Chef Vinson Petrillo captures Charleston’s charm at Zero Restaurant
Words by Nicole Letts
Photos by Jonathan Boneck, Zero George, Hack Hargett
During my cooking class with Chef Vinson Petrillo at Charleston's Zero Restaurant + Bar, I notice that he is soft-spoken. For an award-winning chef who has worked with greats such as David Daniels and Kyle McClelland, has competed on Bravo’s reality TV series “Top Chef Masters,” and has helmed several restaurants, Chef Vinson is quite humble. His eyes remain tightly focused on the dish under his fingers: roasted pumpkin baked in a wrap of California seaweed. He’s delicately garnishing the gourd with Regiis Ova caviar. My tablemates and I are peppering him with questions as he works. “What’s one ingredient you can’t live without?” I ask. “Fish sauce,” he says quietly without skipping a beat. “I use it like salt. It adds a bit of umami but envelopes your taste buds like a hug.”
Chef Vinson has been the head chef at Zero for nine years. Here, he is given full creative freedom to take a playful approach to food. Whether he is presenting a frozen, bite-sized caprese salad or house-made vanilla bean ice cream dolloped with caviar, Chef Vinson is a master of his craft.
First things first. Tell me about how a guy from New Jersey with a robust career in New York ended up in Charleston, South Carolina.
I started cooking when I was 14. I wasn't really good at school, so I got kicked out, but I ended up in a cooking program. I knew I wanted to get into fine dining, so I went and established at No. 9 Park in Boston with Barbara Lynch. I fell in love with fine dining. I eventually pursued New York where I spent 11 years cooking in some of the best restaurants. At times, I was even working for free, just absorbing everything I could.
Later, I knew I wanted to have children, and I couldn't imagine raising children in New York City, especially on a chef's salary. I wanted a great place to go that has a great food scene where I could eventually afford to buy a house. And after visiting a couple of places, we decided on Charleston. When I was young, the best times of my life were when my parents would take me to the Outer Banks; we'd go every year on a family trip. I remember being a young kid running around the beach. There was nothing better. I wanted to try to provide that for my children, and that's why we chose Charleston.
Charleston is a city with an energetic pulse that breeds creativity. What is it about your surroundings in Charleston that keeps you creative?
A lot of it has to do with the weather. It's beautiful here. And usually, if you're going to get into a creative rut, it's almost always when raining, or it's dark. Here, it's always beautiful—even in January. And that leads to ingredients being available year-round as well. Plus, we essentially get to have two springs. Spring starts at the end of January. We start to get strawberries and other produce chefs don't normally get in winter months. That, in turn, leads to more creative dishes. It keeps things moving.
That brings me to my next question. You've been at Zero Restaurant for many years at this point, yet I feel like you keep reinventing yourself. How do you do that?
I have a couple of little rules. Number one, I don't ever believe in making the same dish twice. So, once it leaves the menu, we work really hard to do something new, not only for myself but for my staff. Because of that, we're always a new restaurant. We always do new things. We try to stay ahead of the curve or on trend, or we even try to create trends. I have notebooks upon notebooks. I have ideas, and I write them down. And no matter how silly they are, we find a way to execute them. And having a great team behind me really helps with that.
I’ve personally dined at your restaurants at least three times. Every time was a completely different dining experience.
I don't change menus like a lot of other restaurants that might change them quarterly. We change constantly. Something could be around just for a week because it's something special, and then it's time to move on. Sometimes that’s a difficult approach. Take August, for example. We essentially have fresh squash and corn. How do we make a menu out of squash and corn? We sit down, and we talk about how we are going to turn it into ice cream and serve it with a piece of raw fish.
Generally speaking, our produce always comes from South Carolina. When we get good produce, we try capturing moments by preserving those ingredients to be able to use later on. We are able to create an immense amount of flavor because we're preserving things from spring or from last summer when the produce was the best, which allows us to add depth.
When you say you're preserving, are you using traditional methods such as canning and pickling?
Mostly fermentation, but obviously pickling as well. Methods that will add a burst of flavor or something sour. For example, there are these perfect plums that we get just for one week out of the year. We put them into some salt and just let them do their thing. Later, we’ll use them in a winter dish.
One of your on-site concepts at Zero George is the caviar bar. Why was now the right time to introduce this level of luxury?
After the dust settled from COVID, people were looking for a way to have celebratory experiences. We thought the best way to provide a cool experience, a luxurious experience, would be obviously with caviar and champagne in an intimate setting. We only do eight people at the Caviar Bar every night. It's an eat-with-your-hands experience married with luxurious ingredients.
Let’s talk about Costa, your latest concept. Give me a brief overview of what it is.
Costa is going to be a coastal Italian restaurant with global flavors, particularly global flavors coming from Japan. When I think about Japanese foods, and I think about Italian food, I think about simplicity. It's all about the ingredients. My goal is to create these crave-able flavors by using cool techniques. I’m constantly wondering how we can make something a little bit more unique, even if it’s just a simple pasta dish. Those are the kind of things that we're going to be doing at Costa.
In what ways is this restaurant capturing your own more personal background of being raised in an Italian household?
Growing up, my dad worked a lot, but every Sunday we'd have our entire family, like 36 people, over to our house. The only way that I really got to spend time with him was if I was going to help cook. We'd get up in the morning, and we would start cooking together. I kind of want to bring that kind of communal happiness to people through their Costa experience. I think we are in an era of comfort food, and what is more comforting than Italian food?!
I have a two-part final question. When you're not at home, A—are you cooking, and B—what are you cooking?
Yes—I'm always cooking. I have two children, and my gift to them is Sunday because that is the day when I make everything. I'll get a lamb or something large-format, and then I'll make a soup, or I'll make an eggplant parmesan. I don't ask my family what they want; I just cook. I have a rule that you try everything twice, and if you honestly don't like it, then I get it. But you have to try it, and you can't just say it's yucky because of the way it looks.
My daughter's favorite food is caviar. Yesterday we were both at home sick, but I had to come to work and get my computer, so she came too. When we walked into the kitchen, she whispered in my ear, "Daddy, caviar?!" So, I opened up a container and gave a little scoop of caviar. It made her world.