Painting of Anthony Bourdain by Brad Spence; Housemade pasta at Osteria. (Courtesy Brad Spend; Osteria)

Brad Spence is thinking about life “a lot differently” these days.

It’s been 14 years since he opened Amis Trattoria with partner Marc Vetri, four since that venue closed, and three since the stroke that forced his early retirement from the industry at the age of 42.

Today, Spence is two weeks away from a comeback of sorts, with a one-night event celebrating his time as the former Washington Square West restaurant’s chef while showcasing his new career as an artist.

The artwork goes on display July 26 at Osteria on North Broad, where guests will be served a selection of dishes from the Amis menu that Spence had conceived. For him, the event is a throwback as well as a reunion. Osteria owner and James Beard Award-winning chef Jeff Michaud is a longtime friend and fellow Vetri veteran, and he also has a long working relationship with general manager Martin Cugine.

“It’s like coming home,” Spence said.

But only, to be clear, for a visit. Asked if he missed being a professional chef, Spence had a quick, definitive reply: “Not. At. All.”

Despite a brief career, Spence managed to make a lasting name for himself in the Philadelphia restaurant scene. He, Michaud, and Vetri first met about 20 years ago, he told Billy Penn, recalling how “we all just clicked” over dinner. The two joined Vetri’s at-the-time growing empire, Michaud eventually becoming a partner in Osteria, and Spence becoming the Vetri group’s culinary director, opening Amis Trattoria in 2009, and overseeing its expansion to Connecticut, the Main Line, and the Navy Yard. He stayed with the group through its 2015 purchase by URBN, and left in 2019 just before the flagship venue’s closure was announced.

He was working on restoring a friend’s diner shortly afterwards when he had a stroke.   

While working as a chef had its definite joys — “My life was awesome,” Spence said, largely due to his luck in working with “really great people” — it was ultimately too consuming, he now realizes. He had put his head down, he said, focusing so intently on his career until he “woke up one day and I’m like, oh my God, it’s [been] 20 years.”

People around him, he said, had been living their lives while “I was too busy cooking.”

Today, Spence feels “very fortunate;” at having the time and ability to develop a previously hidden talent that provides him a living, and newly discovered sense of purpose. “It just heals you, man.”

Former chef Brad Spence paints a lot of food, but not exclusively. (Courtesy Brad Spence)

Breaking down goats — and then painting them

Like his culinary career, Spence’s path as an artist also started off with an instant “click.”

What began as a hobby, scribbling on the chalkboard at Amis to fill rare moments of free time — “That’s kind of good,” he recalled people telling him, to which he would answer, “Really?” — burst into a full-blown compulsion during a visit to the Brooklyn Museum and a first sighting of Basquiat’s 1982 skull painting “Untitled” that Spence said “stopped me in my tracks.” Five years later, it’s still fresh in his mind.

“I was thinking about it the other day,” he said. “You go to a museum, you see thousands and thousands of paintings. Why did one of them stand out so aggressively to me? It’s kind of odd.”

Since then, Spence has been applying a similarly frazzled style, from his first painting — a classic stovetop moka pot — to a growing oeuvre of images recalling the Jersey Shore of his childhood (albeit focused on Jaws-style shark attacks), boxing, which he’s a fan of, and cooking — specifically the animals he’s cooked, which by his estimation, is “all of them.”

It’s that unique relationship handling animals as a chef that serves as his drive to paint them, he explained, describing one of the current works he’s most excited to unveil at Osteria, a painting of a goat.

“I’ve broken down three goats a week for I don’t know how many months for I don’t know how many years. That gives me more of a reason to paint a goat than anybody, in my opinion,” Spence said. “If I can translate that connection to paint, that’d be cool.”

Former chef Brad Spence paints a lot of animals used in cooking. (Courtesy Brad Spence)

Working out of his Cherry Hill home studio, Spence brings the same energy and approach to his artwork as he did to the kitchens he led: “A constant grind; work, work, work.” It’s the only way he knows how to do things, he said, and the reason he’s able to look back on his culinary career with satisfaction, and his new life as an artist with clear excitement.

“I did everything I wanted to do,” he said of his time as a professional chef. “If I didn’t, it might be a different conversation.”

The Osteria display comes shortly after an exhibit of Spence’s work at Camden’s FireWorks. He’s previously had his work shown in the gallery space above Angelo’s on 9th street, the Italian Market pizzeria being the first place to hang one of his works on public display.

“I don’t know why, but I feel like I should be painting, and that’s just what it is,” Spence said. “I just want to paint the rest of the time I’m on this earth.”

What to expect

A four-course menu of “good, wholesome, simple dishes,” as Spence describes them, from Amis Trattoria. 

For Spence, a personal highlight is the bucatini, inspired by his friend Han Chiang (of Han Dynasty)’s cold sesame noodles, and served with a pureed almond pesto, jalapeno, and parmesan cheese. “It’s an awesome dish,” Spence promised.

Bucatini at Osteria (Instagram/@OsteriaPhilly)

Rigatoni with jersey tomato amatriciana is also available as the second pasta option. For secondi, chicken leg al mattone with shishito peppers and ricotta salata, or tagliata di tonno with fennel and citrus.

Antipasti selections include eggplant caponata bruschetta or scallop crudo with plum, mint, and pistachio, with olive oil tart and apple butter or Mom-Moms rice pudding for dessert.

The $85 menu also comes with a $55 optional wine pairing.

On the art side, expect 10-14 paintings of up-close sharks, at least one pineapple, and several animals served up by the artist in his past life in the kitchen. “There’s gonna be a judgment day. All the animals are gonna team up on me,” Spence joked. “Rightfully so. I deserve it.”

Osteria, 640 N. Broad Street | 5 p.m. Wednesday, July 26 | $85-$140 | RSVP

Ali Mohsen is Billy Penn's food and drink reporter.