Get a job in an actual commercial kitchen before going to culinary school! 30% of my freshman class never graduated or wound up switching their major.
You’ll be on your feet A LOT. Some people prefer to have a desk job. Even though I have an office and desk being the Executive Chef, I am barely ever sitting down. I am always in the kitchen- helping and guiding my staff. Answering this questionnaire has had me sitting down much longer than I normally would.
Invest in your tools! Far too often I have seen people come to a kitchen with none of their own knives. A proper sharp knife will make all the difference in your production output. Take pride in yourself, your career choice and your tools needed to make you successful.
As part of our series about the lessons from influential ‘TasteMakers’, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Chef Vincent Della Polla, Executive Chef at the Pritikin Longevity Center.
With his down-to-earth, Philly-born style, Vince has since 2007 taught thousands in his cooking classes at Pritikin that healthy eating is not just delicious, it’s easy. “If you can chop, you can cook!” he encourages his students daily, and they all enjoy the results — dishes like Seared Salmon with Arugula, Mushrooms, and Balsamic Vinegar; Salad with Carrot, Pineapple, and Fresh Mint; and Mango Parfait.
Though low in sodium, sugar, and fat, everything that comes out of Vince’s kitchen is bursting with deep rich flavor.
Vince honed his culinary skills at Johnson and Wales University as well as in several restaurants nationwide. From pizzerias to P.F. Chang’s to resorts, Vince has done it all. But what he loves most is his current work at Pritikin because “there’s nothing more rewarding than having our guests come up to me and say, ‘I can do this! I like what I’m eating! You’ve saved my life!’ I never get tired of hearing those words.”
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to ‘get to know’ you a bit. Can you share with our readers a story about what inspired you to become a restauranteur or chef?
When I was in high school, I expressed interest to one of my teachers about possibly pursuing a career in the kitchen. He suggested that I check out a culinary school in Providence, RI called Johnson and Wales University. He caught my attention when he told me tales of the exotic things they cook there like zebra. Needless to say, we never cooked that zebra. Growing up in Philadelphia, I also opted to attend the branch of Johnson and Wales that they had recently opened in North Miami, FL. More cold weather was not something I was interested in seeing! They taught us a wide array of skills at JWU. I would certainly suggest anyone with aspirations of the kitchen life to get a job in a kitchen first to see how you really like it!
Do you have a specific type of food that you focus on? What was it that first drew you to cooking that type of food? Can you share a story about that with us?
I was part of the opening team of a high-end hotel/condo. We offered a soup of the day that was rotated thru about a dozen soups. We had got a request to make our zucchini bisque at least once per week as one of the residents said it was her favorite. We obliged. A few months had passed and one day we were setting up an event in the lobby when I was approached by one of the residents of the property. She proceeded to ask me if I was the chef her who makes her most favorite healthy soup. It was apparently the woman who requested this zucchini bisque to be made once per week. I had a perplexed look on my face as this zucchini bisque we made was anything but healthy- being it was made with heavy cream, butter, parmesan cheese etc. I told her- “that’s not a healthy soup.” Her response was- “but what do you mean, it’s a zucchini soup.” When I explained to her how the soup was prepared, her face became sad. She said, some days I had two servings of that soup!
Now this really gave me a real understanding that many people simply do not know how their food is prepared or how unhealthy it often tends to be. Now we do make a healthy zucchini bisque here at Pritikin!
At Pritikin, we cook some of the most nutritious yet flavorful variety of food you’ll see. Healthy, lean animal proteins like Chilean seabass, Salmon and Halibut. We also use a lot of plant based protein like beans, legumes and soy! Every vegetable and fruit you could imagine from purple cauliflower to red dragon fruit. We use it all in all different types of ways. Making little crispy cauliflower bites is a delicious snack that anyone would crave! How does red dragon fruit and banana sorbet sound? Yes please!! Baking, braising, sautéing, grilling- we try to introduce as much flavor as possible with a trace amount of oils. How about ancient grains like farro and quinoa? We’ve been using a wide array of whole grains like bulgur, red jasmine rice and black rice for decades!
