Get to know...Chef Brad Spence at Amis Trattoria in Bedford Square
WESTPORT — Brad Spence is not Italian, but from an early age he’s had an affinity for the food.
Growing up in southern New Jersey, Spence was exposed early and often to the cuisine, a style of which he now makes professionally at Amis Trattoria, opened in Bedford Square last April.
The Roman trattoria is Spence’s latest project. Since 2006, he’s worked at the restaurants of Chef Marc Vetri.
In April, Amis opened in conjunction with Anthropologie at the Bedford Square Development downtown, marking the second location of the concept, which includes a menu of fresh and seasonally-driven small plates, handcrafted pastas, local seafood and antipasti. Urban Outfitters owns Anthropologie and the Vetri group.
In 2010, Vetri made Spence executive chef and partner at Amis’ Philadelphia location. In 2013 and 2014, Spence was a finalist for the prestigious James Beard Foundation’s “Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic” award.
Spence’s has been a life spent in the kitchen, starting as a teenage dishwasher in the South Jersey restaurants of his youth and now at the helm of Amis, whose casual rustic vibe and Roman-style eating Spence borrows from the trattorias and cafes around Italy where Spence has repeatedly returned to hone his craft.
Q: When did you start cooking?
A: I started cooking with my mom when I was very young. I used to make scrambled eggs with her. That was my first memory. At the age of five, I knew I wanted to be a chef. My mom passed away when I was eight and then my grandma taught me a bit.
I just worked my way through the system. Washing dishes, all the way through.
Q: You’re cooking primarily Italian food — do you come from an Italian family?
A: I’m American and my family is Irish Catholic.
But any kind of dinner I went to, any kind of deli or restaurant I went to, had an Italian-American vibe to it. I just always loved that style of food. Being from South Jersey, there was a lot of that around. I felt a connection with it from an early age.
Q: How did you get started in the industry?
A: I went to the (Culinary Institute of America) and then started working for Tom Colicchio at Craft in 2001. I worked my way up the ranks there, but I wanted to work for my idol, Mario Batali. He was king for me, he influenced everything I did. I went and trained with him at Caso Mono until my buddy, Andy Nusser, was opening a Spanish place. I thought I’d learn that style, too.
Q: How did you get involved with Marc Vetri and his restaurants?
A: I got engaged and was ready to go back to Philadelphia. Mario got in touch with Marc. I started working with Marc and worked my way up to sous-chef. I started getting in Marc’s ear about opening up a trattoria. I wanted to do Roman food with a little Italian-American influence. Finally we did it.
Q: How did you and Urban Outfitters decide on opening up in Westport?
A: They told us about Westport. I have a lot of friends who live here and around here. I’ve always liked the town. So I said, “Hell yeah, let’s do this.”
I want to be in a town where we can connect with the community. I want to get involved. It’s not just about coming up here to cook. The most important thing to me is people are having fun at work.
Q: Has the response in Westport been positive?
A: People are responding well, and we’re learning from them. I’m not one of these chefs that’s like, “This is what you’re eating and that’s it.” I want to know what people want to eat.
I think our new menu is going to fit in well with what people want. It takes time to learn how people grew up eating — you’ve got to learn what people want.
We’re going to do what we always try to do, which is simplify. I’m all about ingredients and letting simple things shine. If it’s messed up, you can’t hide it. I like the the stuff that looks like, “What’s the big deal?” But then you try it and it’s great.
Q: How would you describe the restaurant’s ambiance?
A: There’s definitely a rustic feel, but ultimately I want this place to be somewhere fun to go. I don’t want to be a place you just get a nice pasta and go home. I want it to be vibrant. I want people to laugh and drink and have fun with people they bring in here.
This food is not meant to be looked at a microscope while you’re dining. It should just be really good.