Editor’s Note: This is the first of three columns by chef/owner David Levi of Vinland and Trattoria Fanny’s, both in Portland.

“Restriction” is a word I sometimes hear when people first hear about our concept at Vinland, where every ingredient in every dish is local. I counter with two words: “form” and “mission.” To be clear, Vinland is a restaurant, not a concept. At the most basic and real level, it is a place to eat, drink, enjoy company, relax, be delighted and have fun. Like any restaurant. So what makes this restaurant unique? Actually, a fair number of things, but they all boil down to form and mission.

When you go to a Chinese restaurant, do you ever wonder “where are the tomatoes?” Does Mexican food miss out on cranberries, Lebanese food want for miso, Indonesian food suffer for lack of rye?

The world gives us so many beautiful flavors, so many exciting colors, aromas, textures and great ingredients, each one delightful in its own way and – here’s the crux of it – each in its proper context. The best Japanese food in the world does not need olive oil. It’s not a restriction. It’s a form. Every cuisine is a form.

At Vinland, we’re working to build a cuisine of place, of this place, from the ground up.

Oh, it ain’t no way

(Ain’t no way)

It ain’t no way

(Ain’t no way)

It just ain’t no way, baby

One night, not long after Vinland opened, my sous chef, Kate, and I realized, to our horror, that we were out of yogurt whey, only to crack up when we heard Aretha Franklin singing “Ain’t No Way” overhead. Ain’t no whey? At Vinland, yogurt whey is our lifeblood. We have no lemons, so we use whey for a similar sour effect. Our commitment to local food is total, right down to the salt. As far as anyone can tell, we’re the only such restaurant on earth, which “is something. It’s definitely not nothing,” in the words of an old friend.

Without commonplace ingredients like olive oil, cane sugar and lemon, understandably, our cuisine might sound “restrictive.” Restriction, after all, defines form. But it’s not the purpose or effect of form. The purpose is to inspire. The effect is beauty.

A good form resonates with the meaning of the work, whether it’s a plated dish, a painting or a song. A good form provides room for expression and exploration, never inhibiting so much as forcing our imaginations into twists and turns that they might not, otherwise, have taken.

With all due respect to the mighty Mississippi, there are more beautiful rivers in the world, rivers that twist and turn and cascade around and over more dramatic landscapes, rivers that face the “restrictions” of boulders, cliffs, mountains and canyons. Rivers like the Saco, the Kennebec, the Androscoggin and the Penobscot.

A bad form is constrictive, like a dam, impassable to salmon and kayaks alike, dulling the imagination and boring everyone. Before I opened Vinland, I spent years considering whether 100 percent local ingredients in coastal Maine would be a fun and meaningful form for crafting a cuisine of place.

Chef David Levi carries a local hen of the woods mushroom into Vinland, one of his two Portland restaurants. Staff file photo by Gordon Chibroski

No whey? Now that would be a problem. Yogurt whey, the sour, yellow-blue liquid that is strained out of yogurt to get “Greek” yogurt like Chobani, is a by-product, an obscure one at that. But the sour flavor is delicious, and by reducing it 90 to 95 percent, it’s almost like citrus. Except that lactic acid is more mouth-watering than citric acid, and even more useful.

So while the sharp component in our food at Vinland sometimes comes from rhubarb, apple vinegar, cranberries or sorrel, condensed yogurt whey (the omnipresent “CYW” in our recipes), is our staple. It goes in our sauces, our desserts, our cocktails, and as a finishing touch on our fish and meat. How do we cook without lemon? How does anyone else cook without CYW? It is a gift of our form.

Maine is the home of ployes, the buckwheat crepes that are a staple food to the Acadian French. Our version pushes the crepes toward Ethiopian injera bread. We nudge it in that direction by fermenting the buckwheat batter with live yogurt whey, then making flat, spongy ployes by foaming the batter out of a whipped cream maker straight onto the hot griddle. It’s Acadia meets Addis Ababa, a meeting that could only happen in Maine.

Or take our fermented oat pizza. Oats, a staple to the Irish and Scottish, are a huge part of Maine’s heritage. Pizza came with the Italians, another great presence in Maine. These little pizzas, which happen to be gluten-free, are fun because they’re so tasty, but they’re also a good example of how our cuisine uses its form as a way to bring together the food traditions of Maine’s diverse people. Cuisine of time and place.

At Vinland, our mission is not our form, and our form is not our food. But they’re all of a piece. I’m not a very religious guy, but my spirituality is centered on one Hebrew phrase: tikkun olam, “heal the world.”

Is that too hokey? But it’s true. We’re here to do our small part to heal the world. Despite our imperfections. Despite the myriad compromises the world demands. The mission keeps our compromises in check. The form keeps us honest.

During my two-month stage (or culinary apprenticeship) at Noma restaurant in Copenhagen, the team there, then in its eighth year, faced a service the likes of which they’d never done. A flat seating. A buyout dinner. Forty-three people at once.

“Isn’t this very ambitious?” the wine director warned at the team meeting.

“This is a very ambitious restaurant,” replied Matt Orlando, the chef de cuisine.

Vinland is, in our own way, also a very ambitious restaurant. It is an ambitious form and an ambitious mission, which produces an ambitious cuisine. Why do less? Why not try to heal the world? And why not have some fun while we’re at it?

CONDENSED YOGURT WHEY

Recipe from Vinland chef/proprietor David Levi.

To strain yogurt, drape a large cloth napkin, similar cloth or cheesecloth over a colander set in a deeper bowl. Pour in the yogurt and let it strain until the yogurt is thick – allow at least six hours. Save the yogurt as Greek yogurt or what used to be called “yogurt cheese.”

Cook down the liquid whey in a pan on the stove until it is tan and viscous and at least 90 percent reduced by volume. The higher your burner, the faster the process, but be sure to keep your eyes on it as it gets nearer to done.

PARSNIP-GINGER CUSTARD

Recipe from Vinland chef/proprietor David Levi.

You will need a kitchen scale to make this recipe. Like most chefs, Levi measures in weights, which allows for more precision. You’ll also need a Vitamix or another high-powered blender. Levi uses ghee (clarified butter) to make these custards; we call for ordinary butter here. He recommends parsnips harvested after a couple hard frosts, “when they are sweetest.” The recipe calls for raw eggs, which will be partly heated by the warmth of the whirring blender, but if you are sensitive to raw eggs, this is not the recipe for you.

Serves 5

400 grams parsnip, thoroughly scrubbed, in chunks

200 grams butter

200 grams cold egg yolks

120 grams cold honey or maple syrup

50 grams condensed yogurt whey, chilled (see recipe)

60 grams ginger root, scrubbed

30 grams fresh turmeric root, scrubbed (or a heaping teaspoon of ground turmeric)

5 grams salt

Maple sugar, ground ginger, to serve

Gently roast or steam the parsnips until they are very tender. Chill.

Melt the butter.

Add all the ingredients, except the melted butter, to a Vitamix or a similar high-powered blender. Blitz briefly at maximum speed, then pour in melted butter. Continue to blend until the ingredients are silky smooth and fairly hot, hotter than a hot bath but cool enough to touch. Refrigerate the custard overnight. Serve with a dusting of maple sugar and ground ginger.