This post revisits Vie and North Pond with the primary aim of exploring how the two paradigmatic farm-to-table restaurants illuminate what “farm-to-table” means as a taxonomic marker. Or put differently, the question motivating this post might be phrased thusly: does “farm-to-table” signify an actual cuisine, or a method through which to execute a cuisine?
Certainly, farm-to-table carries certain generic attributes: prioritization of local, micro-seasonal ingredients; simple, often rustic preparations; transparent disclosure of ingredient provenance, with an expectation that purveyors engage in humane treatment of animals; and culinary handiwork stressing ingredients over technique, simplicity over complexification. These qualities have of course been commoditized, with grocery stores and restaurants alike well-attuned to the surplus value conferred by farm-to-table and adjacent keywords like “fresh,” “farm-raised,” and “free-range.” But is this enough to constitute a proper cuisine? After all, Rick Bayless uses seasonal, humane ingredients to produce Mexican cuisine. Given that the aforementioned keywords may be applied toward any cuisine, are we best off conceptualizing farm-to-table in loose, methodological terms, referring more to the ingredients one uses (or perhaps, one’s attitude toward ingredients) than the dishes one composes?
Within Chicagoland, Vie and North Pond register as ideal sites through which to open this investigation. After all, Vie was named a Top 25 Farm to Table Restaurant in the country by Best Life Magazine. Meanwhile, North Pond appears in Zagat’s list of “Chicago’s Best Farm-to-Table Restaurants.” I refer to these lists this not because I see merit in ranking restaurants along these or any other lines, but because the designation speaks to the collective image of farm-to-table as a cuisine, and to Vie and North Pond as archetypal examples. Yet after 5 meals at North Pond (1 recent, 4 further removed) and 4 at Vie, I consider both among my favorite restaurants in Chicago, but also consider them to offer evidence for farm-to-table as more of a method than a cuisine. What follows carries a more definitional than evaluative focus, using recent meals at Vie and North Pond to explore—on an admittedly limited scope—what we mean when we talk about ‘farm-to-table’ in the restaurant context.
It should be noted that neither Vie nor North Pond advertises itself as explicitly farm-to-table; the North Pond website introduces the cuisine of its chef, Bruce Sherman, as follows:
“Chef Bruce Sherman holds true to the Arts and Crafts ideal in the culinary philosophy of North Pond restaurant. Drawing inspiration from the local market, he utilizes exceptional ingredients at the height of their season. Whenever possible, Chef Sherman supports small local farmers and treats their products with respect in his kitchen. The path from earth to plate remains clear and his cuisine reflects the decor of the dining room – complex layers of subtle craft beneath a simple decorative style.”
The verbs deployed—“utilizes” and “treats”—allude to farm-to-table as a procedure, deployed to achieve an isomorphic relationship between dining room and food; rather than executing a preexisting cuisine, the implication is that Chef Sherman serves his own distinct cuisine, indelibly informed by not only local ingredients but the physical space of the building.
Vie, meanwhile, introduces itself as follows:
“Named after the French word for life, offer(ing) contemporary American cuisine inspired by Western European cultures and rustic fare. Chef and Owner Paul Virant opened Vie in 2004 and focuses on year-round seasonal eating and housemade pickles and preserves. Locally grown, artisan ingredients from Midwestern family farms are showcased.”
Local ingredients and purveyors are foregrounded here, but utilized toward the production of contemporary American and Western European cuisine. In sum, North Pond and Vie make reference to farm-to-table attributes, but farm-to-table remains procedurally-determined, suggesting that the common tendency to think of farm-to-table as a cuisine owes as much or more to the food media and the dining public than to the ways in which chefs define and market their craft. My recent meals at both restaurants confirm this conclusion.
These meals occurred during late Summer and early Fall, with a common rubric of ingredients on display. Menus falling on the late summer end of the spectrum featured much seasonal produce, including sweet corn, berries, summer squashes, watermelon, and tomatoes. The early fall meal, which took place at Vie, included hen-of-the-woods mushrooms, fall squashes, and brussels sprouts. Both North Pond and Vie offer tasting menus, yet my sense is that the focus remains on a la-carte. As this was a brunch at North Pond, we ordered from a 3-course prix fixe, in which each course carried 4 choices; at dinner, the standard shifts to 4 courses. At Vie, the expectation is that each diner experiences a traditional, 3-course endeavor.
Both North Pond and Vie welcome the diner with bread; Vie also includes an amuse bouche and mignardise (North Pond might also for dinner, but not brunch.) At our last meal, we were treated to an especially outstanding raw fish preparation.
