Independence Day on the Farm
"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.
It's a sweltering, airless Missouri morning, and the Virant clan is doing whatever it can to endure the heat. By noon, the temperature has edged past 90 degrees, and the cloudless sky is not slowing it down a bit. For now, icy cocktails and a swimming pool are doing the trick, but just barely. Like a family of otters, nobody leaves the water's cool comfort for long, but soon there are no more cocktails. Paul's siblings dispatch him to make another batch of gin slings—a tart concoction sweetened with homemade cherry syrup.
But he doesn't mind, because the kitchen is air-conditioned, and he needs to finish his peach crisps, a dessert inspired by his mother, Mary Ann, herself a talented cook. ("You cook like your mom" is also a compliment in the Virant family.) Paul tops his crisps with a buttery crust and scoops of his homemade yogurt-based ice cream (yes, even the yogurt is homemade).
While Paul checks on his crisps, three of his siblings join him in the kitchen, which is outfitted with two of the family's three stoves (a third is in the log cabin). As the Virant children argue over who was the biggest troublemaker as a teen—Paul and his sister Janice tie for first place, having thrown a parents-away party in high school that made the local newspaper—Mary Ann steps inside, still dripping wet from the pool. The kitchen is at capacity. "You can see why we added a second stove," she says.
Paul is used to getting help from his family, even at Vie. As he prepared to open the restaurant in 2004, he enlisted his father-in-law, Al Tangora, a retired banker, to help him with the business plan. Al stayed on as maître d'. "Al just showed up the first night and started greeting customers," Paul says. Al adds, "Paul pays me in wine." Some of that wine comes from Paul's father, John, who purchased a vineyard in nearby Augusta, Missouri, in 1990. There he grows several native American varietals and Cabernet Sauvignon, which is made into a wine that Paul sells at Vie.
Paul and Mary Ann station themselves in front of the behemoth stone grill and cook chicken legs that he has soaked overnight in a brine flavored with bay leaves and green olives. Mary Ann brushes the legs with smoky pimentón oil, then brushes some more on thick slices of sweet Vidalia onion that are sharing the grill. The rest of the family gathers on the porch, where a tray of gin slings awaits.
The dinner table is set along a tree-shaded path that leads to the barn, where Mary Ann stables her horses. Also providing shade is an 1840s log cabin the family purchased from a nearby farm and moved onto its property. Paul and his wife, Jennifer, were married near this spot in 1998.
"We bought this property when I was 28 years old," Mary Ann says. "Back then, this was all farms and fields. We felt like homesteaders. Now we're in the 'burbs." "That may be true," Paul tells his mother, "but it still feels like country."