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My Stage With Chef Paul Virant of Vie

Saturday, 1 May 2010

Black Perigord Truffles

The Excuse

Here's a lame story for you: I was fortunate enough to stage in the kitchen with Chef Paul Virant of Vie back in February and never wrote about it. Why? I took a gazillion photos then lost the memory card in my home somewhere, knowing it would eventually turn up. It finally did, inside a shoe I haven't worn in three months! So now, much after the fact, I finally get to share the experience with you, visually enhanced by my photos.

The Restaurant

Vie is a three-star restaurant serving seasonal contemporary American cuisine, located in Western Springs, an older, established and very charming suburb about fifteen miles west of Chicago. Lots of beautiful, architecture - everything from art deco bungalows to grand Arts and Crafts-style manor homes. You don't see any new construction or McMansions there, which I appreciate very much. There's a sweet, thriving business district with a family owned butcher shop, bakery and hardware store that have all been there forever. Paul's restaurant, Vie, is nestled on a side street off the main street in its own store front. The BNSF Railway also runs through the center of town, with its long, ambling freight trains which gives the place a slower, Mayberry kind of feel.

The reason I asked to stage in Paul's kitchen is Number One, I find him approachable, gentle and kind. I used to run into him at the Green City Market a lot when I worked and shopped there. He never struck me as an irascible, fry pan-throwing, type of chef. This was comforting to me. Number Two, he is passionate about local, seasonal and sustainable food. That is what moves me most. Paul uses the best ingredients and has close, longstanding relationships with farmers and growers. He cures and smokes his own meats and seafood, pickles and preserves his own produce and he's been doing this long before it was trendy. For lack of better terminology, Paul Virant is the bomb.

The Mindset

So, on my way out there, I was really nervous. I kept envisioning I was going to make a giant ass of myself which wasn't out of the realm of possibility. Working in a professional kitchen felt like a big challenge to me and I had no idea what to expect. I was imagining I would cut myself, burn myself, shatter many plates and drop expensive cuts of meat on the floor. It was like a montage from a bad Jerry Lewis movie. After all, this is a three star kitchen helmed by one of the best chefs in the city: Food & Wine Best New Chef 2007, one of Gayot's Top 40 Restaurants in the Country, the list of accolades goes on and on. The pressure in my chattering monkey mind was building. Not to mention I was a few minutes late because of that damn freight train. Oy.

The Goal

My immediate goal? To learn as much as I could. To have an experience without any expectation. To be open to everything. To not pretend I knew anything I didn't. To be gracious. My long term goal? To use the experience as a building block to become more fluent in the use of seasonal ingredients. There are ingredients I long to take home from the farmers' market but feel mildly intimidated by how to best use them.

The Menu

This was not an average night at Vie. This was a very special night. Paul often executes seasonally themed dinners throughout the year and this was his Black Truffle Dinner. Paul bought a large amount (serious Ca-Ching!) of fresh, black Perigord truffles to infuse into every course. They are a fungus named after the Périgord region in France and highly prized for their earthy, pungent flavor - nothing tastes quite like them. Paul explained that a lot of hard core Vie regulars were guests that night, many of them accompanied by prized bottles of wine from their own cellars. He told me about one guest in particular who was coming, who had eaten at Vie about 500 times! (but who's counting?) Here is the glorious menu:

Black Truffle Dinner
February 3, 2010


black truffle and parmigiano-reggiano gougères


edelweiss creamery emmenthaler fondue, celery root, croutons, black truffles

08 Rebenhof, Ürziger Würtzgarten, Riesling Kabinett, Germany


moose island scallops, black truffles, puff pastry, honey vinegar

08 Westrey, Pinot Gris, Willamette Valley, Oregon


maine lobster, black truffles, leeks, yukon gold potatoes, butter “en papillote”

07 Pulenta Estate, Chardonnay, Mendoza, Argentina


terrine of au bon canard foie gras with black truffles and château montifaud cognac, three sisters pea shoots, roasted apple, black truffles

