Main Line Masters

How six local chefs are making their mark on the area’s culinary landscape.

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Chef Vince Viola. (Photo by Jared Castaldi)The Bull in the China Shop

Yangming received a blizzard of publicity earlier this year when Chinese Restaurant News named the Bryn Mawr institution the No. 1 Chinese restaurant in the United States. What was pretty much 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 chef.

In the summer of 1990, eight months before Yangming opened for business at Haverford and Conestoga roads, Vince Viola was hired as one of two co-executive chefs by owner Michael Wei. The other, Muyang Shen, is Taiwanese and has also been there 21 years.

On the roulette table of life, what are the odds that an Italian-American would even apply for a job in the kitchen of an upscale Chinese restaurant?

“I’ve always been fascinated with Asian food,” says Viola. “For years, I would experiment with things like egg rolls and spring rolls. When I met Michael, 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.”

Why did Wei take a chance on Viola? “My idea was to have a new type of Asian restaurant that would have two kitchens—one Western and one Asian,” says Wei. “I planned to infuse Western dishes with Asian seasonings and use a lot of wine in reduced sauces. Viola had a very good background for what I was looking for, and he seemed like a nice guy. He can do everything in the kitchen—Western or Asian.”

Viola’s temperament is as smooth as chocolate mousse, and he’s clearly found his sweet spot in the upper echelon of local chefs. He grew up in Manayunk and attended Roman Catholic High School. He 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.

In the early 1970s, country clubs were excellent training grounds for young chefs. They could afford the luxury of having a kid like Viola do nothing but make sauces or salads for a year.

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