EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the last of a four-part series on Vinland chef David Levi.

Three overhead cameras were trained on Vinland chef David Levi, streaming live footage of him cooking dinner at one of the most vaunted culinary addresses in America, the James Beard House at 167 West 12th St. in Manhattan. Just off camera, someone informed him of the final head count for dinner. “57?” Levi asked, leaning forward, his tone polite, inquisitive. If he were nervous, the only sign of it was in the way he smoothed down an already smooth kitchen towel at his hip before going back to the dinner he was preparing for those 57 people.

All businesses are ruled by numbers, but nowhere are they quite as naked as in a chef’s world, where the number of people being served on any given night counts as validation, stagnation or an outright rebuke. Capacity at the Beard House is 80. Izabela Wojcik, the director of house programming for the James Beard Foundation, said 50 is an average number of diners, who pay between $130 and $170 to taste the food of notable chefs from around the country (and the world).

This then was a good turnout, solid while not earth shattering. But for Levi, merely being asked to cook at the Beard House, the former residence of the famed cookbook author and teacher – a sort of Carnegie Hall for chefs as the foundation often describes itself– was huge, especially in his first year of business. “I’m honored,” he’d said the week before. “Grateful.”

There are other numbers worth talking about. Number of restaurants Levi ran before Vinland: 0. Number of years Vinland has been in operation on Congress Street in Portland: 1. The percentage of his food on his “Winter’s Expression of Maine” dinner for the Beard House (including charred beets, monkfish cheeks, lobster with fried nori) that was from Maine: 100. How long it took him and his staff, including sous chef Kate Whittemore, to trudge through the snow and wedge all that food – the Maine food had to come from Maine after all – into his Jetta station wagon for the 323-mile drive to Manhattan: two hours.

Finally there’s the number of times out of 26 pay periods in 2014 that Levi felt able to cut himself a check. That corresponds to the number of cameras trained on him that Tuesday evening in New York: 3.



There has to be, Wojcik said, some “alchemy at play” that allows a chef to be considered to cook at the Beard House. It’s uncommon but not unheard of for a chef in his or her first year of business to be invited. “I kept hearing about David,” Wojcik said. Then Christopher Papagni weighed in last fall. The former executive vice president at the International Culinary Center (formerly the French Culinary Institute in New York City) relocated to Portland not long after Levi, a native New Yorker. Papagni had been eating at Vinland since it opened and was captivated. “He was the last person to remind me that this name was kicking around in my brain,” Wojcik added.

Levi said the foundation offered him dates in January through March, but worried whether he could pull it off when nearly everything in Maine, even the bays, tend to freeze. He relished the challenge. “If we’re going to showcase what Maine cuisine is all about, it is much more compelling to do it in the winter than the summer,” he said. “In the summer, we have many of the same things that you’d find in any part of the country.” In the winter, Maine’s famed resiliency materializes in its foods, and he was eager to put any concerns to rest.

Wojcik sees Levi’s Vinland as a genuine signifier of Portland’s place in the food world, which is not inconsiderable. “Now we have to say Portland, Maine,” she said. “You can’t assume you’re talking about Portland, Oregon anymore.” And she added, “The thing about David and Vinland is, it puts an ambitious, modern, interesting and intellectual restaurant in your midst in Portland. And you kind of need one if you are going to claim to have a real food scene.”


Arriving at Vinland five days before the James Beard House dinner, you’d have found Levi making himself a late breakfast of sunny side up eggs, goat cheese, saukerkraut and warm tortillas, which he generously shared. The night before, in honor of the restaurant’s one-year anniversary, Vinland had treated its suppliers, from farmers to foragers, to dinner. Levi went table by table, pointing out where everyone had sat.


“We decided we were going to celebrate our anniversary by making no money,” he said with a big smile.

Speaking of money, while skeptics in the Portland restaurant community might be surprised that Vinland is still open – the same people who thought Levi was crazy for removing non-native ingredients like olive oil, pepper, lemon and chocolate from its flavor arsenal – he is not. He said Vinland turned a profit in its first year, most of which went to paying back investors, though he did not share details of the finances. He’s proud of how the restaurant has kept its costs down with the help of minimal investors (the largest investors gave $10,000 “of which there were only a few”) and an opening budget of less than $250,000, while maintaining quality. He indicated the locally made furniture – clean, modern lines, blond wood. “These stools were expensive. But I couldn’t open a restaurant where we would be buying stuff made with slave wages.”

Monetarily, he’s in “kind of the predictable place of being a new business owner in a bootstrap business.” He waves off his own lack of pay. Asked when was the last time he got, say, a new coat, he pointed to the shearling coat his girlfriend Liz Trice gave him for Christmas. Secondhand at Material Objects. But what about the electricity bill? “I’m not sure I want to get into too many details,” he added. “I’ve just taken a vow of temporary poverty.”

