Vetri, Ferman talk of foundations, family

Montgomery County District Attorney Risa Vetri Ferman with parents Barbara and Sal Vetri. Ferman is the eldest of a high-powered brood.
Montgomery County District Attorney Risa Vetri Ferman with parents Barbara and Sal Vetri. Ferman is the eldest of a high-powered brood. (JESSICA PARKS / Staff)
Posted: April 27, 2013

 Their paths don't cross professionally. He's in the kitchen, she's in a courtroom.

But on Thursday, Montgomery County District Attorney Risa Vetri Ferman and her brother, the acclaimed chef Marc Vetri, shared a stage for the first time.

Their topic was neither cuisine nor crime, or sibling rivalry - but charity.

Vetri, the James Beard Award-winning chef behind Vetri, Osteria, Amis, and Alla Spina, cofounded the Vetri Foundation in 2008 to promote healthy foods and active lifestyles.

Ferman founded Mission Kids and the Montgomery County Child Advocacy Project to support abused children.

Before beginning their keynote address at Philadelphia Business Journal's corporate philanthropy summit at the Sheraton Downtown, Vetri and Ferman gathered at the head table with their parents.

"Hey, Pop," Ferman said as her father approached in khakis and a blazer. "You look very dapper."

Vetri asked about the family photos selected for the introduction. She assured him he would find "none of the ones where you have tape on your glasses."

After the event, the two swapped family stories, their banter suggesting that they belonged to a mutual admiration society. "Risa is an amazing leader," her brother said. "She was always an amazing mother, and I think those two things go hand in hand."

Said Ferman of her brother, "It's nice that he runs a good business, but those things are secondary to the kind of man that he is."

On stage, the duo came off as poised and comfortable. They said they were grateful to have grown up in a family that "demonstrated by doing."

Their parents "were caretakers for so many people, and they instilled us with a sense of responsibility for the people around us," Ferman said.

Barbara and Sal Vetri watched from the audience, proud but clearly not surprised at their children's accomplishments.

With polished style and speaking skills, Ferman appears to take after her mother. Marc Vetri, who has had a stutter since childhood, came across as quieter and more casual, sans tie and jacket, with a trim beard.

Barbara Vetri has spent decades practicing real estate and family law. Sal Vetri sold his jewelry chain in 1994, trading in his suit for a chef's hat.

"I'm on the menu at Amis, 'Sal's Sunday Dinner,' " he said proudly.

The Vetris raised a high-powered brood. In addition to Marc and Risa, their younger son, Adam, is a producer for reality shows such as The Biggest Loser.

"There's no secret, really, we just taught by example," Barbara Vetri said. "We were very active, very committed [to our work], but also very involved with our children's lives."

Marc Vetri and Ferman said their charitable ambitions started out small.

"When I opened up a restaurant, the last thing on my mind was having a foundation," he said. "I just wanted to make a living."

In 2005, he joined Alex's Lemonade Stand to raise money for children's cancer research. His foundation raised about $1,000. Last year, with help from 25 "rock star" chefs from Los Angeles, New York, Italy, and elsewhere, it raised $1 million.

The Vetri Foundation, he said, "evolved out of the lemonade stand." It was 2007 and obesity was becoming a topic of national discussion. He started looking into school lunches, and "it was just really awful - $2.76 for school reimbursement, and then 90 cents of that is actually for food."

The foundation is working with six Philadelphia schools to develop healthful menus and adding four in the fall.

Ferman's charity, Mission Kids, has had some high-profile success in recent years, including a $25,000 donation from L'Oreal Paris after Ferman was named its 2012 Woman of Worth.

But it took several years of "beating my head against a wall," she said.

As a prosecutor, she said, she saw children being placed in sterile rooms to tell their story repeatedly to police, attorneys, and social workers before they could begin to receive treatment.

"I wanted to change the system and fix what was broken," she said. "I had to run for office."

"I'm not running for office," her brother said.

"You could. Governor, maybe?" she answered.

In the early stages, both said, persistence was the key to fund-raising.

"No one wanted to talk about child abuse. I can ruin the mood in a room easily, and I try not to do that," Ferman said. "And people would talk about obesity, but no one wanted to do anything about it. And now you're doing it," she said, smiling like a proud big sister.

"We still have a really long way to go," Vetri said. "They still don't want to hear the logical answers. The logical answer is: Work out and eat right. It's not a miracle, you know, but nobody wants to hear that."

All in the family

After delivering the keynote address at a corporate philanthropy summit, chef Marc Vetri and his sister, Montgomery County District Attorney Risa Vetri Ferman shared some family stories with with the Inquirer.

