Limitations Of Winter Freeze Inspire Maine Chef
Each year half of the fresh fruit in the United States – and a quarter of the fresh vegetables – are imported from another country. One of the motivations for the local food movement in the U.S. grew out of protest to the many thousands of miles food must travel before it gets to the table. But in the dead of winter, in places where you can’t possibly grow a tomato outdoors, importing food is inevitable — unless you’re the executive chef at Vinland. Here & Now’s Peter O’Dowd has this report on the hyper-local restaurant in downtown Portland, Maine.
Winter in Maine can be a bleak time of year. The sun sets early, forcing an already cold day into colder darkness. Farmers Markets transition from vibrant, colorful outdoor meeting spots to empty city squares.
One hardly imagines a healthy, green cucumber being pulled from a snow bank, so locavores turn to the supermarkets. Importing food is inevitable — unless you’re the executive chef at Vinland, a hyper-local restaurant in downtown Portland, Maine.
“It’s like I’m writing a sonnet. I only have so many syllables in this line; I have to come up with something other than my first inclination.” ~ David Levi
David Levi is the brain behind Vinland. His food is 100 percent locally produced. Every leaf, every grain, every fish — is from Maine or pretty darn close. Going hyper local in Southern California is one thing. Doing it here, where the growing season is 156 days long, seems like a risky business plan.
“It forces us to be creative,” says Levi. “It’s like I’m writing a sonnet. I only have so many syllables in this line; I have to come up with something other than my first inclination.”
Levi’s faithfulness to the mission means he doesn’t even use kitchen staples like olive oil. Citrus, too, is off the menu. And don’t bother asking the waiter for the pepper.
“Black pepper grows in Southern India and Indonesia,” says Levi. “It was so rare in Europe in the Middle Ages that when the emperor Charlemagne would hold a banquet he would have a mound of black peppercorns on the table as a show of his extraordinary wealth and power. it was not something ordinary people in the west had had any access to whatsoever until the last couple hundred years, and even then it’s not something most Americans have ever really had a good version of. We kind of habitually, ritually use this pale imitation of pepper because we just kind of think we’re supposed to. So we wouldn’t design a dish that would suffer for not having really good black pepper or that would suffer for not having olive oil. If we were to do that we would be betraying the spirit of our craft.”
Instead, Levi cooks with ingredients that fit his craft. In the clutch of winter, he uses root vegetables; pumpkin soup, turnips, and pickled beets are a few seasonal staples, often paired with micro greens and beet chips.
When you’re working within these constraints flavor is key, even in a seemingly simple beet dish. Chef de partie Chris Newton says, “It’s the herbs that come through. I like those herbs to shine with overtones of flavors that you don’t find with other pickled beets…coriander, fennel and dill.”
Meat and cheese are also available in the area through the winter. And who does lobster better than Maine anytime of year? Even a little bit of green might find its way to a Vinland plate in January.
“If you plant your spinach your kale, your mosh, certain hearty greens in mid to late fall, and you grow them to a certain harvest ready point,” says Levi.
“I want to work with wines that taste like where they come from.” ~ Ned Swain
Most people don’t have the time or means to garden with a greenhouse in the winter, so even Levi has made a few exceptions to his local only rule, one is wine.
Ned Swain sells his wine to Vinland. It comes from France, New Zealand and Italy, where he says farmers do right by the land. The grapes are organic. Like David Levi, Swain is all about place.
“I want to work with wines that taste like where they come from,” he says. “If it was a step granite hillside, the wine will probably have more cut to it. Its going to have more of a bright mineral edge, a real vibrancy.”
So why wine, but not pepper? Levi says it’s just too cold in Portland to yield good wine and in the restaurant business, wine makes money.
“We have to turn a profit or we would be gone very, very quickly. If we did have great quality local wine, we would happily serve it. I hope against hope we might get there.”
Levi says Vinland has turned a small profit in its first year of business. The food world is taking note of his restricted winter technique. This month he was invited to serve dinner at the prestigious James Beard House in New York City. A classic root veggie mix of turnip soup with carrot, beet powder and herbs starred in the show.
- Boston Magazine: Taking the farm-to-table ethos to an extreme
- Peter O’Dowd, assistant managing editor at Here & Now. He tweets @odowdpeter.
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