My North Pond appetizer was griddled tuna with feta cheese, watermelon, and a sauce whose components escape my memory. I’m not sure why they call this “griddled tuna”—which evoked images of cooking it diner-style (my first association when I think of the griddle is of pancakes and burgers)—especially as our server indicated that it was prepared on a plancha, and thus grilled more than griddled. The fish was cooked longer than I like, as I generally favor tuna raw. It was also a relatively lean piece, and I wished for a more luxurious cut, closer in hue to the watermelon. My chief gripe, though, lies with the unsavory combination of a small portion and long list of ingredients. As this was a brunch app, I wouldn’t expect a grand portion, but the consequences of scale shouldn’t just get rationalized under the pretense of this being a midday meal. I couldn’t harmonize the ingredients and each bite felt more like a gamble than a foray; should I eat the tuna with the watermelon, feta, and sauce all together, or try to marry the ingredients in another fashion? There wasn’t an opportunity to taste the tuna by itself and see whether eating it with the other ingredients improved or compromised its merits. I’ve encountered this same problem in restaurants serving voluminous tasting menus, contributing to my general preference for a la carte.
By contrast, Vie serves sizeable appetizers that solicit exploration. Below I’ve included pictures of a ribollita soup; an octopus dish prepared escabeche style (with lots of paprika), with chorizo and new potatoes; and a sweetbread preparation that included a memorable black garlic glaze. The octopus and sweetbreads were off the menu by the time of my third meal at Vie, leading me to order the soup instead, but it was no less enjoyable.
I would be hard-pressed to locate any limitations to these appetizers, which presented simple, straightforward flavors and graceful cross-pollination of humble (potatoes, egg, sourdough) and luxurious (octopus, sweetbreads) ingredients alike. This was neither comfort food nor fine dining proper, but rather their glorious marriage.
Chef Virant doesn’t just synthesize the prosaic and the luxurious, however; these appetizers also brought the local and the global into contact. Ingredients like octopus and paprika, not to mention ribollita soup, assume European roots, and black garlic is a staple of Korean fare. These aren’t farm-to-table dishes in any pure sense of the term, but dishes that use fresh-from-the-farm ingredients (as well as other non-local ones) to produce plates with strong ties to the Midwest, Europe, and Asia. What results is not so much cultural pluralism, but rather a more synthetic approach that weaves cultural influences together toward plates that defy facile taxonomic relegation.
We also ordered charcuterie on a recent visit, which included a country-style pate, as well as headcheese (tete de cochon) and bresaola. Each was enjoyed, and while there appeared to be few other tables ordering charcuterie, this is a necessary menu item for a restaurant that prides itself on its butchering.
North Pond draws from an equally broad array of cuisines. My main course, for example, was an Indian-style whitefish, which included an exemplary yogurt crust. On each visit, the kitchen has shown great facility with all manner of seafood, from shrimp to trout to whitefish to cod. The cauliflower was pickled, which isn’t my preference, but I enjoyed the spinach coulis. A bland cracker (behind the fish) lent a superfluous accent, easily overcome by the pleasures of the fish.
I’ve ordered two main courses at my recent meals at Vie: first, slow-cooked lamb leg with lamb sausage, toasted hominy, and blueberry; and second, walleye pike with paw paw vinaigrette, Minnesota wild rice, hen-of-the-woods mushrooms, and caramelized fennel. The walleye was easily one of the most enjoyable dishes I’ve had all year. I’ve become increasingly fond of freshwater fish, especially with its delicate texture punctuated by a subtle crust such as this one. Rice, particularly wild rice, isn’t something I’d go out of my way to order, but it absorbed the vinaigrette to great effect. As a great fan of wild mushrooms, I couldn’t have asked for a more fitting accoutrement than the seasonal ones on display.
While the lamb leg was nicely done and the blueberry and toasted hominy both seasonally appropriate and brilliant textural complements, I could have done without the rather bland sausage. Chef Virant proves quite fond of two-way preparations: chicken breast was advertised alongside its sausage, while the pork dish featured multiple cuts of the pig. I understand that such dishes foreground the kitchen’s butchering skill, but in general, I find two-way preparations amount to a reductive ‘squaring’ of the protein that compromises focus, foreclosing the greater-than-the-sum-of-its-parts sensation afforded by memorable dishes.