08 Domaine du Tariquet, Ugni Blanc-Colombard, Côtes De Gascogne, France


gunthorp farm chicken and black truffle “scotch egg,”

spinach, jus de poulet mayonnaise

07 Stoller, Pinot Noir, JV Estate, Dundee Hills, Oregon


roasted hawks hill ranch elk tenderloin, salsify, port and truffle sauce

07 Poderi Aldo Conterno, Masante, Langhe Dolcetto, Monforte D’Alba, Italy

To Finish

local honey, truffle, and walnut butter cake,

truffle chiboust, black walnut and truffle nougatine

black walnut and honey infused death’s door white whiskey

The Prep

My nervousness subsided a bit after I was greeted warmly by everyone in the kitchen. The staff were all young and very accomplished. There was one woman who had left a long stint at Alinea to work with Paul, another culinary veteran who owned her own farm in Michigan during the growing season and worked at a couple restaurants doing front and back of the house during the off season. One chef had been with Paul since the beginning and learned everything on the job.

Kitchen Meeting

Paul called a meeting to go over the specific preparation of each course and to delegate prep. He let me know this was not your average high stress night in the kitchen where everyone is ordering something different at different times. This was a pleasure trip by comparison: all courses would go out at the same time. We'd wait until the guests had finished one course, then put together the next and so on.

We were each put to work - there was another stage there, a recent culinary graduate named Tom, and he and I were assigned to peel the soft-boiled eggs for the Scotch Eggs without breaking them and spilling their runny centers. The eggs that didn't make the cut were served to the staff as a snack on grilled bread. Meanwhile, Paul was next to me killing live lobsters in the most humane way possible which I learned is by running a knife all the way through their heads into the cutting board to make sure their brains are severed before poaching them in water. It was a little heartbreaking for me to watch, I must confess. But I'm a very conflicted eater when it comes to living things and also a hypocrite. I love lobster.

The Kill

Nothing gets wasted - even the lobster shells. Everything is composted and recycled. Mint Creek Farms comes and gets their scraps for their compost pile.

Still Life With Compost Heap

Chicken Wrap

Paul and the other chefs showed Tom and I how to complete all the steps for the Scotch Eggs. After they were peeled we wrapped them in housemade Gunthorp Farms chicken sausage that were laced with a ton of sliced truffles. Paul estimated there was about $8 worth of truffles in each egg alone! He was very generous with the truffles that night. I gotta say, they were really flowing. The eggs were then rolled in flour, egg and bread crumbs and put in the deep fryer later before the course went out.

Scotch Eggs Right Out Of the Deep Fryer

I never got to touch a knife that night - but I cleaned spinach and also put together the papillote packages for the second course: we laid out circles of parchment paper and brushed them with butter. Then we stacked the ingredients on one half of the circle so we could fold over the other half to seal and then bake the packages. The Yukon Golds came first, then the sauteed leeks, lobster, black truffle slices, a big beautiful blob of butter, and a squirt of Pulenta Estate Chardonnay (the same wine paired with this course on the menu).

Lobster en Papillote

The terrine of goose liver, truffle and cognac was made in-house, in advance and here it is in all of its visually stunning glory. They look like granite paperweights from the shops along the Arno.


A couple of other cool things that were happening while I was there - the pastry chef was brewing homemade root beer and one of the chefs was smoking pork belly so the kitchen smelled like heaven all day long.

Smoked Pork Belly

The Show

Before guests arrived I went out with Paul to watch him go over the menu with the front of the house staff, talk about the wine pairings and how the evening would unfold. It was clear that Vie is a family restaurant and that Paul has cultivated a very devoted staff. I have worked in restaurants where there's lots of drama and dysfunction and Vie feels nothing like that. Paul had just gotten in a new small batch bourbon that day and he opened it and gave all of us a nice pour to take the edge off before service began. We drank out it out of short, plastic to-go containers. It was freaking fabulous.

Bourbon Neat en Plastique

Once the guests sat down I stood at the end of the line and watched the chefs do their thing. I did get to contribute to the plating here and there and Paul made a few extra dishes for the staff so we all got to try every course and also taste the wine pairings.