Key take-aways: They like to laugh, and Marc is in charge of Thanksgiving.

Here's the full Q&A:

This was your first time speaking together in public. Do you plan to do it again?

Ferman: "That's entirely up to Marc. It was great to be up there with him. You can probably tell, I'm a very proud big sister."

Vetri: "I think everyone's making such a 'Oh my God, this is the first time!' No one's really asked us before."

F: "That's not exactly true. We've had some weird asks."

V: "Yeah. But the only reason it hasn't happened is that - you know, I was opening a restaurant, you were-"

F: "Doing that D.A. stuff."

V: "Yeah, it was just the timing worked."

F: "I feel like we should have Skyped Adam in, that would have been a lot of fun."  

Your foundations are fairly well-established now, so what's next?

V: "I don't think that ours is large yet. We're only in six schools right now. We plan to take on another, I think, four at the beginning of the school year.

"We've been working the last three years to set ourselves up to go where we want to go. I think we're in our infancy."

F: "We're talking about things that people really don't want to address. With child abuse, I feel like I've been banging my head against the wall to get people to talk about it.

"I hear people talk about health all the time, but no one's talking about healthy eating and healthy lifestyles like has.

"Even though they're known in the region, I feel like both of our organizations are still in the early stages.

"My focus right now with Mission Kids is sustainability. It's important to me that the organization run independently and have great strength and depth without me. That will be the success of it, when they don't need me as the cheerleader. When people in the community are willing to stand up and support child abuse victims just because it's the right thing to do."

Giving back obviously runs in your family. How are you passing that along to your kids?

V: "My mom and dad never said to us, 'Hey you have to give back to the community.' They just . . ."

F: "Did it."

V: "When I opened up a restaurant, the last thing on my mind was having a foundation. You know, I had a 30-seat restaurant, I just wanted to make a living. I think if you're just raised in a certain way, with good values, then I think stuff just happens."

F: "It's not what you say, it's what you do. That's what I took from my parents. ... I have a daughter in college now, and it's thrilling for me to see the way she has chosen to engage herself in everything from school activities to a sorority to mentoring a kid in the community.

"My mom's approach to life is, 'That was fun, what's next?' And she's still looking at life and saying 'What's next?' I learned a lot from Dad, but that approach to life - what are we going to do next, what are we going to accomplish next, what are we going to tackle next - that's how I live, and that's how Marc lives and that's what I'm starting to see my kids are doing.

V: "My kids are still, like, young. 6, 4 and 3."

Wow. Do you ever sleep?

V: "Rarely. Sometimes. On Thursdays, I think."

F: "I made it through that already."

What do you view as each others' greatest strengths?

V: "Risa is an amazing leader. She was always an amazing mother, and I think those two things go hand in hand. But, you know, I could list you like nine or 10 different things."

F: "A www!";

V: "Marc's a mensch. He's a man of integrity and a man of character. That's what's most important about him, the way he lives his life. He's a great father, great husband, great son, brother.

"It's great that he can cook good, because it means that we eat well at meals. It's nice that he runs a good business, but those things are secondary to the kind of man that he is."

Who's in charge of Thanksgiving dinner?

V: "So here's how it works. I got married, and my wife's mother and father live 5 minutes apart, 3 hours away. So we started heading to Thanksgiving at one house, then the other house.

So, Megan was pregnant with our third. We did the three-hour ride to the mother's, and did the huge Thanksgiving. And then we go over to the father's. On the way home I said to her, 'I hope you liked that because we're never, ever doing that again. From now on, anyone who wants to see us on holidays can come to our house.'

"Thanksgiving is mine and the Seven Fishes is mine."

F: "Christmas Eve. Cause that's our parents' anniversary, too. And I'll do the summer stuff, the warm weather stuff."

V: "I don't care who invites us on Thanksgiving, we are staying. Cause you know, I also have memories when I was a kid of always being at this house for this holiday, and it's just awesome memories. So I want my children to be like, 'Oh, remember Thanksgiving, it was always at our house, and everyone was over, and it was great.' "

F: "So he eliminated for himself the dual Thanksgivings, but now I have dual Thanksgivings. My mother-in-law is an amazing cook.

V: "She comes sometimes."

F: "She does. But if she wants to do it at her house, we're doing the dance."

V: "But it's only 20 minutes. And your kids are older. I had a 3-year-old and a 1-year-old and a pregnant wife, screaming three hours in the car."

F: "Oh, stop whining, we all did it."

V: "I know."

Contact Jessica Parks at 610-313-8117, or follow on Twitter @JS-Parks.

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