior year, there was a Master Chef who was working there that started an apprenticeship program. Actually the government did, the American Culinary Federation started it, and he was a Master Chef, and he was one of the founders of the program. I was fortunate. I was in Columbus, Ohio. He was a Master Chef, German, and it made sense to me. I applied to the program, which was at Columbus College. You had to go to college as well. It was a two-pronged thing, and it all kind of worked out. That’s how it started.

So you’d consider your grandmother a primary mentor?

Sure. I was saying, even at the Feast of the 7 Fishes, that we did on Christmas Eve, I was telling the story, we’d go to mass, typically – I lived with my grandma for the large part of my life – and she would make us go to mass on Sundays, twice. I would go to the 8 o’clock in the morning mass, and she would make us also go to the 11 o’clock mass – twice – and for a young person, that’s painful. We would go to the 11 o’clock, and she would stay home and cook, and by the time we got home at 12:30, after mass, we were truly miserable. We’d walk into the house and smell all the smells, flavors, and we got happy within 20 minutes. I remembered that. I’d like to emulate that and make people happy in that way.

Do you still make many dishes that she taught you?

There are two that I do. They’re not exactly hers, but they were certainly inspirational. I do a pasta broccoli, where she cooked broccoli, and she’d overcook it, and then she’d cook her pasta with the broccoli, using her broccoli broth to make the sauce, which I always thought was brilliant. So I still do a version of that. We do it with duck, Italian sausage and walnuts. Red sauce, I remember making the red sauce with her, so we make the tomato sugo as a base and we try to do cool things with it. Like we make little wild boar polpette, little wild boar meatballs, which of course she never did. Those two things I do.

Are there any dishes you can’t imagine removing from the menu?

Well I have one, Sformatino, that is kind of a signature dish, steamed cauliflower with a farm egg in it, and Parmesan. That’s kind of a signature one. People come just for it. It’s been in Garden & Gun magazine, and quite a few other magazines. So that one I probably never would. And then the other ones pretty much change all the time. I think that’s the only one that probably I would never take off. People say to follow the seasons, but we follow the day, because one day provides and the next day doesn’t. A season’s a quarter. We follow things by the hour. We usually write the menu by 5 o’clock. The menu’s written by what’s happening that day, not by that season.

How do you feel about signature dishes? Are those a good thing?

Yeah, of course they are. They give you the identity. People obviously want to identify, or have something that’s familiar when they come. People like McDonald’s because certainly it’s familiar. There’s never any change when they do something. We have a lot of regulars who come here, because we’re not a tourist restaurant, they want to see that dish, so for us, that’s a good thing. We’ve perfected it. A lot of people will copy dishes, but it takes a long time before they can copy and recreate them like we do.

Pasta Charleston
What’s your top selling dish, and why do you think that’s the case?

Well certainly pasta, and I’ll use that as one because I think they sell equally as much. That’s the backbone of what we do here. We commit to it. I have two different pasta machines. I get flour from Logan, Utah, some durum wheat semolina. I get farm eggs from a friend of mine who sells me the eggs. I start with better ingredients. Papa John’s says that. We really work our ass off to make that happen. From that, I hand make a lot of that. We get interesting cheeses. Any of our pasta dishes. I think there’s a movement to – dry pasta and fresh pasta – two different styles. Neither is better than the other, but I like the fact that we make ours exactly to the thickness of it, so if I feel from the beginning, all the way to when we cook it, I know everything about that pasta. I know the thickness, I know how dry it is, so I can master it. If somebody else makes it for me, like with the dry pastas, some are thicker. I don’t know what blend of wheats they’re using. And I know it probably sounds kind of technical, but there is a difference. I know my pasta better than anybody. Maybe that sounds kind of weird, but I think it’s true, because I know exactly how it needs to be cooked.

Do you enjoy eating pasta anywhere else?

Oh yeah! We just got back from New York City, and we ate at Del Posto, we ate at Morini, we ate at Felidia, we ate at Ciano, and every place we had pasta – one place we had the pasta tasting menu. And it’s just cool to see how other guys do it. Just like in Italy, everybody’s got a little more egg, a little less egg, more flour, different flour, on, and on, and on, and on. They’re all well done, but different. So yes. Charleston, not so much. There are a couple guys that do good work.

