EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the last of three columns by chef/owner David Levi of Vinland and Trattoria Fanny, both in Portland.

Accelerate. Accelerate. Accelerate. That’s fine dining kitchen work 101. Deceleration, that’s the intermediate class. Modulation is advanced. This is no Indy 500. This is Grand Prix.

Life in a fine dining kitchen is notoriously intense, physically and emotionally demanding. September is the afterglow of peak season, still busy, flush with the greatest bounty of crops all year.

October brings calm along with gorgeous colors and crisp nights. For the Vinland team, it’s time for our annual retreat.

This fall, like last fall, and the one before that, Vinland will shut for three days, the team will pile into a couple of cars, and off we’ll go to Hanover, New Hampshire. We’ll raid the town’s justly famous food coop for anything we didn’t manage to snag from the restaurant. We’ll wend our way to a dirt road in neighboring Etna, unload at an unmarked trailhead, and hump our goodies a half-mile up Moose Mountain to the Dartmouth Class of ’66 Lodge, a big, rustic, hand-built log cabin with stream-fed water and gas lights. (I’m a Dartmouth grad myself.) So begins the retreat.

What is Vinland? As I wrote in the first part of this series, it’s a restaurant, not a concept. But at its heart, it’s people. It’s us. It’s Timm, Liam, Alexis, Bradley, Mario, Sarah, Han and Cory. It’s a community, and part of a broader community, which is Portland, and which is Maine. We spend every day celebrating that broader community. On the retreat, we take a couple days to celebrate our micro community, to appreciate each other and kick back as friends.

A big part of the joy of this industry is that we get to be in relationship with each other, day in and day out. It’s an incredibly social environment. I think that’s a major reason that so many people continue to flock to restaurant work. It’s not the money or the hours, that’s for sure. And even for those of us who thrive in stressful situations, the pressure can be a bit much. But the social aspect of this work is a joy.

Striking balance in life is a difficult and elusive goal for most of us. But just as we seek to achieve perfect balance in a dish or cocktail, we have to strive for at least some balance in our lives. After all, what we create and serve at Vinland reflects ourselves. If we’re harried or disgruntled, I truly believe it will show up on some unconscious level in the meal. If we’re feeling energized and invested as a team, I trust that will come through in the guests’ experience.

Of course, when the Vinland team takes to the woods, there’s food. Pull together such a creative and ambitious crew and anything short of a feast is out of the question. There’s a strange pleasure in unloading your backpack at a remote cabin and pulling out your mandoline and bench scraper, pulling the sheaths off your Japanese blades, sticking a killer bottle of champagne in a small waterfall to chill. We might be a bunch of misfits, but we know how to do certain things right.

Returning to Hanover each year with my Vinland team is a homecoming of sorts. As a member of Dartmouth’s class of 2000, I often think of how profoundly my student years shaped my values and sensibilities, ideas that would come to fruition in Vinland. Dartmouth gave me my first taste of the wild woods of northern New England, when I did my four-day freshman orientation hike along the Appalachian Trail, ending at Mount Moosilauke. It was at Dartmouth that I first started cooking with ambition, regularly taking the lead for Friday night dinners at the Hillel House (the Jewish students’ center) which, improbably, led to me being president of that group in my sophomore year. Hillel gave me my first chance to run a large kitchen and feed dozens of people. On some level, I even appreciated the fact that I had to keep it kosher, much as I love many non-kosher foods. The challenge of working within a meaningful form stimulated me then – it still does. It’s no small part of why I chose to create a restaurant that keeps “My Kind of Kosher” (the title of a blog post I wrote in 2011).

David Levi on a staff retreat in New Hampshire, where it’s Vinland versus Mount Moosilauke.

