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Thursday, Sept. 3, 2009 11:07 pm

Double the pleasure, double the hope

Chicago celebrity chefs visit for Hope School benefit

Chef Brian Duncan
Most chefs who contribute their time and efforts to the Hope School’s annual Celebrity Chef Dinner prepare wonderful feasts, have a great time interacting with their hospitable hosts and appreciative diners, and leave Springfield feeling good about helping a worthy institution. But when Springfield native and Chicago restaurateur Kevin Boehm brought his acclaimed chef, Guiseppe Tentori, to Springfield for last year’s benefit (see the IT 9/4/08 issue about Boehm and Tentori at www.illinoistimes.com), he went much further; he joined Hope School’s board.

One of Boehm’s jobs was to help find the culinary talent for this year’s benefit, a task at which he was as successful as his three Chicago restaurants: he recruited not one, but two stars of Chicago’s culinary firmament.

Brian Duncan is a leading wine expert, not just in Chicago, but also nationally. He’s a regular at the Food and Wine’s Aspen Classic each summer. He’s been chosen as wine director of the year by Gourmet magazine and is a three-time nominee for the James Beard nomination for Outstanding Wine Service, among many other honors and awards. In 2006, Wine & Spirits magazine chose Bin 36, flagship of the three Chicago restaurants in which he’s partner, as having the “Best Wine-Pairing System” in America, citing Duncan as the creator of its “smart, friendly approach.”

Pretty heady stuff for anyone, let alone a guy from Chicago’s South Side who spent his adolescent years in central Illinois after his father was transferred to Springfield for his state job. Duncan graduated from Pleasant Plains High School. Proving that it really is a small world, he even worked at Hope School during summer breaks from ISU on what he calls “the graveyard [late-night] shift.”

Regardless his honors, Duncan remains true to his mission to “share his love of wine by making it accessible to everyone.” One of his innovations was to serve a wide variety of wines by the glass and offer wine flights — a serving of a series of small pours of a single variety or style. It’s one of the best ways to learn about wine, but “When we opened in 1999, no one thought wine by the glass was sexy,” Duncan says. “We were taking a risk basing our foundation on wine by the glass and in flights of wine.”

Today both practices are commonplace. Duncan is passionate about wine and wants to share that passion with his customers; more, he wants to make drinking wine fun — something that’s too often lost in snobbery and seriousness. He refuses to call himself a sommelier, preferring the term wine director, and feels that pompous wine aficionados keep wine’s popularity “creeping along” when it should be exploding. Duncan doesn’t think someone has to have a wide knowledge of wine in order to appreciate it. “I have a problem when people talk over people’s heads,” he says. “I always say, ‘I don’t need to be a tailor to get my suits made…. The best way to learn about wine is to drink it. Throw away the vintage chart and invest in a corkscrew.”

Duncan believes that good wine isn’t necessarily expensive wine. His goal is to find wines that taste like they cost more than they do. “This is not the Pepsi/Coke challenge,” he tells me. “There’s so much out there to enjoy.”

Paul Virant, chef/owner of Vie restaurant in Chicago suburban Western Springs is no slouch in the honors department himself, chief among them a 2007 Food and Wine Best New Chef award. I first enjoyed Virant’s cooking, not at his restaurant, but at Prairie Fruits Farm in Urbana, which holds bi-weekly farm dinners during the growing season. The dinner’s theme was “The Whole Hog,” the pig supplied by Stan Schutte of Triple S Farm, who comes to Wednesday’s downtown Farmers’ Market.

Chef Paul Virant

Actually, “enjoyed” is too pallid a word. The meal was perfect, sublime: one that joined a small list of meals I’ll always remember and wish I could experience again, from the housemade charcuterie starters, through the soup with its base of smoked pork broth, slow-roasted porchetta (an Italian marinated and herbed classic) to a finish of outrageously delectable clafouti (see the IT 7/23/09 RealCuisine article about clafouti) made with mixed berries grown on site.

Virant is a Midwesterner who attended the Culinary Institute of America before working in such stellar Chicago restaurants as Charlie Trotter’s, Ambria, Everest and Blackbird before opening Vie.

Vie’s coolly elegant dining rooms, decorated in black and white and every shade of grey, couldn’t contrast more with the bucolic setting of dinner at Prairie Fruits Farm. But the philosophy behind what’s on the plate is the same.

Virant’s food is, above all else, focused on the highest quality, freshest ingredients. Don’t expect fancy squiggles of irrelevant sauce, or weird and inappropriate combinations of trendy foodstuffs. The dishes are far from austere — portions are generous and often contain multiple components — but the individual components form a unified whole, grounded in solid, often classic technique.

Take the signature potato gnocchi starter for example. Potato gnocchi are an Italian staple; made of flour, potatoes and eggs, they’re always substantial, but in the wrong hands can be leaden. Virant’s, however, are almost ethereal; they’re based on a French quenelle (dumpling) mixture made with pte a choux dough (used for cream puffs) that’s light and airy.

Virant is well known for his use of local ingredients and farmers — Vie’s menu even includes a glossary that lists the local farms and dairies that have contributed to the evening’s menu as well as definitions of specific ingredients and preparations. He defines his cuisine as “Seasonal Contemporary American” and says his food “reflects the seasons, local harvests and the world becoming a smaller place.”

I define it as delicious.

The Hope School’s 15th annual Celebrity Chef Dinner is Saturday, Sept. 12. Tickets are $100 per person. Call 585-5119 for reservations or more information.

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