They already blew the horn to start the race.
When Tod Wentz arrived, it was technically too late to board his own boat. My interview with Wentz was a month in the making, cancelled multiple times by inclement weather — we’re talking monsoon-like rain for three Wednesdays in a row — that cancelled the sailboat races held each Wednesday at the Riverton Yacht Club, just across the river from Northeast Philadelphia.
Even on this day, an overcast sky and steady drizzle threatened to make this interview one that was just not meant to be. Couple that with Wentz showing up at the last minute, and it felt like this was set to be the proverbial nail in that coffin.
That’s when I realized I completely underestimated this guy.
Unable to jump aboard his own Mariner J22 sailboat, with a wave and a nod, we both hopped onto a dinghy and were allowed to hitch a ride aboard fellow sailor and family friend Craig Greenwood’s 1976 Pearson 30, a 30-foot sailboat called the “Songbird,” already loaded with a four-man crew all gunning to win, in this, the final race of the season at Riverton.
Even if you’re not familiar with Tod Wentz, it’s likely you’ve dined at one of his restaurants. Wentz, or just “Tod” to people that know him, is the mastermind behind the French-inspired Townsend (which is his actual given name), Al Mano, the Italian eatery in Fairmount and Oloroso, the swanky Spanish-tapas and sherry spot in the heart of the Gayborhood. On this day, he was late from busting up floor tiles at the Irish Pub right next to Oloroso at 1123 Walnut St., the future home of his American-fare and seafood spot, The Pearl Tavern.
For this interview, I’d planned to not discuss Wentz’ food or his inspiration behind it. It’s fine dining and casual fare, it’s obviously good or his success as a chef and quiet growth as one of Philadelphia’s preeminent restaurateurs wouldn’t be happening as rapidly as it has been over the last few years.
He was cool with that. On this day, we talked the other passion he’s had since he was a nine-year-old boy working on his first boat with his father a stone's throw from the yacht club he grew up next to, in the only town he’s ever lived in. For Wentz, Riverton is it and being on the water is his time.
And my constant inquiries were infringing on that.
Going after it all
It took about 3-4 questions before I realized that Tod Wentz and the crew of the Songbird wanted me to shut the fuck up.
We were in racing mode and the pitch of the boat from side to side and the stoic look on Greenwood’s face along with the crew of Bob Moorer, John Farr and Mike Warrington were indicators that we were racing.
“Get ready to move, guys!” Greenwood said as we came up on the first turn of the course, the scenic background of city and the Betsy Ross Bridge coming up closer and peering through heavy grey clouds. Stupidly, I asked, “Do you need me to move as well?”
“Umm, yeah, that’d be nice,” Greenwood said.
For Wentz, even though he was along for the ride as well, the focus was on. He sat perched on the starboard side of the boat for much of the race, helping with riggings when needed. With a beer in tow, he mostly sat quietly, staring out at the misty Delaware with a feeling of straight calm on his face.
Without saying anything, it was obvious that despite all the success from running lauded restaurants, the water was the place where the stress of it all goes away. His phone off, his keys and wad of cash sitting below deck, Wentz was free of it all for the duration of that race and as long as that boat remained in the water.
Despite the extra weight, dead air and a low tide that didn’t help matters much, Greenwood and the crew of the Songbird held its own and finished third in the race. The finish allowed for a second place finish overall in a racing season that spans from Memorial Day to Labor Day.
“Fucking awesome, right?” said Wentz, staring at me with a smile. “This is it, man. I’m sorry you got to see it on [such a] crap day. This place right around sunset makes for one hell of a picture.”
But the clouds did eventually lift, and so did the mood of the crew immediately after the race, as serious faces turned into smiles and copious cans of Coors Light and Budweiser were distributed to everyone aboard.
“This allows me to relax,” said Wentz, referring to sailing and not the cold can of Coors in his hand. “It’s a cross between being relaxed and being focused but on something different. When you’re in kitchens, you’re focused on so many things at one time, and even though the finished product is rewarding, it’s overwhelming. Here, I get to focus on one thing and in a way, I get to unwind. It’s still intense for sure, just with less distractions.”
‘This is where I’d rather be’
The success of Wentz’s establishments came at a rapid pace to a man who grew up in a sleepy, campy town like Riverton, New Jersey. Situated next to the larger town of Palmyra, Riverton is the utopia you wish you grew up in. Large victorians and tree-lined streets lead to the edge of the Delaware overlooking the more industrial side of Northeast Philadelphia. The smell of meat emanates, courtesy of the massive Dietz and Watson plant on the water’s edge.
From the Philly side, one would see a backdrop that Norman Rockwell could’ve painted: a beach front illuminated by the lights of sailboats in the water juxtaposed with large houses along the edge. One of those houses is Wentz’s childhood home. Another is his current home, a stone’s throw from the yacht club in which he learned to sail.
“I started sailing at nine-years-old,” Wentz said. “My first boat was an old Penguin that I fixed up with my dad and we sailed. This is what I know, and I feel fortunate all these years later to have it to get away from the city. I mean the city is 20 minutes away, but when you’re here, it feels so much farther. It’s hard to be uptight living in a place like this, even if there are things that force you to be sometimes.”
By year’s end, Wentz will have four establishments in Philadelphia — the four aforementioned and his overtaking of the lease at TALK, the Rittenhouse eatery that lasted just five months before shuttering its doors. His daily routine is a constant push-pull of emails and calls from staff and vendors. In fact, he revealed that despite being a part of the racing season at Riverton, this appearance was one of a handful as his energy needs to be laser-focused on The Pearl Tavern.
“First off, I mean, there's really no break,” Wentz said. “You’re on nearly 24 hours a day. I’m serious, 24 hours a day. Even though my phone is away, it’s on, you know? Listen, I feel very fortunate in what we’ve been able to accomplish in a short time and the success we’ve had, but for me, in addition to the food now, it’s all about creating a customer experience. That’s probably the most stressful part to be honest, that it’s not just about the food anymore. It's about giving an experience that’s so important.”
And the realization that there’s not much he can do about any of it on the water?
“Yeah, that took a while to realize, but at the same time, I come here to shed a lot of that stress,” he continued. “It’s why I haven’t been here as much as I’d like to be, but when I’m here, I’m in the middle of the river. Not a whole lot I can do about it if it can’t be done over the phone.”
Once again, the conversation tilted towards the stress of Wentz’s other side.
Greenwood then arrived with perfect timing and said, “Guys, you good? Get another beer. Let’s enjoy this.”
The boat continued to sail down the Delaware towards the city, and I realized “this” was the sunset Wentz told me about. It suddenly appeared as evening began to turn to night and the Songbird continued to sail down the Delaware, with classic rock tunes and soul music serving as the soundtrack. It was as awesome as he described, and in that brief moment, even I was able to forget about just how disgusting the mighty Delaware appears and that the edge of Northeast Philly was on the other side, providing a stark contrast to the Jersey side.
It felt good to be out on the water. Like, really good.
One can only imagine how it felt for an overworked, stressed out, rapidly emerging chef-restaurateur who has Philly’s palette at his fingertips across multiple cuisine inspirations.
“The Delaware is as much a part of me as I am of it,” Wentz said. “I grew up on it, and when you’re out here, it doesn’t feel like the city, it doesn’t feel dirty. It’s literally a happy place for me and where I’d always rather be.”