Line Dance

Another major bonus were these Vie regulars, who would come back in the kitchen and leave the staff glasses of their 1983 Mouton Rothschild for us to try. Sweet!! I mean come on, this is my kind of place.

Mais Oui, Monsieur

It surprised me how much I loved the dessert. The truffle-walnut-honey combo was a winner; the cake so buttery-moist and the truffle very subtle. That combined with the crunchy nougatine and the infused Death's Door white whiskey? It smacked of a real manly man's dessert. Lots of earthy and rich, deep and sweet flavors.

The Favorites

Chicken Brickle

My favorite things of the night were elements on the plates of two different courses but both were so simple and flavorful and I could replicate them very easily at home. One was the crunchy, seasoned chicken skin that topped the Scotch Egg. I call it Chicken Brickle. It is perhaps the greatest salty snack of all time. I can see serving that as a cocktail snack on it's own or as an accompaniment to a great salad. I know, completely decadent but so good. My dad eats this old world Jewish dish called gribenes - it's fried chicken fat - kind of like pork skins but chicken instead. I have to make it for him. Here's how:

Chicken Brickle Recipe
Heat oven to 300, lay the chicken skin (seasoned with salt and pepper) between 2 sheets of parchment paper. Place between 2 sheet pans and bake until skin is crisp, 1 hr.


The other is this fresh, gorgeous pea shoot salad that was served with the terrine course. It's tossed with shaved black truffles, salt, pepper, olive oil and vinegar! So fresh and so clean, clean.

Pea Shoot & Shaved Truffle Salad

The Recipe
Since many of us don't have the budget for live lobsters, I've asked Paul to give us an easy, simple Spring recipe using papillote - which is wrapping your ingredients in parchment paper pouches and cooking them in the oven - which seals in juices and causes the ingredients to meld beautifully.

Great Lakes Whitefish Papillote
(serves four)

4-5oz pieces whitefish filet, skin removed


5 T butter

2 globe radishes, washed and thinly sliced

2 spring onions, washed and sliced

1 white hakuri turnip, washed and sliced

4 dried tomato slices (olive oil packed)

4 T sauvignon blanc

1 c loosely packed herbs, picked (basil, tarragon, chervil, parsley)

4 ½ sheets parchment paper

Preheat an oven to 400F. Season whitefish with salt. Place sheets of parchment, shorter side facing you. Spread 1T of the butter evenly on each sheet. Place an equal amount of radishes, spring onions and turnips just below the center of the parchment sheets, season the vegetables. Place fish on top of the vegetable bed. Place 1T butter and 1 tomato slice on each fish. Top the fish with an equal amount of herbs. Fold shorter side over to meet the opposite shorter side. Starting by one crease, begin folding the parchment, each consecutive fold overlapping the one before. Continue folding to form a half cirlcle, just before you make the final fold to seal, add 1T white wine to each. Make sure each “bag” is sealed properly. Place in the preheated oven and bake for 8-10 minutes (parchment should puff and resemble pillows), serve immediately. Cut parchment tableside, discard paper, enjoy!

The Big Thanks

One of the unfortunate things I did, that I feared might have gotten on everyone's nerves, was my propensity to say, "This is awesome," in a completely geeked out way every ten minutes or so throughout the day. It was an authentic statement for sure, but no doubt, highly annoying. I was so happy to be there, so honored to experience all that was going on, to learn, watch, taste and sip. And very grateful the staff was so kind and open towards me. I was like a kid in a candy store (chicken candy, that is). I love to learn and I value experience over things any day. I was tired when it was all over. I think I was on my feet from 1 pm to about 11:15 pm. But it was so worth it.

Big thanks to Paul, Jimmy, Albert, Anne, Kyle, Abra, Kennard, Tom, the Pastry Team, the front of the house staff, that regular (you know who you are) who brought the amazing wines to the kitchen and anyone else I'm forgetting - I cannot tell you how much I appreciate it!

For those of you who haven't experienced Vie, be sure to get there, special occasion or any occasion (the bar is great too) and also check out their cooking classes (scroll down the page) which I also hope to experience myself this summer.

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