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Les Gourmandes: Chef Paul Virant

Les Gourmandes: Chef Paul Virant

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Chef Paul Virant is not a Chicago native, but he has certainly made the city his home. As the executive chef of both Vie restaurant outside the city in Western Springs, IL and Perennial Virant downtown, Chef Virant has brought an original “farmhouse posh” vibe to upscale dining.

This isn’t by accident, given that Virant is a Missouri born boy who grew up with his family cooking fresh and seasonal ingredients grown just down the road. This is a beginning that is evident in many of the recipes served at both his restaurants. The menus are simple and change with the time of year; and the dishes provide clean flavors and natural taste pairing that would have to make his family proud. Which is good, given that Virant still cites his mother, grandmother, and local farmer’s markets as his biggest culinary influences. Perennial Virant is even located right across the street from Chicago’s Green City Market!

But it hasn’t always all been green and easy for the midwestern chef, whose first “foodservice” job was working at a Six Flags. Early in his culinary career, he served a birthday dinner to famous Julia Child that he felt was less than satisfactory. While working as a saucier at Ambria in Chicago, he overcooked the lamb entrée for the celebrated chef, but he was able to bounce back…
and then some…in the end.

After opening Vie in 2004, Virant was quickly recognized and lauded by local Chicago media including Phil Vettel of the Chicago Tribune, and was later named “Best New Chef” by Chicago Magazine. He was also named Food and Wine Magazine’s “Best New Chef” in 2007, and all of that was just the beginning. Vie earned a Michelin star in 2010 and 2011 and Virant then made an appearance on the Food Network’s Iron Chef America. Finally, he was a top five finalist for the James Beard “Best Chef Great Lakes” award in 2013.
And even after all of this success, Virant continues to partner with chefs from his home state of Missouri for extensive tasting menus at hot spots like Trenchermen, and still says that if he weren’t a chef, he would be a farmer.

This is apparent in the use of fresh and often organic ingredients throughout his menus. Vettel calls it a “farm-to-table, everything-made-in-house ethic,” that Chicago Metromix writer Lisa Arnett promises will have any diner “craving return trips because every bite delivers in the deliciousness department.”

Virant himself takes this a step further, explaining, “I wanted to create an extension of my home, where people come together and enjoy high quality food and drink in the company of others. My goal is to be a small part of my guests’ enjoyment of every morsel and drop of life.”

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This simplistic look at cooking has become a guiding Virant philosophy. His at home fridge staples are classics like pickles, bacon and maple syrup, and it is the menu classics like his pork loin or selection of Midwestern cheeses at Perennial Virant that have made him a fan favorite for diners and culinary experts alike. Everyone wants to eat with Chef Paul Virant. But maybe we all should have known that Virant was destined to be a successful entertainer. After all, he did win “Best Party Host” as his 1987 high school senior superlative after hosting a 1,000-person event that even made the local St. Louis papers.

And though he might not be the same partier he used to be, he still holds out hopes of becoming a bona-fide rock star one day…and until then, all the papers are still going to keep talking about him.

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