I also have to make note of Chef Virant’s rather unusual (euphemism) plating technique. If we compare the lamb, for example, with the whitefish at North Pond, both compositions possess a general abstraction (although “abstract” means something different in relation to gastronomy than it does in the fine arts, given that there aren’t “figural” culinary compositions.) Yet North Pond achieves abstraction without forfeiting precision. By contrast, my lamb at Vie suffered aesthetically on multiple counts, from the bubbling blueberries and hominy to the generally monochromatic study (compare this to North Pond, which makes great use of color, as evidenced by the watermelon and spinach coulis.) My critique isn’t that the dish is stacked high—more 3-dimensional than most restaurants—but that the whole thing looks rather sloppy, and not beyond the compositional talents of the home cook. Certain dishes, including the ribollita, are more aesthetically inviting, but these exceptions only prove the rule. Simply put, I admire Chef Virant’s palate but not his palette.
I’m not aware of a separate pastry chef at North Pond or Vie, and at North Pond in particular, desserts retain the accretional aesthetic of the savories. I ordered caramel profiteroles with champagne sorbet and a host of other ingredients, including blackberries. The horizontal fanning of the ingredients carried visual appeal, and while it wasn’t easy to harmonize the ingredients, I had fun enjoying the different ingredients (especially the sorbet) on their own.
At Vie, we ordered a chocolate-hazelnut-raspberry dessert, with caramel poured tableside. The mason-style jar resonates as a salient prop at Vie, a restaurant that has built much of its reputation on canning and preserving, but while the tableside finish added drama, a more traditional serving vessel might have allowed for easier consumption (I struggled to scrape the dessert out.) This is a very minor critique, though, and I’d order this again in a heartbeat.
A refrain throughout this essay has been the deployment of regional and international ingredients and preparations, even within two restaurants known for farm-to-table tendencies. Rather than dogmatic adherents to a particular farm-to-table cuisine, Chefs Sherman and Virant resonate more as deft synthesizers of disparate culinary influences. To be sure, they use local ingredients to a greater degree than most chefs, which contributes in no small part to the pleasure their food imparts; yet it still feels to me as if farm-to-table refers more to the ingredients they use than to the dishes they produce. Indeed, I’m not sure I could actually name a farm-to-table “dish,” the way one could with Mexican, French, or even molecular gastronomy (hypothetically, sous-vide steak with a cauliflower foam, falls within molecular gastronomy.) Of course, no cuisine is born in a vacuum and cuisines are never entirely stable, but I still feel as if farm-to-table refers more to a method—to a principle of using primarily local items—than to a cuisine all its own. In a sense, farm-to-table is too amorphous to allow for a distinct cuisine, since ingredients that are farm-to-table in one region will by definition not qualify as such in another region. The institutionalization of farm-to-table as a cuisine would necessitate a canon of dishes that its relational constitution precludes. Beyond this distinction, though, few chefs, particularly at the fine dining level, confine themselves to all-local foood.
If Chefs Sherman and Chef Virant don’t produce farm-to-table cuisine per se, then which cuisines do they execute? Virant may refer to his cooking as “contemporary American” with “Western European” influences, but these categories are so ambiguous—not to mention that he draws from broader influences, such as the black garlic in the sweetbreads—that I don’t think we can align these chefs (or indeed, most chefs working today) within a set cuisine. Certainly, there are chefs who do cook within a particular cuisine, including Rick Bayless (Mexican) and Jean Joho (Alsatian), but these feel like rare examples. A cuisine requires an institutional presence and a history that most chefs today resist.
All of this is to say that the contemporary chef produces his or her own cuisine, rather than adhering to an extant heritage. Through this dynamic, we may observe the parallel trajectories of the culinary arts and the fine arts. That is, I wonder whether the postmodern decline of medium specificity evidenced through contemporary art—cause for celebration or critique, depending on one’s view—finds a corollary in the general resistance to conform to a particular cuisine. Trends, dominant methods (of which farm-to-table is one) and groupthink still abound, but the stability of cuisines and artistic mediums seem to have atrophied, with chefs free to borrow from different cuisines at will in exercises of culinary promiscuity. In many, if not most cases, the chef’s own vision supersedes the constraints imposed by a culinary tradition, so that Paul Virant and Bruce Sherman cook their own cuisines, just as Grant Achatz and Curtis Duffy cook theirs. I don’t mean to suggest that these chefs don’t face their own constraints, and I admire anyone who can operate a kitchen and restaurant given all of the moving parts involved. But rather than misidentifying farm-to-table as a cuisine, we may be better off conceptualizing it as a method through which to express the authorial cuisine of the chef.