David Levi Interview: The Other Portlandia

Vinland in progress, August 2013

Vinland in progress, August 2013


David Levi has a lot of ambition and a lofty goal: to create a restaurant that serves 100% local food.  And it’s not going to be in sunny California, where the harvest is always aplenty.  Oh no, we’re talking about Portland, Maine: an old fishermen’s city with a laid-back, artsy scene and many, many months of winter.  On my mid-August trip, I wore pants most days and two sweatshirts at night.  It is an area known for wild blueberries and lobstah.  It does not sound like a locavore’s dream.  However, whereas much of New England has that prim and proper Pilgrim vibe, Portland marches to the beat of its own drum.  Portland is clam chowder, L.L. Bean, and cobblestone roads.  It’s a place open to experimentation but true to itself.  On second thought, it’s actually a perfect setting for a pretty wild concept.

I sat down for (excellent) coffee at Portland’s Speckled Ax with David Levi, chef and owner of the soon-to-open locavore mecca, Vinland.  A poet and teacher turned chef, Levi eloquently shared his background, inspiration, and plans for his revolutionary restaurant.  Ever the Master of Fine Arts, he intermingled stories of schmaltz and yogurt whey with quotes from John Keats and poetic theory. Levi seems to approach the kitchen with a unique perspective on food, and based on everything I’ve heard, Vinland is sure to excite.

Frontier Psychiatrist: We were connected because Frontier Psychiatrist editor Keith Meatto used to teach with you in NYC.  How did you, a onetime history teacher, find yourself a chef in Maine?

David Levi: Well, I fell in love with northern New England while in college at Dartmouth, and started coming to Maine with an ex-girlfriend who grew up on Deer Isle. It was on our first trip to Maine that I first picked chanterelles, touching off a passion for wild foods that has been with me ever since, and which has come to almost define my cuisine.  Plus, having grown up in New York City and having then spent nearly a decade there after college, I knew I needed to live in a place with less noise and neuroses, less status-seeking, less jostling and crowded alienation, and much more of a living landbase. Northern New England felt enough like home to be familiar but distinct enough to allow for radically new possibilities.

FP: Where did your passion for food come from?

DL: My dad’s background is Jewish Italian—as in, Jews from Italy.  As you can imagine, food was always central in our home.  My mother, who learned cooking from the matriarchs of my dad’s family, served us “real food” meals made with fresh, whole ingredients. There were always fresh vegetables, always a meat course. And we had some staples in our home that none of my friends and classmates had, like good olive oil, balsamic vinegar, parmigiano reggiano, prosciutto, and so on.  As for cooking, my first memory of it would probably be from when I was about 8.  I decided to make my parents breakfast in bed for their anniversary, so I took my mother’s old copy of The Joy of Cooking from the pantry and followed a recipe for Eggs Benedict.

FP: Ah yes, a simple Hollandaise.  Pretty impressive for a kid!  I don’t think I could even scramble an egg until I was 12.  Was it any good?

DL: The memory is fuzzy, but I remember it being something pretty close to Hollandaise!

FP: So, you started young.  How did your passion for food evolve?

DL: I studied poetry in grad school but came to accept that it’s easier to earn appreciation with food than with poetry.  I used to cook simple dinners for myself in my dorm kitchen—like pasta with tomato sauce, but good pasta cooked al dente, and tomato sauce made from scratch, with olive oil and parmigiano. Pasta alone wouldn’t have passed for a meal in my parents’ house, but hey, I was in college. My friends seemed almost awed, which I thought weird since all I was doing was not screwing up a bowl of pasta, but I appreciated their enthusiasm.  I started cooking Shabbat dinners at the Hillel House, and was elected president of Hillel by the end of my freshman year, despite having a Christian mother and no interest in religion. People like food, maybe Jews even more so!

FP: Did you think about cooking professionally then?

DL: I did.  But despite my burgeoning interest in becoming a restaurateur, I left cooking after a relatively brief stint in NYC restaurants, and switched gears to pursue my MFA in poetry.  I began to support myself through tutoring, which, I found, I also loved.

My last long-term tutoring client was Cedric Vongerichten, the son of chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten. Cedric was studying at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA), which was, I thought, a cool choice for A) a Frenchman and B) the son of one of the world’s greatest chefs. He really didn’t need my help, but he wanted a native speaker with solid teaching skills to look over his essays, which he was writing in his second-language.

FP: Pretty cool student for a teacher with an interest in the culinary world!  I’m sure there was an exchange of ideas about food?

DL: Cedric had recently completed a stage (a culinary apprenticeship, pronounced “stahj”) at El Bulli in Spain, at that time the consensus “best restaurant in the world.” I was wowed by what I heard and saw of El Bulli. It dramatically changed my idea of what was possible with food. I had not considered that such artistry, such playfulness, such exquisite beauty could be achieved in this form. So it reignited an old love.

FP: Was that the impetus that brought you from classroom to kitchen?