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you became a chef or restauranteur? What was the lesson or take away you took out of that story?
If you are blending a hot soup, use an immersion blender! If you have no choice but to use a standard blender, you MUST pulse it ON and OFF in bursts. Otherwise, you will pop the lid off from the heat and pressure if you just turn it on HIGH. I learned this the hard way about 20 years ago in my first job and I’ll never forget cleaning up that roasted red pepper soup. It was everywhere, including my face and shirt. It was a clear lesson I would never forget!
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? How did you overcome this obstacle?
Working in a kitchen environment can vary from place to place. One thing that will stay constant though is the amount of production needed to make the job complete. One job I had years ago required me to work 3pm-1am. Some people may love that schedule but it was not for me. I did it for a few years and appreciated the opportunities it gave me. I simply pushed through and eventually landed a job that had me working a completely opposite schedule of 5:30a- 2p. I liked this much better but waking up at 4am has its downsides too! Most kitchen jobs are hard work and long hours.
In your experience, what is the key to creating a dish that customers are crazy about?
Colors, flavors and texture. Those are the first keys to executing any desirable dish.
Personally, what is the ‘perfect meal for you’?
I could get fancy and say bison tenderloin with garlic potatoes or grilled branzino with some roasted plantain puree etc., but I will be honest- it’s vegetable pizza! It’s so simple and everyone loves pizza. Now obviously you want to use a healthier crust like whole wheat and a part skim mozzarella. But, as I mentioned earlier, it includes color flavor and texture. Sauté some yellow onions with red peppers and mushrooms until super caramelized, and add some grilled yellow squash and zucchini bulks up the veggies even more. Then, top it with some chopped fresh parsley. We would certainly suggest eating some salad or soups before this as well.
Where does your inspiration for creating come from? Is there something that you turn to for a daily creativity boost?
I try to inspire my own staff to be independent and creative. A lot of new ideas in kitchens come from all around. Many times, someone has an idea that spawns another person taking it into a different direction and creating something on their own. I also like to browse social media like Reddit and Instagram to find new ideas, recipes or plating techniques.
Are you working on any new or exciting projects now? What impact do you think this will have?
We are always working on adding new menu items to our rotation. This gives people new passion and appreciation for food in addition to inspiring them to take this program home and incorporate it into their own lives.
What advice would you give to other chefs to thrive and avoid burnout?
You have to love what you do. Some people may not love their job but you have to enjoy yourself or that will ultimately impact the quality of the end product. It can be easy to lose the passion through daily politics or life but one must push forward to overcome those obstacles and realize things get better and growth is there if you push for it.
Thank you for all that. Now we are ready for the main question of the interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became A Chef” and why? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Get a job in an actual commercial kitchen before going to culinary school! 30% of my freshman class never graduated or wound up switching their major.
- You’ll be on your feet A LOT. Some people prefer to have a desk job. Even though I have an office and desk being the Executive Chef, I am barely ever sitting down. I am always in the kitchen- helping and guiding my staff. Answering this questionnaire has had me sitting down much longer than I normally would.
- Invest in your tools! Far too often I have seen people come to a kitchen with none of their own knives. A proper sharp knife will make all the difference in your production output. Take pride in yourself, your career choice and your tools needed to make you successful.
- Read and Watch Videos. There are so many things to learn and you will never know it all.
- Every link of the chain is just as important. One of my very first jobs was working as a prep cook/ dishwasher. This gave me a true appreciation for every part of the kitchen.
What’s the one dish people have to try if they visit your establishment?
The Lemon Braised Salmon with Fennel Mango Salad and Citrus Herb Dressing is a great Entrée Salad
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
Eat more fruit and vegetables! I know this has been said before but it’s certainly worth repeating.
Thank you so much for these insights. This was very inspirational!