Devoted to the Art of Preservation
One of Chicago’s most celebrated chefs, Paul Virant has been pickling and preserving produce at his award-winning restaurant Vie since 2004, expanding the program to his second restaurant, Perennial Virant, when he took the reigns in 2011. In his new cookbook, The Preservation Kitchen, Paul shares his wisdom and recipes for putting up the season’s harvest, from jams and conserves to savory relishes and cured meats (ramp sauerkraut and beef bacon anyone?), plus creative ways to use the preserves (think steak with smoked spring onion relish, beer-jam manhattans and brandied cherry clafoutis). Paul talks about the preservation programs at his restaurants, how he fell in love with pickling and his top picks for fine dining in Chicago.
AndrewZimmern.com: The Preservation Kitchen topped many “best of” lists in 2012. What inspired you to write this book?
Paul Virant: Preservation is a huge part of my restaurants. From early on at Vie we cooked seasonally, utilizing as much fresh produce as possible and also “putting up” a ton to use all year. My friend and coauthor, Kate Leahy, approached me with the idea behind the book. She felt that what we were doing was pretty unique as far as how we incorporate these preserved items into dishes. The rest is history…
AZ.com: Tell us about the writing and recipe testing process.
PV: The book took close to two years to do. Kate and I would meet weekly and discuss recipes and their stories, and or, their inspiration. A good friend, Tony Porreca, did all the recipe testing. He had a strong interest in preserving and had done his culinary school internship at Vie, which led to this opportunity with the book. Check out his recipe on page 113 for the “pressed eggplant.”
AZ.com: What recipe are you most excited about?
PV: The book has a lot of recipes that I am excited about! One of my favorites is pickled fennel, which is simple and versatile. It was one of the first pickles on the menu at Vie in August of 2004.
AZ.com: How did you get into preserving foods in the first place?
PV: Food was always a main part of our family, growing up outside of St. Louis on a farm. I was exposed to canning, gardening and farmers markets. These life experiences and memories shaped the type of cook that I am today. I think canning began more as extracurricular activity, I enjoyed the anticipation of how the contents are transformed and finding out what they will become.
AZ.com: What types of produce do you preserve at your restaurants? How does that program work?
PV: We preserve almost every type of produce grown around the Midwest, beginning with ramps in the spring and ending with pumpkin in the fall. The restaurants went through a canning certification process. When we process fruits and vegetables in house we do large batches between 50-100 quart jars and detailed records are kept.
AZ.com: What drew you to Chicago initially? How has the city’s food scene changed over the years?
PV: I came to Chicago in 1996 to work for Charlie Trotter. I considered working in my hometown again, but the restaurant scene in Chicago had more opportunities at the time. It is tremendous what has happened to the Chicago restaurant scene. When I first moved here there were a half dozen restaurants to work at that would provide stellar training, now in 2013, there are dozens.
AZ.com: Favorite restaurants for fine dining in Chicago?
PV: Blackbird, Everest, Alinea and on my bucket list: Goosefoot, Grace and Sixteen!
AZ.com: What’s in your fridge?
PV: Always salted butter, different cheeses including Chihuahua (for my kids quesadillas), farm eggs, giardiniera, salami, real maple syrup, lemons, fruit, white wine and beer!
Check out Paul’s recipe for Pickled Fennel from his cookbook The Preservation Kitchen.
Paul Virant is the chef and owner of Vie in Western Springs, Ill. and Perennial Virant in Chicago. His philosophy of local, seasonal eating stems from his childhood spent on his family’s farm in Missouri. He credits his grandmothers, both avid canners, for instilling in him a reverence for local ingredients and serving as the inspiring force behind his becoming a chef.
After graduating with a degree in nutrition from West Virginia Wesleyan College, he enrolled at the prestigious Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Hyde Park, N.Y. Following culinary school, he joined March in New York where he further refined his skills under the tutelage of chefs Wayne Nish and Hilary Gregg. A move to Chicago two years later marked a turning point in his career as he worked at some of the nation’s most famed restaurants, including Charlie Trotter’s, Ambria, Everest and Blackbird.
In 2004, a desire to return to his roots led to his opening of Vie in a nearby suburb of Chicago. Utilizing his methods of canning and preserving, Virant serves up his contemporary American cuisine with a focus on the ingredients – their origin, production and quality. Since opening, the restaurant has garnered regional and national attention, including a three-star review by Phil Vettel of the Chicago Tribune and a spot on Gayot’s list of Top 40 Restaurants in the U.S. In the spring of 2012, Virant’s award-winning fare culminated into the release of his cookbook The Preservation Kitchen: The Craft of Making and Cooking with Pickles, Preserves, and Aigre-doux. It is the first canning manual and cookbook authored by a Michelin-starred chef and restaurant owner and creatively combines the technical aspects of canning with a chef’s expertise on flavor.
He has been featured in the Sun-Times, Time Out Chicago and was named the city’s Best New Chef by Chicago Magazine in 2005. In 2007, he was named among Food & Wine’s Best New Chefs and was a 2011 James Beard Foundation nominee for Best Chef: Great Lakes. He has also appeared on NBC’s Today Show and competed on Food Network’s Iron Chef America.