DL: Much as I loved grappling with ideas, teaching critical thinking, and, at best, helping teach my students to challenge the received stories of the dominant culture, I knew that my impact dependent on my students behaving differently down the road, something I could not control. I wanted to make a tangible impact, directly supporting the movement toward sustainable communities, based above all else on sustainable local food production.

But once I decided to do this by opening my own restaurant, I was faced with the reality that I was seriously lacking in real, professional kitchen experience.

FP: I’m sure you could have followed in Cedric’s tracks at the CIA.  But you didn’t.  Why?

Being 32 and having just used most of my savings to pay off college and grad school loans, the idea of paying tens of thousands of dollars to go to culinary school seemed silly. I knew how to teach, so in theory, I knew how to learn. I decided to see if I could hack the process of culinary education. So I read and tinkered, but I knew I needed to get into some good kitchens so that I might gain access to great ones. I sought out a stage with the great Tuscan butcher Stefano Falorni, an old family friend and the best culinary artisan I could think of to whom I had a real connection. For two months, I worked for him in a village called Greve in Chianti, south of Florence.

From there followed a series of amazing learning experiences.  I returned to NYC to cook under my former student Cedric Vongerichten, who had risen to head chef at his father’s Perry St. By chance, I wound up arriving just when they needed help during Restaurant Week.  It was trial by fire (literally—I manned the fryer).

Next, I returned to Tuscany to stage with the great Dario Cecchini, widely reputed to be the world’s most influential and revered butcher.  I worked long but incredibly fun hours butchering and helping with both front and back of the house work in Dario’s restaurants, and he became a great mentor to me.

Hopeful for more experiences in great kitchen, I sent a shot-in-the-dark email to Chef de Cuisine Matt Orlando at Noma—and I got a response!  Off I went to Copenhagen, where I worked 16-19 hour days through June and July in what was almost without a doubt the most influential and greatest restaurant in the world. Noma had a reputation for its extensive use of wild foods and traditional techniques like lacto-fermentation, and they were doing it all in a place with a climate very much like Maine. It was ideal, and it was the hardest thing I ever did.  Fist pump. Mission accomplished.

It was almost a postscript to my experience abroad when I went to Faviken shortly after, but it was an experience I am incredibly grateful for.  Faviken, a twelve seat restaurant a mere fourteen hour drive north of Malmo (Copenhagen’s twin city on the Swedish side of the straits), serves almost nothing that is not local, and even more of it is wild than at Noma, including most of the meat.  The meat was incredible, the hills were full of matsutake and chanterelles, there was abundant reindeer lichen, and then there was the butter. The best, and I’ve had a lot of good butter.

I left Sweden with a clear sense of what Vinland would be, and the confidence that my work with some of the greatest chefs in the world had prepared me to take on the crazy challenge of opening it.

FP: Where does your background in teaching intersect with being a chef?

DL: Interestingly, teaching helped highlight and narrow in on my specific interests in food.  As I researched materials for classes, I came upon the work of Derrick Jensen [an author and environmental activist known for being a critic of mainstream values].  Right away, I understood that I’d found the link between my understanding of society, economics, and politics on the one hand and ecology on the other. All of which comes together, for me, in food.

As for merging teaching with being chef and owner of Vinland, I’m looking forward to teaching in the kitchen.  Staging was a great experience for me, and I’m going to give that back to others. We already have our first several stagiaires signed up, and I hope we’ll always have at least one. I’ll also run weekly cooking classes after Sunday brunch. Eventually, I hope to see the cooking classes and stage program grow into a full-blown culinary school, which will be the first to focus exclusively on local, organic foods and the nutritional wisdom of traditional societies (very similar to the Paleo or Primal diet).

FP: Does poetry influence your cooking?

DL: Definitely.  I think a lot about poetry in my cooking.  In grad school, I met the great poet Robert Bly, the most important mentor I’ve had in my life, as I recently got to say to him (#bucketlistcheck). He taught me that one of the disciplines that intensifies poetry is form. Without form, there is no purpose, no meaning, and usually not much beauty. Being restricted in some way is what forces me to be creative. So at Vinland, we’re serving only local food, 100% local ingredients in every dish, and no other restaurant in the world is doing that.  It’s going to be a challenge, but it’s the core of the restaurant, and the source of its uniqueness.

FP: Looks like poetry actually influenced your whole vision for Vinland!  How would you describe your goals for this restaurant?

DL: I’ve put out a Vinland manifesto on my website, and I think it’s a good summary of what I’m trying to achieve. I see Vinland as part of a food revolution, which ought to be understood as part of a broader revolution in culture, economics, and politics. We need to protect the community of life from the forces that seem hell-bent on destroying it, industrial capitalism above all else. I’m hoping to show that we can fight to save our imperiled world while, and even in part by, eating really, really well.

FP: Viva la revolución!  I think you’re totally right.  So why did you choose Maine, and Portland specifically, for your food revolution?

