Paul Virant is the chef/owner of the acclaimed Vie restaurant in Western Springs, Ill., about 20 minutes outside of Chicago’s city limits. Vie, awarded a Michelin star, focuses on farm-to-table cuisine with a simple but elegant presentation that showcases Illinois and Midwestern agriculture. Virant also took over as executive chef at the recently reconcepted Perennial Virant. Located in the heart of Chicago’s Lincoln Park this restaurant is across the street from Green City Market, the city’s largest outdoor farmers’ market, where Virant regularly shops. His first book, Preservation Kitchen: The Craft of Making and Cooking with Pickles, Preserves, Jam and Aigre Doux (Ten Speed Press) comes out this spring, co-authored by former Restaurants & Institutions magazine senior editor Kate Leahy.
FE&S: What influences did food have in your childhood?
Paul Virant: I grew up in a family where at the dinner table we analyzed that meal and discussed the next. We all really appreciated good food and where it comes from.
FE&S: What are some of your earliest food memories?
Paul Virant: My first crab rangoon, real Italian food (potato gnocchi, some fried dough thing with parma ham and incredible cheeses), freshly churned ice cream with fresh unpasteurized milk and fresh berries, cinnamon rolls, homemade partially frozen applesauce and chocolate milk from my grandmother.
FE&S: What are your favorite food memories?
Paul Virant: The smell of freshly baked sourdough black walnut bread, holiday cookie baking with my mom, polish sausage with my step grandfather, learning pasta and gnocchi from a high school girlfriend’s father, eating freshly baked leftover pie crust pieces with cinnamon and sugar.
FE&S: When you were young, what did you want to be when you grew up?
Paul Virant: I wanted to be a rock star. Singing back up for KISS would’ve been cool!
FE&S: What was your first job?
Paul Virant: Janitor for large office buildings. At 16 I worked at Six Flags as a soda jerk (with a giant attitude). I also started and ran a window washing company in high school and pumped gas at a full-service gas station.
FE&S: When did you realize you wanted to get into the hospitality industry?
Paul Virant: In high school — yes, I had a dream! Soon after, by the time I was a freshmen in college, I knew I wanted to open my own restaurant one day.
FE&S: Other than cooking, what subjects did you enjoy in school?
Paul Virant: Any type of science.
FE&S: What was your high school superlative? Best Dressed? Most likely to succeed?
Paul Virant: Best party host. I had a party in 1987 that made the St. Louis Post Dispatch coming in at an estimated 1,000 people.
FE&S: If you weren’t a chef what would you be and why?
Paul Virant: I’d be a farmer. Why not?
FE&S: Do you grow anything right now?
Paul Virant: I grow some herbs and hot peppers for the restaurant. I also work with farmers to grow food to spec. I would love to open a restaurant on a farm that I own.