Talking Local With Paul Virant

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December 3, 2008 at 9:16 pm

David Hammond

Paul Virant, chef/owner of Vie in Western Springs, has spent time in the kitchens of March in Manhattan, as well as Charlie Trotter’s, Ambria, Everest and Blackbird in Chicago. He is now one of our most visible proponents and practitioners of all eating “local,” so as we sat down to talk, I thought it would be helpful to get his take on that nebulous word.

When Chef Carlos Gaytan of Mexique mentioned he was serving “local cheese,” I asked him where it was coming from, and he said California. Sara Stegner of Prairie Grass Café told me she sources her “local fish” from Florida. Obviously, “local” is a term that’s open to definition. How do you define local?

VIRANT: In Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, Barbara Kingsolver talks about growing all her own food. You can’t get more local than that! For me, my goal is to support the markets in Illinois, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Iowa. I’m looking for Midwestern product, so I define “local” as food coming from the states that surround us.

But definitions vary. What’s interesting, for instance, is if you’re living in Italy say fifty miles off the Adriatic, you’re not going to be cooking fish. By European standards, fifty miles away is not local. But for those of us living in Chicago, fifty miles away, even two hundred and fifty miles away, is still considered, more or less, local.

Sourcing everything locally is usually not possible. At Vie, our customers have expectations, and they’re looking forward to having halibut and wild salmon, which are both from Alaska, but I have to tell you, during the growing season, about 85% to 90% of everything we serve is grown locally. In this area, I think we’re definitely hardcore local.

Are there any other restaurants in the area that you consider “hardcore local”?

VIRANT: Prairie Grass Café, Blackbird, North Pond, and at the top of the list, Lula. You might be surprised, but chefs at the Signature Room buy a lot of ingredients locally; they don’t necessarily advertise that, but they’re after the same things we are: quality product and a close, working relationship with the producer. Those relationships with farmers are important; we want them to know that we care a lot about getting our stuff locally. We want to be sure that when the first heirloom tomatoes come in, we’ll be first in line. The farmers know they have a loyal following, so they’re more loyal to us. When you develop friendships with these farmers, they make an extra effort to get you the kind of high-quality products you need. It’s a good relationship; we rely upon each other. We trust each other. I consider many of them friends.

During the E. coli scare last summer, I was reading an article in the Tribune that made the point that buying locally was no guarantee that you would avoid bacterial content in your vegetables. Do you think it’s less likely that locally grown vegetables will be infected with, for instance, E. coli?

VIRANT: For sure. It’s much less likely. On local farms, you usually have fewer staff and better working conditions than on conventional farms. There are tighter controls over hygiene. It’s an issue of scale: larger operations turn out a consistent product but in some ways they’re harder to control.

On the other hand, consistency can be challenging with some local farms. There’s sometimes significant product variation. What we try to do is have enough flexibility in our kitchen so that we can deal with unforeseen inconsistencies. For instance, we received a shipment of duck that was just too tough. Fortunately, we now have a circulating water-bath and a vacuum sealer in our kitchen so we’re able to work around some product that comes in a little different than we expected.

Another challenge with local farms has been a lack of consistent communication. It’s getting better, though. Farmers are now sending emails about crops they have coming in, so we can plan. And I have savvy buyers who keep an eye on the markets and if there is a communication breakdown, we can go somewhere else to source our cauliflower, or cucumbers, or whatever.

When you got into the business, was there any chef who was a model for what you’re doing at Vie?

VIRANT: Yes, Paul Kahan (Blackbird, Avec, The Publican). When I started working with Paul, I thought, Here’s a guy who really has the pulse of local products. He was an inspiration for me; he taught me that I could really do it, that I could use mostly local products and still run a restaurant.

How do you handle situations where you can get a local product (like, say, prosciutto from La Quercia), but you prefer the quality of a non-local product (like, say, prosciutto from Parma)? Do you go with the quality or do you go with the localness?

VIRANT: We’d go with the quality, definitely, but to use your example, the good thing about La Quercia is that I don’t think there’s an import that can stand up to it. The quality is unsurpassed, and I find that to be true of a lot of local products.

Do you ever go to the market and plan a menu around what’s available, rather than going with a shopping list for a predetermined menu?

VIRANT: During the growing season, I always go to the market for inspiration. A little while ago, we saw some beautiful red beets from City Farm, roasted them up, and decided we had to put them on the menu. We know what’s coming up, so we can do some planning, but going to the market definitely guides what we serve. During the summer we have maybe three or four different things on the menu every week.

Where do you want to see regional cuisine in 5 years? For instance, let’s say I go to Dominick’s in 2013. Will I see more locally grown items?

VIRANT: Boy, I sure hope so. I know that places like Fox & Obel are buying from farmer’s market vendors like Nichols, and that’s good for everybody. But this country has a long way to go.

Vie
4471 Lawn Ave
Western Springs, IL 60558
(708) 246-2082
www.vierestaurant.com

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2 Comments

  1. art says:

    I agree with Chef Virant that we have a long way to go as a country in regards to learning or re-learning the importance of local foods.

    It’s funny that mention Dominick’s in the article because during peak season there will most likely be locally grown produce mixed into their produce aisle but we don’t know it because it’s not advertised as being local. I think your question, “how do you define local” is a great step in getting both the seller and the consumer on the right track. Some people simply don’t know what local means when it comes to food. It’s interesting how we often have to work backwards, in a positive way, in life. We become a global society but then we want to rediscover what’s under our noses that we’ve overlooked for so long. We figure out ways to manipulate and process our food on an industrial level and now we want to know the farmer and prepare the ingredients in a simple and honest way.

    What’s good is that we have local representatives, like Virant, of our local ingredients, to help us begin to understand their importance.

  2. Rob Gardner says:

    “It’s funny that mention Dominick’s in the article because during peak season there will most likely be locally grown produce mixed into their produce aisle but we don’t know it because it’s not advertised as being local.”

    Call me crazy, but I’m pretty certain that if Dominick’s had anything local, they would have let you know. I’d say it’s not such a crazy idea either to say that grocery store executives have seen the value in marketing their products as local. I spent the whole summer (sorta) tracking the local foods available at Dominick’s and other area grocery stores. At the peak of the summer, even Dominick’s was carrying some stuff local.

    We could go on (and knowing me, I probably will, but in some other medium) about why there is not enough local food in the supermarkets. The biggest problem, by far, is that there are not enough (if any) Illinois farmers growing vegetables for the retail market. There’s also big problems with distribution. Finally, the few places that grow for retail, like Didier Farms in the N. Suburbs, focus on a small range of crops.

    Believe you-me both, there’s forces a-taskin’ and committees a-meetin’ to deal with these issues. The solution, however, seems rather clear to me. As much as Dominick’s and others see some cache in advertising their foods as local, the consumers are not really demanding it BE local. Until consumers demand, nay insist that Dominick’s carry local food, they will not. I’m not saying we boycott non-local food, but that may not be a bad idea…

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