DL: Portland itself offers many of the best elements of urbanity on a remarkably small scale, far enough from Boston and New York to have its own identity and center of gravity, and surrounded by the sea and rural land full of organic farms and forest. It’s a progressive city, small enough to be easily walkable and bikeable, and the standard of living is great. And thanks to MOFGA, farmers like Eliot Coleman and Russell Libby, and chefs like Sam Hayward, it’s a great place to work with local food, and has already become a destination for food-loving travelers in the northeast.

FP: So, the burning question: what is the food going to be like?

DL: Wild foods are the ultimate for me. We are biologically wild animals, we evolved to eat wild foods, wild foods are more nutritious, they are more unusual and exciting and varied than anything we can buy, and they connect us in the most fundamental way to our landbase. I’m really interested in fermentation, especially wild fermentation (as in, fermenting without a starter culture, just relying on wild bacteria and yeast), so there will be lots of fermented ingredients and lots of foods that can be stored through the winter. Clearly, I won’t be using any food ingredients I can’t get in Maine. So, no olive oil, no black pepper, no lemon. This is where creativity comes in. Because I’m not using lemon, I needed to come up with a different form of acid for cooking. Turns out condensed yogurt whey works beautifully! For fats, I’ll be using butter, ghee, lard, tallow, and duck fat, along with some sunflower seed oil and, hopefully, some plant oils we’ll be pressing ourselves, including grapeseed, acorn, black walnut, and squash seed. Without black pepper, I look to wild greens with peppery flavor, while also creating dishes that don’t necessarily call for pepper, since, unlike acidity, salt, and fat, it’s not really an essential component of a great dish. This is part of developing a distinct cuisine. The Japanese have done fine without parmigiano, right?

FP:  What will the vegans do?!

DL: It will be tricky, but I will make vegan-friendly food given a day’s notice. We will not often have vegan options a la carte. I don’t honestly think that veganism a great choice in terms of health or ecology, but it is good that vegans often think more about what they eat and the consequences of those choices than most Americans. I would not want to exclude my vegan friends or others making that choice.  Vegetarians, by the way, will find it easy to eat at Vinland, since butter is our staple fat, and I love vegetables.

FP: And the drink menu?

Our drinks will not follow the same rules, as it would be far too restrictive, but we have come far enough with regional distilleries that all our spirits will be from the Northeast, and our cocktails will use only local ingredients. The cider and mead will be truly local. The coffee and tea is sourced and (in the case of coffee) prepared by small local companies who source it from organic, small, artisanal farms overseas. Our wine will include some from the Northeast, but also many from Europe, though they will all be organic, small-production, and often wild-fermented. So the mission is very much in place for the beverages, just tweaked to maintain a maximum of quality, since the whole project hinges on giving people a fantastic experience.

FP: Let’s talk about the concept of “local.”  Even beyond just the food, you seem to be really reaching out to your community here in Portland.  

DL:  I want Vinland to be about investing and reinvesting locally.  I’m having my servers’ outfits made by a local clothes manufacturer. I’m sourcing all local, responsibly harvested wood for the furniture, which is being made by local craftsmen. In fact, our tables, made by the incredibly talented Marc McCabe, are made from ancient yellow birch and black walnut which was felled two hundred years ago, and has just now been recovered from under Moosehead Lake.  I’m planning collaborations with the Portland Museum of Art across the street and SPACE gallery just two blocks down Congress. And I’m glad I went to Kickstarter to raise money for Vinland, which forged a connection between the restaurant and its 366 backers in that campaign. Those people can and should feel that they are a big part of making this all happen. I hope we will be able to return the favor to our community many times over in the months and years to come.  We can honestly say we’re doing something no one else is doing, and that, in the process, we’re keeping every last dollar of our food purchases in our local community, supporting those who are respecting and restoring our land while rebuilding our local self-reliance and using their genius to constantly expand the range of our local options.

FP:  What does the name Vinland mean?

DL:  I think a lot of people automatically think about wine when they hear Vinland, and I have no problem with that.  Vinland is the name that Leif Eriksson and his companions gave to the southernmost region they explored and tried to settle over 1000 years ago, and it likely extended from Nova Scotia through Maine, if not to Cape Cod or even further south. The old Norse word “vin” is a homonym, meaning both “meadow” and “vine,” and either is entirely plausible as the root word in Vinland, since we have both.  Anyhow, I like the sense of adventure that we associate with the Vikings, and I think it’s fitting for the restaurant. Of course, it draws a connection to the New Nordic food movement and my work at Noma and Faviken. Finally, reminding us of that point of first contact between the West and indigenous America might compel us to act differently. If we really want to live here sustainably, we have to learn from the peoples who did so in this very place for many thousands of years. I take the name Vinland, the first colonial name, with humility and with the hope that we might work toward earning a much belated welcome in this land.

Freya Bellin Levow writes the food column for Frontier Psychiatrist. Her recent FP posts include Strung Out on String Beans, Embrace the Chill, and Barcelona’s Cinc Sentits: An Interview with Jordi ArtalVinland is scheduled to open in November at 593 Congress Street in Portland, Maine.

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