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Paul Virant on the Necessity of Preservation

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Photos: Ten Speed

Chicago area chef Paul Virant has been running a canning operation out of his restaurant Vie since it opened in 2004 and expanded the program to his second restaurant, Perennial Virant, in May of 2011. His new bookPreservation Kitchen, co-written by food writer Kate Leahy — has potential to be a serious classic, both for cold climate cooks and, as he explains below, all those local/season devotees out in California. Below, Virant explains how his operation works, why he hopes his book can be a resource for other chefs, and why he's so into pickles. Preservation Kitchen is out April 3 from Ten Speed (preorder on Amazon).

What was the writing process like? How do you find the time to write a cookbook while running two restaurants?
Well the timing was there because the second restaurant wasn't opened yet. A lot of the recipe testing was done during the growing seasons of 2010 and 11. The timing was right for me because my sous chef had really stepped up. I was still extremely involved, but you know what I mean, you get to a point where your crew is stable enough where I could pursue another project. And really, the chain of events was — which this took a lot of time — was first, what are our goals? What's the format? How are we going to do this? We have pickles and things like that, but how do we turn this into something we can market?

So we started with the concept of the book first, and then we started writing recipes, and the story behind all the recipes. And I'm referring here more to the canned items. And then the next step was incorporating these into dishes. In the book, the recipes, the menus are almost like a year in my life or a year at Vie. It captures seasons of events that we do at the restaurant. Some of them are things I do with my family at home. So it was a natural process. I mean, it wasn't easy, but everything fit well with all the preserves. There are about 70 different preserved items. Did anything in the book really strike you as something you want to make or eat?

I was really excited by the idea of the Thanksgiving dinner that used all kinds of preserved ingredients.
That's cool. I've been doing Thanksgiving dinner for about nine or ten years. I guess I could've been doing it for longer, but at some point the torch was just passed on to me. Now I'm trying to figure out how many more years I have to do it and when can I pass the torch. [laughs] But Kate and I made that dinner. That was an actual Thanksgiving, as far as testing it. I mean you might as well, this is a ton of work and a ton of food, let's just do it around Thanksgiving.

Are there any recipes you're particularly excited about?
As far as the menus, we're doing book events and we're doing a five course menu at each restaurant, and they're different. Obviously the menus are coming up soon so it's a bunch of the Spring stuff. So there's trout with ramps and morels. It's hard to say, I'm excited about a lot of the things, and I've gotten a lot of feedback. Tony [Porreca], he was doing all the testing, he was digging the fried chicken with the pickled cherry bomb peppers. Chicken sausage gravy. There's nothing about the recipes that are that complicated. Obviously, most of them require that you have this canned item that you've done. But I've got a feeling, you know, there are great canned products on the market. There's a ton of great, great stuff out there. So you can buy pickled green beans or something and use those in the Summer bean salad with the fennel.

I think the hope is to encourage people who aren't into it to get into it, and then to encourage them to maybe make pickles or make canned tomatoes. We hope that it's going to be a popular book with the home cook, but also a standby for professionals. It has a ton of detailed instructions and precision as far as how to do these things.

Tell me about the decision to focus on preservation.
Well, preserving has been a huge part of the restaurant since we opened in 2004, and continues to be a huge part of the cuisine there. I also own a newish restaurant in the city of Chicago, Perennial Virant, which opened May of 2011. So [the preservation concept] hold true at both restaurants. Preservation even makes its way into our decor, with jars of preserved items on displayed on shelves in the dining room, light fixtures are made from antique mason jars, and so on.

The premise behind the book was to represent my philosophy and the philosophy of [co-author] Kate [Leahy]. We've been working on the book probably before we even opened [Perennial Virant]. So it's a little selection of what we do at the restaurant. The idea of trying to support a lot of regional, Midwestern farmers and artisans. Cheesemakers. We wanted to capture what they're growing when it's fresh, when it's at its peak. So what are ways to capture it so you can have it in the off-season?

It's a traditional form of kitchen work or cooking, but it also adds a whole other dimension. The idea of including something acidic or sharp balanced with something richer, a protein. It allows us to buy more from farmers during the growing season than we would, and then we have a chance to embrace it again with other ingredients. Combinations that make sense but are kind of unexpected. You don't expect to see preserved peppers with pork shoulder in the wintertime.

So how does your preservation operation work at the restaurants?
Both of the restaurants do their preserving in-house. It's extensive during the growing season, starting with — actually, a few days from now with ramps when they come into season. We're actually getting our first ramps this year on Thursday. So it starts with ramps and then it covers an array of fruits and vegetables that we preserve during that growing opportunity.

We used to do it kind of piecemeal. We'd do a dozen jars or so a day. Or more. Or less. But now we try to organize it more, where it's like okay, we're doing ramps today. We've got about a hundred pounds of ramps, it'll make a hundred quart jars. We're doing them in larger batches. It takes more time but ultimately I think it's more efficient. And you have more control over the quality and also the PH equilibrium in order to safely boil it in a water bath.

We went through a process where we had to register with the FDA. The whole process for the restaurants to be able to do these things in house and serve them to our customers. So they check to make sure that we're doing things the right way and that the PH is where it needs to be. So streamlining the production was necessary to achieve that.

So, how much time is this? At the height of the growing season, the crew is doing a lot of the prep work, and then it's two individuals probably about ten hours a week. So twenty hours per week of labor. It's a lot of additional labor, it's a lot of additional up front cost. But you're also buying things when they're at their peak. So the prices tend to be lower or more reasonable, and if you're buying enough of a quantity you can negotiate price. You know, if you're going to pickle between two restaurants a thousand pounds of asparagus, it's normally at $2.50, you might be able to get it for a buck fifty.

And the exciting thing about it — and here I have to give credit to Kate, we were friends, I had gotten to know her, she had actually done some staging at the restaurant years ago. It was kind of her idea. This is cool, this is something you do that's different than what other people do, this could make a great book. What do you think? Even if I had ever thought of that, it's daunting. How to do it, how to tackle it, to have somebody like her that has the ability to map out the strategy. Kate rocks.

Do you think the legality issues of preserving food scares other restaurants off?
I think that is a part of it. I think it's a combination of things: knowledge, they don't really know how to do it, they're not really sure about it. According to the government you're not supposed to be doing it unless you go through all these particular steps.

The nice thing about the book is, here's all these recipes for how you actually can use them. All of these too you can quick pickle, you know, refrigerator-style. We do a ton of that at the restaurant. It's easier, it's quicker if you're going to be going through 16 quarts of pickled fennel over the next few weeks, when it's in season. So why can it? Just get it to a quick pickle, it's there, it's in the walk-in cooler, you're using it.

Have you seen more chefs start to use preservation as a technique in the Chicago area since you've opened?
I think so. I think if you're interested in supporting the local food movement, however you define that, this is one of the avenues you have to take.

Especially in the Midwest or colder areas.
Well, really, it's anywhere. If you're in an area where the growing season is longer, the growing season for say tomatoes isn't that much longer than the season is here. Depending on the year, you're getting a good solid month and a half to three months, depending on the year and where you are. So when people are thinking about California, they have very distinct seasons just like anywhere else in the world does. But in the Midwest, there's a long of history of agriculture and we continue to be very proud of it.

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