For all the culinary wunderkinds cooking in this town, we don’t have any Michelin-starred chefs.
He’s also the author of a new cookbook, “The Preservation Kitchen: The Craft of Making and Cooking With Pickles, Preserves and Aigre-Doux.”
Getting even one Michelin star is like getting two, and debatably three, Mobile Travel Guide stars. In addition to those creds, Virant also is a past Food and Wine Magazine Best New Chef recipient, in addition to loads o’ praise from other publications.
Key to his cooking style is his use of preservation, particularly canning, to, in essence, extend the growing season well into the winter. Those who know the canning drill understand the workload, so you can imagine the commitment required to doing it en masse for two restaurants.
“It is that much more work for a commercial kitchen to deal with in the growing season, but it’s less work on the back end, which is the reward when it’s busier at the restaurant,” said Virant. “Your labor cost is up during the growing season, but then you’re coasting some for about five months in the winter. It’s also very cost effective.”
Virant got into canning as a hobby, yet he quickly got hooked on the tastes of preserved foods and the metamorphosis they underwent when subjected to combination of heat, pressure and acid.
“It became the kind of food I craved,” he said. “And the idea that we get to buy a lot from farmers, cook a ton that fresh so we could have it in the wintertime just appealed to me.
Virant also sees canning in the restaurant and teaching it through his book as a means of educating diners on eating locally.
“What better way to talk about growing our own food or buying it from local markets and farms, and then having something still in the off season?” he said. “In the book, there’s an underlying theme of getting back to tradition, to family and the importance this type of cooking once had.”
Virant said that canning itself isn’t complicated, but that he knows home cooks can become overwhelmed by trying to do too much. The book, he said, recommends new canners start with small goals to get used to the time consuming routine.
“Make things you plan to turn into gifts to take to somebody’s house sometime,” he said. “You bring somebody a jar of pickled watermelon rinds and they know you made that. It’s cool.”
You already a canner and want to ask the chef some questions? Or if you’re not a canner, do you want to learn more and get a copy of the book signed by Virant? Here’s your chance to do so and take in a fabulous meal prepared by the English Grill crew:
An opening reception with Virant at begins at 7 p.m., followed by dinner, paired with wines. Cost is $65 per person (plus tax and gratuity). Call (502) 583-1234 to make reservations.
The menu includes:
- Plated hors d’oeuvre: charcuterie platter; chicken liver mousse on grilled bread with assorted pickles and jams, served with beer jam Manhattan
- First course: fried green tomatoes with basil mayonnaise and local lettuces
- Second course: grilled New York Steak with fennel panzanella salad served family-style with braised lima beans and a pickled summer squash salad
- Dessert: raspberry brown butter cake topped with yogurt ice cream and elderflowers
Despite the dressy surroundings of the English Grill (if you haven’t seen this space, you owe it to yourself to go and get a glimpse of a gorgeous, Old School hotel dining room), the meal will be served in the informal family style, i.e. platters passed between guests. Personally, I love that touch because it generates interaction between guests as they serve each other and comment on the food. Call me weird, but that’s fun for me.