The problem with the concept of farm to table is that it leaves out a major ingredient: the chef. I interviewed chef Jason Vincent of Pilsen's Nightwood Restaurant in preparation for his appearance on The Dinner Party Monday night and it was quickly apparent that he was included in the Food and Wine list of "Best New Chefs in America" of 2013 for a reason.
Nightwood has always been a restaurant committed to using products from humanely treated animals and small farms, staying as true to the original source of inspiration as possible, while respecting the environment and the food itself. As an example, Nightwood recycles their fryer oil as biofuel and food scraps as compost for the farms as a way of completing the food chain circle. This much I knew. However, there were some ingenious new pieces of information that I learned during my time with him in the back of the kitchen as to how Vincent is able to get the most from his dishes.
Nightwood was built around the concept of cooking things over wood: apple, cherry and white oak woods to be exact. As Vincent notes, "The effect of doing this creates a mild smoke, not a campfire smoke. So, you get an even-keel cooking that allows the food to maintain its natural water content and remain juicy, enhancing it with subtle flavors." I asked him how many pounds of wood he buys every season and he replied, "huge truck loads."
For The Dinner Party on September 16, Vincent will be making "Holy Sh*t Corn Soup" that tastes more like Mexican street food, an elotes right off the griddle and "Spit-roasted Chicken with a Late Summer Salad of Bitter Lettuce, Seasonal Fruit and Sheep Milk Feta Cheese." When asked about his philosophy on farm to chef to table, he responded that, "clearly the chef is a key element. But if you want to start altering foods and their inherent tastes -- go talk to Monsanto."
Vincent will be making the above dishes at The Dinner Party at City Winery for the entire audience, as well as fellow guests Robert Falls (Artistic Director of The Goodman Theatre), Katie Rich (Second City Mainstage Comedienne) and David Eigenberg (NBC's "Chicago Fire" and "Sex and the City" actor) before bellying up to the table to join the party himself.
Below, watch Vincent as he makes "Holy Sh*t Corn Soup" in the back of Nightwood Restaurant.