Observant Jews who keep kosher follow many rules in the kitchen. They cannot eat pork or shellfish. They cannot mix milk and meat or even the dishes used to cook and serve the two. They must wash vegetables very carefully lest a (non-kosher) bug be lurking, and meat must be slaughtered in accordance with ancient laws.
Come Passover, which starts this Friday and ends on April 30, the restrictions multiply. No leavened food may be eaten, nor any food – other than matzoh – that contains wheat. That matzoh, or unleavened bread, is baked according to meticulous protocol.
David Levi, chef and proprietor of Vinland restaurant in Portland, is the son of a Protestant mother and a Jewish father (whose parents and older siblings fled Italy in 1939); he was raised as a Reform Jew, which is the least strict denomination. On Sunday, Levi will hold his third annual Passover Seder at Vinland, his resolutely 100-percent local, seasonal and wild-sourced restaurant. No lemons, no olive oil, no soy sauce, no sugar – all food at Vinland is made from organic ingredients that grew or were raised in Maine. The menu is also gluten-free.
For the Seder, which celebrates the Jews’ freedom from slavery in Egypt, Levi will be superimposing one set of exacting restrictions on top of another. We wondered if, on the Passover holiday, he found himself wishing for a little more freedom himself.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: Do you consider yourself culinarily Jewish?
A: Absolutely. Culturally Jewish, and a big part of being culturally Jewish is being culinarily Jewish. And given that I was raised entirely in New York City, even non-Jews in New York are kind of born Jewish. Everyone grows up eating bagels and pastrami.
Q: Will you be serving dishes at Vinland’s Passover Seder that you grew up eating at your family Seders?
A: A number of things we will not have at the Vinland Seder, because they are not seasonally available in Maine. One of the classic things would be artichokes, Carciofi alla Giudia. As the name indicates, it comes from Jewish tradition. We would not be able to get artichokes. We cannot get pine nuts or raisins. The charoset I grew up with had pine nuts and raisins along with apples and wine. Lamb would always be a key part of the dinner. It was cooked with a lot of onion and lemon. The lemon is caramelized as it roasts with the lamb.
But as with any dinner at Vinland, it’s always about how we can make beautiful and delightful and uncompromising – uncompromising, that’s really a key word – food, but make it with what we have. With Passover, we’re a little bit more limited. We’re not using pork. We’re not using shellfish. We’re not using anything that’s overtly treyf. We’re not using leavened grains. Normally, fermented oats are a significant thing we work with. We’re not using those.
That first year (that Vinland held a Seder), I was happy with the meal we did, but it was a little bit too strict. No dairy. The only cooking fat we used was schmaltz. I made it work, but this year I will use ghee and condensed yogurt whey, which really allow us to do better food, recognizing it’s entirely within the form of Vinland, though OK, it’s not entirely within the form of kosher. I decided I would break from the most stringent rules of Passover.
Q: Why not relax your locally grown rules rather than the Passover eating rules?
A: First, I don’t think you need to serve non-local food for Passover to cook a really good dinner. And the second part of the answer is, that’s what Vinland does. I’m not an orthodox Jew, so I’m very open to compromising the strict rules of kashrut – Jews disagree what that means anyway – and I don’t have a kosher restaurant. Vinland is a restaurant defined by its commitment to 100-percent local ingredients. If we couldn’t do a good Passover using our form, we just wouldn’t do Passover.
I’ve never thought of doing all local ingredients as a restriction. I think of it as form. In my background of writing poetry, I don’t think, “Oh god, I am going to be so restricted because I’m writing a sonnet.” Every form allows for different possibilities. What’s critical to consider is that the possibilities don’t exist in the absence of the form. I think the only reason people might look at our 100-percent local form as restrictive is it’s just not as familiar. I don’t think people would look at a Japanese restaurant and wonder why they aren’t using Parmigiano or look at an Italian restaurant and wonder why they aren’t using miso. In a way, by doing 100-percent local, it’s incredibly liberating. We have this overarching form so within that we can do whatever the hell we want, taking inspiration from France or Italy or wherever.
If the meeting place of the form and our ability to work within it is ever inhibitive to the point that, rather than spurring on creativity, it compromises the outcome, then it’s a failure. I’ve chosen this form because I’m extremely confident – and I think we’ve shown over 21/2 years we’ve been open – that the form really does spur on tremendous creativity and new ways of approaching the food.
Q: So what will you be serving for Passover?
A: To be honest, I haven’t yet talked with our butcher to find out about the availability of brisket or lamb, so we haven’t nailed down the protein. We have done our version of gefilte fish; that’ll be back this year. We’ll be incorporating all the fresh vegetables we can because it’s a spring festival. The farmers market on Saturday was very encouraging. Obviously eggs will be in there. We will have our version of charoset – it’s a pretty nonstandard version of charoset because the only fresh apples that are still available now are non-organic, which means we won’t buy them. We’ll be a non-apple-based charoset.
Q: So what is your charoset made from?
A: We will almost certainly be incorporating whey-poached parsnips. The whey really brings out their fruity quality, and we’ll incorporate some wild black walnuts that I foraged in Yarmouth. We have some dried kiwis from a friend’s yard in Munjoy Hill. He has a winter-hardy kiwi vine. We do have some dried apples. We’ll probably put in some kind of all-local spirit, maybe maple spirits. What it needs to be is totally delicious and hopefully interesting to boot. But it should never be the other way around – interesting first and delicious second.
Q: Given that Vinland is gluten-free, what do you do about matzoh?
A: Two years ago, I was testing out this matzoh using a combination of homemade potato flour, buckwheat flour and oats. Some people thought it was delicious. Some did not. It was not the biggest hit of the night. So last year, I did our fermented oat flatbread, which is totally non-kosher for Passover, because it’s fermented (fermented foods from grains are not allowed during Passover), but it’s a flatbread so it’s evocative in that sense. And this year, I think I am going to do a non-fermented oat bread. I am pretty confident that we can do a delicious non-fermented oat bread.
Q: Matzoh’s not that great anyhow, though, right? I mean the bar is not that high.
A: It has to be so much better than regular matzoh. Regular matzoh is gross. We’re not looking to feed our diners the bread of affliction.