Paul Virant at the Good Food Festival

March 13 2013 - 7:05 AM

Welcome to our guest Maya Parson, a writer and the editor of Edible Michiana magazine (

My name is Maya and I have a new chef crush. His name is Paul Virant. He has one Michelin star, two acclaimed restaurants (Vie in Western Springs and Perennial Virant in Lincoln Park) and more jars of preserves in his kitchen than you can count. But what you really need to know is that he makes beer jam. And that you can see him in person at Chicago’s Good Food Festival & Conference. (Along with other top Chicago chefs, Virant will do a demo and participate in the festival’s first-ever Kimchi Challenge on Saturday, March 16. You can bet your fermented cabbage that I will be there.)

And, yes, I said beer jam.

I could probably end this piece now with just those words.

But then I couldn’t tell you that Virant uses his beer jam as a glaze for braised beef and to make a Manhattan—with his own brandied cherries.

Or that he cans his own condensed milk, makes maple-black walnut butter, and pickles Japanese turnips with lemon and coriander seeds. (Yes, he can pickle that.)

Virant’s motto: “eat what you can, can what you can’t. He learned this from his grandmother back in Missouri who put up tomatoes, pickles and other staples. This is a man whom my mother—a woman who still processes a garden full of tomatoes each summer and gave me a copy of Fine Preserving along with a penchant for homemade ketchup—would also love.

Of course it’s no longer vital to preserve your own food to feed your family, but canning, fermenting, and other old-time skills make it possible for contemporary locavores like Virant to take full advantage of the Midwest’s bounty. “If you want to use tomatoes from the Midwest year round,” Virant says, “it’s the logical way to go.”

Logical and also, of course, on trend. Today’s foodie enthusiasm for all things cured, pickled, and fermented is the love child of the local food movement and the DIY revival—both of which have roots in the back-to-the-land ethos of my mother’s generation and the homesteading know-how of our grandparents and great grandparents.

Virant, however, has been taking food preservation from the realm of domestic craft and popular trend to the world of fine dining since he launched Vie in 2004. In Virant’s hands, pickled ramps become Rainbow Trout with Creamed Ramps and Morels. Pickled celery becomes Pan Seared Chicken with Celery Sauce and Tomato Jam. Virant doesn’t just preserve his ingredients, he uses preservation techniques to manipulate flavors in ways that add layers of complexity to dishes such as his Preserved Gazpacho, which uses grilled and pickled peppers to transform the familiar soup into something exciting and unexpected.

In 2012, Virant and co-author Kate Leahy published his first cookbook, The Preservation Kitchen. I’ve been a canner for twenty years and have a shelf of books on the topic, but The Preservation Kitchen is the first that I’ve found both thrilling and, frankly, intimidating. The recipes aren’t for novices. (Homemade pectin anyone?) But if you’ve mastered the basics and you’re ready for more than just another strawberry jam recipe––Virant’s calls for dehydrated strawberries—The Preservation Kitchen is undoubtedly inspiring.

What I especially like about Virant’s book is that he provides recipes for actually using your preserved goods. (As I know from experience, you can only pawn off so many jars of pickled asparagus on your friends.) Virant shows you how to mix that pickled asparagus with crème fraiche as a sauce for fresh grilled asparagus or how to put those preserved lemons to work in a lovely wheat berry, pea and herb salad.

Virant’s blend of the preserved with the fresh is a recurring theme in his work. When we spoke, Virant told me he is putting a salad on the menu at Vie of pickled and freshly roasted beets served with a sheep cheese croquette. (I’m eyeing that jar of pickled beets in my pantry in an entirely new light thanks to our interview. Now to find some local sheep cheese…)

I want to eat everything Virant makes because it feels both familiar and inspired, wholesome and indulgent—like the food I grew up eating at my mother’s table but with a polish and sophistication only possible in a professional kitchen under the supervision of a master chef.

And, for the record, my mother never made beer jam. But she might just want that recipe.

— Maya Parson