10 years ago tomorrow, Paul Virant took a risky plunge and opened a restaurant like no other in southwest suburban Western Springs—upscale, on the cusp of the farm-to-table movement, the first in the village to serve alcohol. Virant's detail-oriented cooking, canning, and preserving of local product led to multiple awards; putting Vie, and himself, on the map for good.
As Virant prepares to open a much different restaurant, Vistro, he chatted about the beginnings of Vie, the last 10 years, and his new place.
Can you believe it's been ten years?
It seems longer—it's been a long ten years. We've done so many different things, so many different menus, great events, there's been peaks and valleys along the way—challenges with staff, the economic downturn in the latter part of '09. We're on the second foreclosure for the building, so I'm seeing outside the regular restaurant operating issues and challenges.
Is the foreclosure going to affect Vie?
It shouldn't be an issue. It's an opportunity to renegotiate the lease and potentially buy the building. You hate to benefit from someone else's misery, but really it's an opportunity for us.
When you think back over the ten years, what's the first thing that comes to mind?
I just ran one kitchen prior to opening (Vie) so it was a huge opportunity as a cook to just do what I wanted to do. I always knew I wanted to support the upper Midwest. And then the staff that has worked with you. On the 17th we're going to do a big party at the restaurant that's going to spill into the street. I'm trying to invite a bunch of old staff—old staff that you want to see again. There's a whole list you don't want to see again.
Who are the former staff that you want to see again?
Scott Manley at Table, Donkey & Stick. Obviously Nathan Sears and his partner Adam (Hebert) at the Radler; Nathan was with me a long time and instrumental in establishing all the charcuterie work that we do. Dennis Stover (HotChocolate, Villain's). Justin Large (One Off Hospitality) was real helpful that first year. Dennis Bernard, who also works with One Off, he's doing the new Big Star concept (Dove's Luncheonette), we were his first Chicago job. And there are lots of people who are still doing great things but maybe haven't gotten up to running a kitchen just yet.
How did you end up at that location?
Why the hell did I open up the restaurant there? (Laughs) But we were living in the Ukrainian Village and we had been looking for spaces in the late 90's. My wife was in medical school and she graduated and got a job in Downers Grove, I was working at Blackbird and we had had our first child. It was a tough commute so we moved out to Hinsdale in 2002 and I had already been talking to some people (about opening a restaurant).
Vie was the first restaurant in Western Springs with a liquor license. How did that happen?
There were some other concepts that were shut down. Any community like that that's pretty close knit can be particular with what they want. I had to present and convince the board—I remember having to sign off that we weren't going to have a neon sign in front of the restaurant or have any games or pool tables. It's kind of funny looking back on it now.
How confident were you ten years ago that this concept would work? A lot of the stuff with local farmers, preserving and canning wasn't too common back then, especially in the suburbs.
I don't know if I was stubborn or blind, but I just wasn't thinking about that. From the business standpoint, you should probably be thinking about all these things, but we always did what the original vision was. We had a glossary on the whole back of the menu as a tool to educate the customers and that was a big mission.
Did customers understand what you were doing?
No question some people didn't get it. They may have come around, they may not have. But still, after ten years, the word still hasn't completely gotten out. I don't think we have reached our tipping point. And it may never happen, just because of the nature of the suburbs.
What accomplishments that people may or may not know about are you most proud of over the last ten years?
Obviously, it's an honor to have gotten the Best New Chef award from Food & Wine in 2007. We were really proud when we got a Michelin star in 2011. We're not proud when it was taken away in 2012 and we've never gotten in back, so 2012 was difficult. Then there are the things that have been good for business, like all the semi-finalist (nominations) for the Beard awards have been huge. And we've had a few of celebrities come into the restaurant, but when Bill Murray came in—he was playing golf in the area—I kind of tweak out about stuff like that.
What role do you feel Vie has had in the local farm-to-table movement in the past ten years?
There's a handful of chefs that inspired me to help begin that movement. Obviously Paul Kahan, Rick Bayless, Sarah Stegner, Bruce Sherman. We pushed it and remained true to that and I hope we've inspired a lot of other people and chefs.
My whole thing is: if I can get it from the Midwest, and it's as good or better, then I'll just wait until it comes into season and I'll embrace it then. I think cooking in California is easier than cooking in the Midwest, but the challenges (here) push chefs and cooks. You have to think about things a little more.
Tell me a little about your upcoming restaurant, Vistro.
We're excited. It's kind of a global bistro and we're going to do a lot of different things from all over the world. We're going to do a fish of the day as one of our entrees, it may come from Hawaii, it may come from the Mediterranean, it may come from the Great Lakes.
We're about two weeks out if everything goes right. The restaurant space is set up pretty well and we're going to start doing some cooking in there next week. There's a wood oven and we've already started to cure it.
What are you most looking forward to and what are your goals for the future of Vie?
We're excited about the new sommelier manager on staff, the new event planner, my new team in the kitchen. I think the symbiotic relationship with (Vistro) that's just one town over and is the total opposite, real casual, I think that's going to help spread that word. I'll have my wood-burning grill at Vie, my wood oven at Vistro, so I'm excited about having those places work with each other.
Vie is serving a special 5-course retrospective menu of staff and customer picks all week, culminating with an open house and block party on Sunday.
· All Vie Coverage [-ECHI-]
· All Paul Virant Coverage [-ECHI-]
· Vie [Official Site]