“You cook like a grandma.” most chefs would view this statement as an affront, but to Paul Virant, an F&W Best New Chef 2007, it’s a compliment. The 38-year-old chef’s grandmother Rita, a fourth-generation Missourian, had an unmistakable influence on his cooking style, which combines her old-fashioned, everything-from-scratch hardiness with the global palate and modern techniques he learned to master at Chicago’s Blackbird, Everest and Ambria. That style is much in evidence at the meal Paul is preparing for his family’s annual Fourth of July celebration, held at his parents’ 60-acre horse farm near St. Louis.
At Vie, Paul’s Western Springs, Illinois, restaurant, the pantry resembles a 19th-century root cellar: Shelves are stocked with the hundreds of jars of pickles, krauts and other manner of preserves Paul puts up each year. “My grandmother had a big garden and pickled everything she could from it,” he says. “Back then, it was the only way to keep vegetables through the winter. I do it now because I love how the sweet, sour and acidic flavors interact with the richer parts of a dish. Plus, pickles are just awesome.” There will be no pickles on today’s menu, however—not in midsummer, when there’s an abundance of fresh produce on hand.
The horse farm where Paul grew up is a modern homestead of sorts, and his memories of the childhood years he spent there are visible in his menu for this Fourth of July, a holiday that brings the geographically scattered Virant children home each summer. Paul loves trout fishing, so much so that as a teenager, he stocked a nearby stream with trout in an ambitious but short-lived experiment that ended when fierce storms flooded the valley. Today, Paul prepares crisp-skinned trout fillets—grilled alongside wedges of romaine drizzled with a lemony vinaigrette—for the meal’s centerpiece. Chanterelles grow wild on the farm, and memories of foraging for the mushrooms with his siblings roused Paul to make crostini topped with a delicious combination of corn, chanterelles and tarragon. “That’s about as local as it gets,” he says.