I was lucky, in many ways, to have had the chance to study at Dartmouth. The path I’ve taken since has been unconventional, to say the least, but I’m continually struck by how enthusiastically my fellow alumni have responded to Vinland. My staff sees it all the time. Old friends pop in with their families. Older alumni introduce themselves with a tip of the cap. A current Dartmouth student is spending her summer working with us in the kitchen. Dartmouth was the beginning of my love affair with the land and culture of northern New England. Vinland is the culmination of it. What better way to celebrate the Vinland team, then, but to bring them to the place where my journey toward Vinland began?

The crux of our retreat is the climb up Mount Moosilauke. At over 4,800 feet, it is a serious climb. The long, strenuous hike gives us plenty of time to get out of our minds and into our bodies, to open our eyes to the beauty around us, to bond through a shared challenge, and to reap the magnificent reward of that sweeping view from the summit. These are simple joys, readily accessible but too often ignored or indefinitely deferred. Scheduling and planning for the retreat ensures that we create the time and space to bring these joys back into our lives.

In the depths of the Maine winter, in our slow emerging spring, and in our frantic summer, we often speak of the retreat with eager anticipation. It’s a ritual, and frankly, we all need a little ritual in our lives. It demarcates the progression of our years. It reminds us of how the team has grown and evolved. It gives us a radically different psychological space in which we’re not so defined by our roles in the restaurant. We can engage with each other more fully as people and as friends. We gather around a fire. We gaze at the stars. And we soak in the simple, humbling goodness of the world.


Recipe from chef David Levi of Vinland and Trattoria Fanny, both in Portland. You’ll have to begin the recipe, for Vinland’s version of steak tartare, by salt-curing the shiitake mushrooms, which you should do as far in advance as possible. Salt-cured shiitake are an amazing pantry item, which only get better with time. You’ll also need to make black trumpet mushroom salt, and to pickle the ramps or quick-pickle the shallots – instructions follow. A microplane, or rasp, is handy for mincing the garlic and the horseradish.

Shiitake mushrooms

Dried black trumpet mushrooms

Pickled ramps or shallots

Apple cider vinegar

Habanero pepper

Excellent quality, fresh, lean grass-fed beef, about 3 ounces per person

Crushed garlic

Raw egg yolks, 1 per beef puck

Fresh finely grated horseradish

Micro arugula

Crisp flatbread

Remove the stipes, aka stems, from the shiitake. (We dry and toast the stipes in the oven before pulverizing them in the blender for future use in sauces.) Salt the caps with 8 percent sea salt by weight. The caps will soon start throwing off a lot of water and turn tender. Pack the brined shiitake with all that precious brine in a jar and store in the refrigerator. They will keep forever.

Dried black trumpet mushrooms, pulverized with an equal volume of salt, make for a delicious seasoning, with the look of black pepper but a unique fragrance. Black trumpet salt is totally shelf stable. It will never go bad.

The ramps we use at this time of the year were hot pickled in apple cider vinegar (we always use Sewall’s) with a little habanero. They keep extremely well. This is quite different from the paper-thinly sliced shallots which we quick pickle in cold, habanero-infused apple vinegar. The shallot pickle is ready once the red color begins to bleed and the shallots turn soft, typically after about an hour. They are at their best for the next several hours. By the next day, they are in steep decline (though they still cook up well at any point thereafter).

To make the raw beef, you’ll need a very sharp knife. The beef is shaved more than sliced. (If you freeze it for about 30 minutes, it makes it easier to slice.) It should wind up a much lighter, looser texture than ground beef, with none of the fat and connective tissue that characterize the latter. Once the beef is shaved and gently formed into a puck – do not press it, but leave it fairly loose. Then sprinkle both sides with black trumpet salt, spread thinly and evenly with the garlic paste on 1 side, pour on a little shiitake brine, and add a thin layer of finely sliced cured shiitake. Top those with a layer of the shallot or ramp pickle, then the yolk (save the whites for another use). Sprinkle with a little more black trumpet salt, followed by the horseradish. Serve the raw beef garnished with micro arugula and splashed with vinegar from the ramp or shallot pickle. We serve the meat with our fermented oat flatbread, but any crisp flatbread will do.

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