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A Conversation With Chef David Levi Of Vinland

<a href="http://www.axelrodphotography.com">Ted Axelrod</a>
Ted Axelrod

David Levi, an educator-turned-chef, has chosen Portland as the site for Vinland, described as “Maine’s first 100% local food, zero waste, fine-dining restaurant.” The ambitious project was inspired by Levi’s experiences as a stagiare (intern) at Noma in Copenhagen, Denmark and Faviken Magasinet in Northern Sweden, currently, two of the most talked-about restaurants in the world. He also prepared for his new venture by staging at celebrated butchers and salumi producers Antica Macelleria Cecchini and Antica Macelleria Falorni in Tuscany, and at Jean Georges Vongerichten’s Perry St. restaurant in New York City. We talked with the chef about his plans for Vinland.

Editor's note: The following has been updated.

EM: First question – have you found a space?
DL: It’s right in downtown Portland but beyond that I can’t say yet where it is. After seven months looking for a space with a kitchen, we’re going to be building it out.

Why do you think Nordic cuisine will work in Maine?
Nordic food can’t be exported beyond that region, but the philosophy can be. What Noma and Faviken have done is to be influenced by (traditional) Nordic cuisine – and steadfastly refused to be influenced by the French – and to look to wild nature to make it more interesting and delicious. Noma is one of (a limited) number of restaurants that executes its vision flawlessly. I wanted to go there because they use so many wild ingredients and do such amazing things with humble northern vegetables, and, in a bioregion very similar to our own, wind up working with pretty much the same things we have here.

So how will you translate that philosophy to your menu?
It’s about time and place. There’s such bio-diversity in Maine. The food at Vinland will be Nordic-inspired with considerable overlap. We’ll also be honoring New England cuisine and the indigenous (Native American) cuisine of this region.

In Maine and in the Canadian Maritimes, there is a similarity in eco-systems (to the other side of the North Atlantic.) But at the end of the day, it’s not as far north. In Denmark it’s too dark to grow ‘year round. It’s colder and snowier here, but thanks to Eliot Coleman and Four Season Farm, we have greens all winter because we have light. Coleman pioneered the use of unheated hoop houses and cold frames (raised beds covered with glass), which truly did make it possible to have fresh greens 365 days a year in northern New England.

The tasting menus you’ve been offering at your private dinners include a number of foraged ingredients – will that continue at Vinland?
Yes, foraged foods are important.

Like mushrooms – chanterelles?
I actually got into foraging eight or so years ago via chanterelles. I was visiting a former girlfriend at her parents’ home on Deer Isle and we went into the woods with her mother and came back with pounds of chanterelles. So they were crucial for me in getting into foraging seriously, but so were black trumpet mushrooms, which I like even better. Mushrooms are the thing I get most excited about, but I’m getting more into foraging greens. And there are other things – sea buckthorn, which is indigenous to Pacific Siberia but is here in Maine. It’s an incredibly valuable thing to a Northern chef if you’re not using citrus fruit (it’s not local) because the berries have a very bright citrus flavor and color. However, sea buckthorn is a damaging, invasive species and should not be grown - I would not buy it from anyone growing it, but might use it if foraged from the wild, since that will not cause it to proliferate.

What about olive oil, coffee and tea and other food items that aren’t produced locally?
This is the big one for me. I won't be using olive oil, even though I am Italian and I love olive oil, because I will be using strictly local foods. Everything on the plate will be local. There won't be any cane sugar, any cornstarch, any lemon, or any other food that is not being grown and sourced here. All the food, without exception, will be local, and that's really crucial for me, because I want to show what can be done with local foods. The beverages are in a different category for me, and I have to be more flexible because I don't think the restaurant would succeed without offering coffee and wine. So, the coffee and tea, along with the wine, are not going to be all local, though they will be sourced as ethically as possible, meaning organic, fair-trade, small production, local coffee roasters, locally grown herbal teas, local meads, spirits, and fruit wines, etc.

Will you offer just a tasting menu?
No, there will also be ala carte. The tasting menu is important to show the full breadth of the aesthetic. The ala carte menu will be more simple and accessible; but not at all compromised or dumbed down. I want people to get comfortable with foods they might not be used to.

How does your background – a BA in history from Dartmouth and a masters in creative writing from Bennington – translate to what you’re doing now?
I taught high school history and English for five years in New York City and Maine. As a history teacher, I tried to teach a lot of widely ignored truths about our society. I think teaching is a fundamental act we should all be engaged in. If I was going to leave that I had to convince myself that I was going to be doing something as valuable. So I am still teaching, and learning, as we all are, just not in a classroom for the time being. If I can make a tangible change through the food purchases of my restaurant and (hopefully) get more people to source more of their food locally and help build a sustainable local food economy, that has value, versus the also important, but less tangible, "changing of hearts and minds" that, at best, I sometimes achieved as a teacher.

In America, we don’t have that basic assumption that we need to take responsibility for our land base and get out from under (agri-business.) I’m doing my small bit to give financial support to local food producers – if the restaurant becomes successful it can be part of a larger discussion.

· All Coverage of Vinland [~EMAINE~]