Not for the rich, for the planet
In praise of Vicia
It was the middle of the afternoon of my second day staging at the celebrated new St. Louis restaurant Vicia. (It’s pronounced “stah-jing. That’s French for voluntarily working your butt off for free.) I’m stemming and slicing a huge box of shiitake mushrooms as fast as I can with my brand new razor-sharp carbon steel hand-forged Japanese knife. My Apple watch buzzes and as I glance over to the screen, I feel my knife enter my fingernail. Anticipating the worst, I look down and am relieved to see that my new knife merely planed a paper-thin slice of my nail, just like I was supposed to be doing to the vegetables. I look back to my watch to see what the buzz was about. The Apple watch activity app was informing me “Your stand goal has been achieved.” “No s*** my stand goal has been achieved!” I mutter. I’d been on my feet the whole frickin’ day, peeling and slicing and chopping and dicing.
I’m pretty thin-skinned. I’m real sensitive to criticism. So what, I asked myself, was I doing with a sharp knife in one of the best new restaurants in the country trying to pull my own weight in a kitchen where everybody was one third my age and had been to culinary school and my onion dice was expected to produce consistent ¼-inch squares? What was I thinking?
Vicia is really hot right now. Today’s fine dining experience has evolved beyond merely putting a plate of tasty food in front of you. It needs to entertain you or enlighten you. A tasting menu at Chicago’s top-rated Alinea is a series of yummy but weird-looking little edible sculptures that amuse and entertain. A tasting menu at Vicia, by contrast, showcases the finest available ingredients and coaxes them to their highest potential and, in so doing, educates and enlightens us. It does so with reverence. This is not fancy food for rich people’s amusement. This is food that expresses social values. If you are going to kill an animal, don’t pick out the best parts and toss the rest. Eat the whole thing. If you pull a radish or carrot out of the ground, don’t throw away the tops. Turn them into a pesto or salsa. Don’t throw away the pickling liquid from the homemade pickled onions. Use it in a vinaigrette. Don’t pitch the pulp from the juicer, season it with Middle Eastern spices and make falafel.
This ethic is expressed in Vicia’s name. The opening page of its website explains that vicia is the Latin word for vetch: “a leguminous cover crop planted to replenish nutrients into the soil.” Vicia goes beyond the farm-to-table concept by committing to buy from farmers who practice pesticide-free and fertilizer-free crop rotation and soil enrichment from nitrogen-fixing cover crops. Vicia is a visionary restaurant. We are living in a culture where almost all the food on our plate has been industrially processed, and our meat and vegetables have been optimized for high yield and long shelf life, rather than for nutritional value and flavor. Vicia shows us how delicious a humble turnip and rutabaga can truly be if thoughtfully prepared.
In his book The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food, acclaimed chef Dan Barber writes: “Chefs have an opportunity – and perhaps the responsibility – to use their cooking to shape culture, to manifest what’s possible, and, in doing so, to inspire a new ethic of eating.” Dan Barber’s restaurant, Blue Hill at Stone Barns, is ranked the 11th best restaurant on the San Pellegrino Top 50 Restaurants in the World list. It is no coincidence that the emerging standard-bearer of this “new ethic in eating” is Vicia’s chef/co-owner Michael Gallina. Before moving back to his hometown, Michael Gallina was Blue Hill’s chef du cuisine, and his wife Tara, Vicia’s general manager and co-owner, was Blue Hill’s lead bartender and senior service captain.
When I arrived to begin my stage it was immediately apparent that this was a restaurant with deep philosophical underpinnings. The atmosphere is quiet and serious. At 1 p.m. the kitchen staff assembles at the long table by the wood oven in the patio dining room for a meeting. The Chef discusses the previous day.
He’s upset that he found multiple partially filled containers of the same items in the walk-in cooler. They should have been consolidated. He found declining cilantro in the cooler. It could have been used in a salad dressing for a staff meal rather than let it go to waste. He can’t tolerate throwing food away. He said that his chefs should be thinking ahead and utilizing idle moments to get a jump on what’s needed for the next day. Then the Chef began a discussion of the day’s menu.
The focus is on letting vegetables take center stage and using all parts of the plant. Animal proteins take on a supporting role and, as with the vegetables, all parts are used. The staff at Vicia truly walks its talk. The menu is driven by the best of what’s available at the moment.
Vicia’s values are expressed through the food on the plate. The “snack” portion of the dinner menu had three offerings: a roasted sunchoke and blue cheese wrapped in prosciutto and broiled (vegetable center stage, meat in supporting role), petit radishes with vegetable-top pesto and whipped ricotta (working with local growers and using all parts of the plants), porridge bread with ramp butter and locally made artisanal salami (freshly milling an old-time wheat variety into flour, making compound butter out of foraged plants, supporting local artisans).
The family-style main dish offerings were a mix of vegetable and grain based dishes as well as meat, fish and poultry options. Missouri wheat berries were stewed with finely chopped stinging nettles and spinach and reduced cream, braised rutabaga and turnips were topped with servecchio cheese, stone-ground polenta was topped with sweet potato mole and popcorn powder. The grass-fed beef dish was a bowl of shredded over-night slow-roasted neck and belly meat seasoned with horseradish vinaigrette. The Berkshire pork preparation consisted of 3 pieces of pork exhibiting the characteristics of 3 different parts of the pig, accompanied by squash mustard.
The restaurant has an open kitchen and a nice covered patio with removable side panels. This is where the wood oven and grilling station is located. One of the courses in the tasting menu involves taking a “field trip” to a standup table in front of the fireplace and being served a wood-grilled boneless chicken thigh on a skewer with just-grilled naan and herb salad accompanied by mini squeeze bottles of green harissa and carrot hot sauce.
When I was growing up, most of the vegetables on the family dinner table were retrieved from a can or the freezer and came from seeds that were bred for a high-yield crop and long shelf life rather than good taste. It’s no wonder vegetables get a bad rap. Our protein-centric diet is being implicated as a root cause of many chronic diseases. The prevailing wisdom is that we should be eating more vegetables and less meat. Vicia takes this wisdom and turns it into delicious nutritious art.