Introduced by his friend Mario Batali as a "hero to young people who stutter", chef Marc Vetri took the stage. He was being honored by the Stuttering Association for the Young and he received his award almost sheepishly, as he smiled out to the packed auditorium. "With the stage lights on me I couldn't see a single person in the audience. I hadn't written a speech, but I knew I wanted to thank my parents, my wife and my speech therapist. I knew the story I wanted to tell." After a couple seconds, he began his speech.
It was an eloquent and humble acceptance speech, one that earned him a standing ovation. More surprisingly perhaps, it was a speech given with the kind of voice we don't often hear. A voice peppered with blocks of silence and repeated vowels. It was the voice of someone who stutters.
We know that Joe Biden and Jack Welch and Emily Blunt are 'stutterers'. Many of us can rattle off a couple more names of famous people who stutter, or grew up stuttering. And yet, we rarely, if ever, hear the sound of their stuttered voices. They are held up as examples for young people, examples of what can be achieved if you grow out of your stutter, or learn to tame it. Examples of what is possible if you become largely fluent.
Marc Vetri is a different kind of hero. He is a man who has become a leader in his profession whilst stuttering.
"I was first drawn to the kitchen because I thought it was a place you didn't have to talk." He laughs at the memory as he tells me that these days he never stops talking. As well as a nightly prep talk to the 30 man team at his restaurant Vetri, he does radio interviews, appears on TV shows and gives speeches at industry events. "I know that people will listen to me, that they are interested in what I have to say. I don't think about my speech too much these days."
Still, he admits that it took a while to achieve that kind of acceptance. "There was a time when I was obsessed with my speech." On the first food order he called in when he was working at Granita back in the early 90s, he remembers calling the vegetable guy back 10 times to complete the order because the answering machine kept cutting him off. The first time he had to work the expo station in the kitchen he sweated bullets calling out the orders.
And yet, he stuck it out. He kept speaking, kept working, kept desensitizing himself to the situations that scared him. As much as his stutter was a challenge, it also became a driving force in his career. "I believed that I had to work harder to compensate for my speech. I worked as if the guy next to me was working 24 hours to steal my job."
Walking around Marc's hometown of Philadelphia, it is clear that all that determination has paid off. Having first opened the critically acclaimed Vetri in 1998, Marc has since won a James Beard award for his cooking and he has opened 5 more restaurants around the city. Signed copies of his three cookbooks line the shelves of local bookstores and the culinary scene in the city gets 'hotter' every time one of his protégés opens a new restaurant.
If his stutter has shaped some of that outsize ambition, it is also the keeper of his humility. "I know the guys in my kitchens do impressions of me. One day I asked one of them to do it for me. He was all uncomfortable, kept telling me he'd never make fun of me. Eventually I persuaded him to do it. You know, he was good, too good."
It is easy to assume that Marc can laugh at his stutter, because he knows how good he has it. He gets to do work he loves, expressing himself through food, and he has a young family that he seems to adore.
Many times we believe that we need to 'fix ourselves', that we need to iron out our imperfections before we can be what we want to be. Instead, Marc has reached the height of his profession while stuttering. He proves that you can refuse to let your challenges harness your dreams.