No Olive Oil, No Pepper, No Sugar: Can a Restaurant Be TOO Local?

image via Square Deal

image via Square Deal

 

When Vinland opens later this fall in Portland, Maine, it will be the first restaurant in the United States to serve 100% local, organic food.
That means that if it can’t be grown, harvested, or produced in Maine it’s not going to be on the menu. That list includes plenty of kitchen staples like olive oil, black pepper, cane sugar, mustard, peanut butter, and chocolate. It also bans avocados, bananas, citrus fruits, most rice and grains, and a very long list of spices, sauces, and seasonings.

Farm-to-table is almost a cliché for contemporary restaurants. It’s become second nature for a chef to showcase seasonal ingredients and to establish working relationships with nearby farmers, ranchers, and fishermen. But nobody has ever pushed the concept to this extreme, with this much purity.

Let’s not forget, we’re talking about Maine, a state that squeezes its growing season between the last frost in June and the first in September.
In season, there’s native seafood and agricultural bounty to rival any other region, but the pickings are slim for most of the year. There will have to be a lot of preserved foods—smoked, dried, pickled, cured, and fermented—to offer some semblance of variety on the Vinland winter menus.

Vinland doesn’t have a menu yet, but it does have a manifesto.
The document references the rising cost of medical care for diabetics, celebrity chef tantrums, confinement-raised animals, the dangers of seed oils, and the misogyny, racism, and homophobia of restaurant kitchens. It slams the Industrial Revolution and the Vikings, praises raw foodism, and quotes both Wendell Berry and Che Guevara. According to its mission statement, Vinland is not just a restaurant; it’s the blueprint for a sustainable food system that will help us survive the coming collapse of a doomed and destructive food industry.

Heady stuff, indeed. It should come as no surprise that the missionary behind Vinland is a first-time restaurateur who is more ideologue than trained chef.
A few years ago, David Levi was a high school English teacher in New York City with a few stints of restaurant work under his belt. A tutoring gig with the son of the renowned chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten helped him land some very high profile internships in legendary restaurants like Spain’s El Bulli, Sweden’s Faviken, and Copenhagen’s Noma. A few more stages and apprenticeships later and he landed in Portland offering cooking classes and a series of pop-up tasting menu dinners.

Levi brought with him an admiration for the culinary and ecological ethos of the New Nordic food movement he encountered while staging in Danish and Swedish kitchens. And he recognized the parallels between the bioregions of northern New England and Scandinavia. Vinland is meant to be a kind of mulligan for the Nordic people in Maine.

Vinland is the original name for the North American settlement of Leif Eiríksson’s Viking followers (presumed to include what is now Maine). While Levi salutes their courage in pushing into the unknown, he recognizes their mistakes and wants to learn from them, the worst of which he says was their ‘antagonism toward the indigenous.’ Vinland will be a second chance: “We are seeking to begin again, not as occupiers this time, but as participants. We hope, belatedly, to learn from the rightful inheritors of this land.  We hope to honor the indigenous and the myriad non-humans who have been so grievously harmed by Western culture.  We hope to earn their welcome as we seek to build, together, a vibrant, indigenous, wild future.”

In case you were wondering, there will be salt. Maine harvests its own salt, and it’s really good. There also will be coffee, even though there are no native coffee growers. Levi just really likes his coffee.

 

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