Zachary Kelberman, 21, a graduate of Wissahickon High School in Fort Washington, is the executive chef at Mr. Maurice's Italian, a restaurant that just opened June 11 in the Ace Hotel in Kyoto, …
by Len Lear
Ambler native Zachary Kelberman's parents, Ira and Esther (“ the most sincere, genuine, kind and supportive people imaginable,” Kelberman says), are both medical doctors, but if they give out prescriptions for fine Italian food, the prescriptions could be filled by Kelberman. However, you'd have to go to Kyoto, Japan, about 7,000 miles away from Chestnut Hill, to pick up the food.
That's because Kelberman was just named consulting chef* at Mr. Maurice's Italian, a 96-seat restaurant with a rooftop bar that seats 74 additional guests, which just opened June 11 in the Ace Hotel in Kyoto, Japan! That is not a typo; Kelberman just started cooking in the new restaurant, which is allowed to seat up to 50% of its seating capacity during the pandemic.
How on earth did this come about, anyone would almost certainly ask? As it turns out, the Ace Hotel chain in Japan approached Marc Vetri, 53, who operates Italian restaurants in Philadelphia and Las Vegas and has won just about every culinary award there is to win, and asked him to open a restaurant in Kyoto, once the capital of Japan. Kyoto has a population of about 1.5 million, very similar to Philadelphia's.
Kelberman, it just so happens, got off to a very early start in the restaurant business, working at Bocelli in Lower Gwynedd (There was also a Bocelli at 8630 Germantown Ave. in Chestnut Hill that closed at the end of 2010) when he was 14. “I fell in love with food and restaurants at a young age,” Zach told us last week, “always following restaurant scenes and reading about chefs and recipes from all over the world. I always knew that I wanted to cook and work in restaurants, but I thought it would be a good idea to get a business degree first as a safety net.”
So after graduating from Wissahickon High School in Fort Washington in 2017, Kelberman went off to a business school in Indiana, but he soon realized his heart was not in learning statistics in a classroom filled with 250 students. “I felt like I was wasting each day there,” he said, “when I could be working, hands-on, and gaining real-life experience. When I returned home, I had a good friend who knew someone who knew someone (I'm serious) who just so happened to be the chef de cuisine at Vetri.”
So Kelberman was hired by Vetri to work for a week with no pay (believe it or not, even with no pay, that was a coveted position) but shortly afterwards was hired as a prep cook. “I am beyond thankful for them taking me in when I was only 19. Everyone who worked there really cared about teaching me and making me the best I could be.”
According to Marc Vetri, Kelberman excelled at every station in his restaurant, so he felt comfortable sending him to run the kitchen at his new restaurant in Japan, even though Kelberman would be younger than almost everyone under his supervision and even though almost all of those staff members would speak no English.
How does Kelberman feel about the fact that he is so young, does not have a culinary school pedigree or years of experience, and yet he has a very, very responsible position in a high-end restaurant and in a foreign country, no less?
“People are definitely surprised about my age, but at the end of the day I just try to put my head down and work, because regardless of your age, to me, good work is good work.”
Since Kelberman never learned the Japanese language, how does he communicate with staff? “Coming here, I spoke no Japanese, but I learned how to count to 10 and say 'thank you' on the plane ride over. However, after being surrounded by the language over the last three months, I have picked up a lot.
“The kitchen being completely Japanese helps a lot because I am forced to try to speak and understand it. I use a lot of 'Google Translate' on my phone for certain things. Overall, the communication here is one of the hardest parts of the job, but the entire staff is great, so there is a mutual effort to understand each other.”
Because of the pandemic, everyone who works in the hotel must wear a mask, and hand sanitizing stations are ubiquitous. Customers have their temperature taken when they enter the restaurant.
“Opening week was very busy,” said Kelberman, “and we had to turn guests away because of the 50% capacity limit. Day by day the restaurant is starting to get into a rhythm ... Japan is beautiful, with so much to offer and see. I definitely want to spend more time here in the future.”
Len Lear can be reached at email@example.com
*An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Kelberman as executive chef. He is, in fact, a consulting chef and line cook who is assisting with training and daily operations at the restaurant according to Ace Hotels.