Few casinos anywhere in the country employ a chef who is as experienced and respected as Tony Clark, who has run the kitchen at the Four Seasons and at Tony Clark’s on Avenue of the Arts. Now he has brought his supreme talent to Viviano and Pacific Prime
By Theodore N. Beitchman
It is half past 4 on a late April Friday afternoon, and the Cameo Bar is beginning to rise to the occasion.
The Cameo sets between two of the finest restaurants on the Main Line — Viviano and Pacific Prime — on the second floor of Valley Forge Casino Resort.
Servers and bartenders and bus boys and girls are scurrying around in anticipation of the 5 p.m. opening, and judging by the looks on their faces they are anticipating a busy evening and also to pleasing their boss: Chef de cuisine Tony Clark.
It is fair to say that few casinos anywhere in the country employ a chef who is as experienced and respected as Clark.
Tony Clark has standards — for himself and his staff — and sometimes that leaves his employees a bit frayed.
“I can’t go out a say to a customer,” he told the Inquirer in a 1999 interview, “ ‘ Sorry that’s too salty, but my guy was out all night partying.’ “
He grew up in Westmont, N. J., went to Holy Savior and St. Paul VI High.
And Clark never thought about being a chef until he was 17 and washing dishes and doing some prep at a restaurant down the shore.
“I liked the whole atmosphere,” he told the Inquirer’s Michael Klein. “I liked the buzz … working around all those unique people.”
He eschewed college and instead attended the esteemed Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N. Y., where his lack of self-esteem almost sunk him.
“Even the other students had egos,” he says. But apparently not Michael Bowman, whom he befriended and today is president and CEO of VFCR.
Then it was back to Philly and an interview at the Four Seasons with the legendary Jean-Marie Lacroix, who turned him down two days in a row. But Clark, like Charlie Sheen in “Wall Street,” indefatigably came back the third day.
Voila! Someone didn’t show up for work and Lacroix gave him a shot.
Clark was just 21 and would stay long enough to replace Lacroix as the top chef at the Fountain Room — “best three years of my life.”
Then lightning struck in 1996.
One of the Four Seasons’ best customers, attorney Richie Phillips, called him over and introduced him to his lunch mate, Wes Wyatt, who was scouting for a chef for a restaurant he was opening on south Broad Street.
These were the days before Capitol Grille and the Ritz. South Broad St. was just being turned into Avenue of the Arts, and it was not an easy transition.
Tony Clark’s opened in April of ’96 to rave reviews. The food was packing them in and the bar was the hottest singles spot in town — even though to some naysayers it was “on the wrong side of the street,” the east side of Broad instead of the west.
A year after opening, Clark was named 1997 Food and Wine magazine Best New Chef in America.
The food was fab, the scene was happening, but the back of the house wasn’t keeping up and the restaurant only lasted two years.
Clark then spent 10 years as the private chef of socialites and benefactors Norman and Suzanne Cohn.
“That was an incredible experience,” Clark says as he sits for 15 minutes while all around him Viviano is getting busy and his coterie of dedicated staffers whiz by with food and drink for the early arrivals.
Sunday and Mondays are the best nights for business at Pacific Prime and Viviano — 600-650 covers — and Thursdays and Fridays are the next busiest.
Clark is far too modest to compare his abilities in a kitchen to someone like Lacroix, who hired him at the Four Seasons.
However, they are similar in that they inspire incredible loyalty from their staffs.
Servers, sous chefs and bus boys all came by in the midst of their duties to ask how I was doing:
Selena Porter, an alum of Philly’s Restaurant School, cut her hospitality teeth at the Turf Club, and toils in Viviano’s kitchen.
Jack Sablian, who has worked at the Four Seasons in Philly and also in Boston, is Viviano’s chef de cuisine.
Laurent Leveque is GM of both Viviano and Pacific Prime. He worked for France’s minister of economy, came to America in 1993 and was Georges Perrier’s manager at Brasserie Perrier and Le Mas Perrier in Wayne.
Florian Tigo was a very attendant server who brought out a tasting menu that included:
A crisp bibb salad with a hint of lemon, two huge crab cakes — very tasty; superb shrimp scampi; enough fried calamari to feed an army of gamblers; dayboat scallops to die for; pork osso buco; and a caramel budinho that was the perfect topper.
Clark is a first-rate chef who has virtually no conceit, unlike others who preen and are always singing their own praises.
A health issue a few years ago has helped to focus the 53-year-old Clark, who is divorced and has two sons, one of whom works for Marty Hammond, another Four Seasons alum, at the Union League’s 1862.
The blue collar kid from south Jersey has come full circle, living in the formerly blue-collar Francisville neighborhood that is now becoming hot, perhaps because of its proximity to the Barnes and the Art Museum.
Viviano and Pacific Prime were filling up by the time I left at 6:30, and the looks on the diners’ faces told the story:
These two are diamonds in the rough and among the best restaurants on the Main Line.