Creating an all-local restaurant (mostly)

Pushing the proximity limit
By AMY ANDERSON  |  June 21, 2012

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PREPARING FOR MORE THAN JUST DINNER David Levi (center) and Chad Conley (right) get help from friend Jeff Packard to prepare a locally focused dinner.
It has become almost second nature for area restaurants to use local ingredients and to establish working relationships with nearby farmers and fishermen. But no chef or restaurant owner has pushed that concept to the extreme by serving only locally sourced ingredients. That would mean cooking without olive oil, citrus, or black pepper.

But David Levi, a New York native with northern Italian roots, wants to give it a shot. In 2011 he traveled through Europe staging (working for free) at a number of notable restaurants — six weeks at Noma in Denmark, a month at Faviken Magasinet in Sweden, and six weeks with Dario Cecchini learning the art of butchery in Italy. He says each stop along the way helped him to accomplish his goal — to take his serious-though-amateur cooking to a professional level as quickly as possible.

"What I've been interested in doing with my own cuisine is using 100 percent local food including a real emphasis on wild food," he says.

He is working toward opening Vinland, Portland's first 100 percent locally sourced restaurant. Both the name and the concept are inspired by his time spent in Scandinavia, and recognize the Vikings' discovery of North America.

Though he plans for the food to be all local, the beverages will be more flexible — wine and coffee (two of Levi's favorite drinks) are not local products. He will use organic coffee produced by Matt Bolinder of Matt's Wood Roasted Organic Coffee, fruit wines, and wines produced in Maine and New England. Cocktails will include meads made with local honey and spirits made with potatoes.

He envisions a small restaurant (under 30 seats) that is "accessible and enjoyable" and will support local businesses, farmers and fishermen. Even with Maine's limited growing season, Levi wants Vinland to be open year-round — using pickling, fermenting, drying, smoking, curing and storing techniques. There is no location for the restaurant yet, but he says he is getting close to finding a space.

In the meantime, he offers cooking classes and hosts dinners using organic, local, and wild ingredients. The classes teach people how to cook seasonally, using winter vegetables and seafood, how to replace grains to prepare gluten-free desserts, and how to make cheese. He's happy having those be 90-percent local; he can teach vinaigrettes or other basics that need non-local ingredients.

In addition to the cooking classes, Levi and fellow cook Chad Conley host small dinner parties. They forage for ingredients and prepare the meals in friends' homes. The menus are an elaborate combination of local and seasonal ingredients. There is usually no bread and no grains; the dinners (like Levi) are gluten free.

Conley — who has worked at Jean Georges in New York, Hugo's in Portland, and at the Miyake farm in Freeport — says the two balance each other very well. Where Conley is more of a culinary traditionalist, Levi pushes boundaries and is a purist when it comes to cooking 100 percent locally, he says.

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