Pasta Charleston
I went to the Woodlands when you were there. I went to Sienna when you were there. How did the concept evolve to what you’re doing now?

Well, at the Woodlands, we were a country inn. I spent some time in Asia, and I was intrigued by Asian ingredients, the flavors, and olfactory, certainly the smells and what not. I was mystified, so I really did a lot of that when I came back to the Woodlands, we dabbled a lot in Asian, although a country inn, Asian food, kind of a little tough to sell that. But the press liked it. We got a ton of great press there. It worked for me, but it was always in the back of my mind, if I opened my own place, it would be Italian. So that opportunity with Sienna – and Sienna was certainly more high end – like you might see a restaurant in Milan, I think that’s the best way I can make the analogy. High end, it had Italian sensibilities, but it wasn’t rustic Italian. With this one, it’s your own place, you gravitate right back to what you enjoy eating every day. I certainly love what I did at Sienna, but I wouldn’t eat it every day. What I do here, I would eat every day. So that was kind of the evolution.

I heard a couple years ago that you were considering opening a high end seafood restaurant.

We were there. It was a place called Cigar Factory. Unfortunately the bank was funding the project through the developer, and I got caught in the middle of it. Unfortunately it didn’t happen, but I still have the idea in the back of my mind.

What’s the very first dish that you ever remember making?

When I was a kid?


I used to make potato pancakes, because my dad made potato pancakes, and they were good, so when he wasn’t there, I made ‘em.

What was your very first night like in a professional restaurant kitchen, and where was that at?

That would have been my apprenticeship under Hartmut Handke, making red cabbage, a German way called rot-kol, and I remember he told me, “This is how you do it,” and I made it.

What was the restaurant?

That was at the Athletic Club of Columbus. That’s where I did my apprenticeship. He was one of the first CMCs – Master Chefs – that’s where he was and that’s where I did my apprenticeship. I was there four years…He just retired two years ago, but I saw him – I’m from Columbus and he stayed in Columbus – I went back to his restaurant. Through friends of mine, I went back for an Ohio State game. I walked in the restaurant and his wife was at the front door, and I hadn’t seen her in 15 years, 20 years. I was the whipping boy’s whipping boy, so I don’t know if he ever thought I would be successful in this business. She just about fainted when she saw me. She ran back into the kitchen and got Chef Handke. He came out. It was great. He cooked for us and never gave us a bill. It was great. I think he stayed in touch through the media, how I as doing, but he was never the kind of guy who’d say, “Hey, you’ve done well.” Very Teutonic.

What brought you to the Lowcountry?

The Woodlands. They had a search committee. The gentleman who owned it, the Sainsbury family, They own Cadbury, Schweppes ginger ale, and their claim to fame is Sainsbury grocery stores in England. They were developing the Woodlands and formed a search committee for a chef, and I was the corporate chef of Swissotel, and I was miserable, because I wasn’t cooking. It was owned by Swiss Air, and they were a very bottom line company. I was looking to get out. They found me. They saw my work at Swissotel and they hired me.

What do you look for when you’re hiring somebody to work in your kitchen?

Certainly, there are a lot of people coming out of culinary school, but some of it’s a crapshoot. You look for the passion when they get into the business, because if they’re in it for fame or money or some of these other things – again, I know it sounds cliché – but they won’t last. They absolutely won’t. You can look in their eyes and hear the way they speak, the passion, because everybody has a degree. Certainly you want them to have some pedigree, if they’ve worked for some other good chefs, but most important is their love of food. That’s something you can ask them, but you have to see it. That’s when it becomes a crapshoot. You hire them, you look at their CV, their resumes, it looks good, everything’s good, but we’ve had some failures. Again, some of it’s just trying to figure it out, by listening to somebody.

As far as the talent pool goes, do you think that’s changed much since Johnson & Wales relocated to Charlotte?

Well, it hurt a lot at first. It did, but Charleston’s got so much press for the food scene that a lot of really good and talented guys are moving here. So the first year it stung a lot, because you didn’t have that pool of culinary grads that had basic skills. Then what ended up happening was – again, it’s just gotten so much press, and you’ve got quality of life – a lot of guys who worked in New York kitchens and guys who worked in other big city kitchens are moving here, certainly for the quality of life.

How much room for expansion is there in Charleston at this point?



Joshua Lurie

Joshua Lurie founded FoodGPS in 2005. Read about him here.

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