Levi believes that is only temporary, because he is full of ideas of how to build the business. Most immediately, he’d make better use of outdoor seating in the warmer months. He mused about a complementary side business featuring something less labor intensive yet still 100 percent local. Piccolo has Blue Rooster, Hugo’s has Eventide – maybe Vinland could have its own little brother or sister.

Then there’s getting more customers in the door. Levi, whose sincerity is matched only by his savvy, is also aware that the James Beard honor pays dividends in resumé and reputation building.

January was a perfect month for Levi to take on a James Beard House dinner. “We were not only willing but happy to take a midweek night in January,” Levi said. “For us it is ideal.” Business is slow, as it is for virtually all Maine restaurants in winter. He could close the restaurant and not miss much.


But an invitation to the Beard House is an honor that costs chefs money. The Beard House hosts about 220 dinners a year, and Wojcik said the chefs who take part spend anywhere from $7,500 to $30,000, between transportation, food costs (she has a “modest” budget to help offset those) and hotel. Levi is used to cutting corners where he can. They’d drive, not fly, and instead of hotels, he and his crew could stay with his parents.

On that Friday before the dinner, Levi and Whittemore were plotting the prep work they’d need to do. The menu had been set for weeks. He’d be picking up the lobster – donated by Maine Lobster Direct – the next day and on the Sunday before, they’d process them. Brooklyn-based Zev Rovine Selections would be donating all the wine, Allison Lakin of Lakin’s Gorges in Rockport the hard cheeses for the cheese course. Harbor Fish in Portland was giving them the monkfish. But when and how to cook it on unfamilar equipment – gas ovens, not induction – down in New York?

“I wonder if we should butter poach it?” Whittemore offered. Levi suggested a good sear and holding the fish in butter.

He said he was a little nervous. “I’m not nervous,” Whittemore said. “The best way to approach this kind of thing is to think of it as another night that demands our highest performance, which is every night.”

They joked about the cameras that would be watching them at the Beard House. Whittemore, who has been with Levi since the beginning, along with bartender Alex Winthrop (her partner in life and fine dining), tends to stay away from the limelight. “I’ll sous-vide the cameras,” Whittemore joked, referring to a method of cooking things almost agonizingly slowly.



As the first guests began arriving on Tuesday evening, Levi was putting the finishing touches on what the Beard House classifies as hors d’ouevres but which he’d told the wait staff he preferred to call “snacks.” (“We don’t call them hors d’ouevres,” he said. “We’re not a French restaurant.”) Up walked Maralyn Salvas, a native of Biddeford who has lived in Connecticut for more than 40 years and who, along with her husband, Jeff Goldwasser, has been a member of the James Beard House for nearly as long as the foundation has existed (it opened in 1986, the year after James Beard died; they joined in 1990). The Salvas-Goldwassers had been up to Maine over New Year’s and ate at Vinland on New Year’s Day. (No one can say Levi doesn’t work hard; he stays open when almost everyone is closed). They’re foodies. When they come to Maine they seek out the new and fashionable, but as Goldwasser put it, “Don’t get me wrong, every trip we go to J’s Oyster.”

Salvas asked if Levi remembered her. He did. “We were talking about Italy,” Levi said as his fingers busily worked over an appetizer of raw beef with cranberries, horseradish, pickled shallots and micro cress.

Goldwasser joined his wife and told Levi that he’d canceled a business trip to Los Angeles which would have had him away on the night of the Beard House dinner; that’s how eager he was to eat Levi’s food again. “Are you having fun?” he asked Levi, who had already been asked that question a number of times that evening. “It’s an honor,” Levi answered.

The morning after the dinner, Goldwasser said those charred beets were so good, “I was eating it with my fingers.” He attends 10 to 12 dinners a year at the Beard House, which puts him in the frequent diner category (and is more than 250 dinners total). The Vinland dinner “was way up there,” he said. “What we really loved is the idea that it is all sustainable and all from Maine. It’s simple but very complex as far as the flavors.”

Shelley Menaged, special projects manager for the Beard House, declared the dinner “lovely.” “And I enjoyed everything I ate tremendously.”

Her companions said they’d never had better-tasting turnips than the ones in Levi’s soup, and puzzled over the source of the bright, appealing acid taste since they knew it wasn’t from citrus (answer: Levi uses yogurt whey to poach the turnips and adds strained yogurt to the soup before it’s served).

The all-local aspect was striking, Menaged said. But with it came a certain hard-to-define eating experience, particularly around some of the unusual accompaniments. “The very tasty pork dish could have used some mustard,” she said. A fig jam to go with the very tasty cheese would also have been nice. The lack of these things “didn’t make the food taste any less,” she said. “But it was a definite, conscious lack of something.”

She paused, thought about it and said, “I’m going to say it is conscious-effort eating,” she said. “But if I was up in Maine, would I go back to the restaurant? In a heartbeat, yes.”

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