From Italy to Portland, Levi ’00 meshes sustainability and cuisine

by Amelia Rosch | 5/3/15 6:44pm

For David Levi ’00, his First-Year Trip was an experience that foreshadowed his environmental consciousness. After stints teaching high school and working as an apprentice for restaurants in Sweden and Italy, Levi became the executive chef of Vinland in 2012, a 100-percent locally-sourced restaurant in Portland, Maine.

What was your time at Dartmouth like?

DL: I had a wide range of experiences and I look back on it fondly. I grew tremendously. ...My first experience at Dartmouth was my DOC trip. It was a life-changing experience for me. I had never been on an overnight camping trip before, never been that deep in the woods. It was really beginning of the awakening of my ecological consciousness for me. The following year, I led a trip. It was a wonderful experience and foreshadowed the teaching I would do later. At Dartmouth, I got to try on lots of different hats, so to speak. I decided I was going to drop my preconceptions about what did or didn’t fit my sense of who I was or what I would do. I went in being very turned off by the Greek system, but wound up joining it, but then put distance between myself and it. I got involved in Jewish life, even though being Jewish had not been a huge part of my life before. I got involved because they needed people to do Friday night dinners. That seemed to be a hit. I then ended up being president [of Hillel]. It was an interesting experience. I did some acting and was in production of Othello. That was the first time I really performed in front of a large group. It helped give me confidence in being a teacher.

From Dartmouth, if I had to do over again, there are plenty of things I’d do differently. I had opportunity to live in London for the history [foreign study program]. I got grant from [the Dickey Center] and lived in Venice, [Italy], and studied Jewish ghettos. I had an incredible array of experiences and was surrounded by dynamic and intelligent peers who played a great role in my life. I’m very grateful for the time I had at Dartmouth and I still go back every now and then, since I’m a lifetime DOC member.

Where did you interest in cooking come from?

DL: My family on my dad’s side, which is the Jewish side, is northern Italian. I grew up with certain things in household, which my classmates did not have and which have been somewhat less common in this country. When I was growing up in the ’80s, it wasn’t common for Americans to have olive oil of any decent quality or any real parmesan or prosciutto or things like that. My family, being Italian, for us, these things were as normal as they are for people in Italy. When I started seeing how uncommon that was, and when I got to Dartmouth and saw my friends couldn’t put together decent bowl of pasta — which to me was the simplest thing — I was surprised I got appreciation for being able to make a nice bowl of pasta. I liked to make people happy and give them something to eat. Being involved in [Dartmouth] Hillel my freshman year, we were by the food co-op, and I was amazed that basically any student who was willing to cook Friday night dinner could do it and would get a check or credit card from organization and buy whatever was needed as along as it was kosher and just whip up dinner. We ended up having a lot more people coming, not just because of dinner, a lot of cool things happening. That following year, the Roth Center opened. At the end of freshman year, I became president. I was president during opening. We had an incredible, great kitchen and two times as many people coming for dinner. To me, my involvement was always first and foremost about food. I never before had to cook for those kinds of numbers. I was interested in showing something new and challenging myself. I learned to cook quite a bit from that, more than as an organizational leader. Also, having the experience of living in London and Venice had an impact on me on consciousness around food and desire to get into industry after graduation.

How did you decide to open a restaurant?

DL: It was quite a long time after graduating. I graduated in 2000. My first years out of college, I was working in a restaurant. In 2001, I did low-residency [masters of fine arts] program at Bennington [College]. Living in New York, I was interested in low-residency and it seemed to be the best one. I was very pleased when I got in, since I didn’t know what else to do with myself. It was…in many ways what I needed. I encountered a poet through the program who gave lectures, Robert Bly, who became the most important mentor I had in my life. [Bly’s] influence led to substantial growth as writer and a person and in all facets in my creative life. He taught me the value of form in my work. Form exists everywhere in nature and makes life and beauty possible. I started to think about ways to bring form into my work. I appreciated that form’s essential in any work, including cooking. In cooking as in poetry, lots of technically proficient people who have focused so much on the technical that they haven’t thought enough about what they’re trying to convey, what they’re sense of form may be. He was also someone involved in progressive movements in the 1950s, against Vietnam War but also about corporate capitalism more broadly. He challenged me to think more critically about dominant systems in society. He pushed me to a more radical place compared to culture itself. I don’t want to use radical as objective term because it is a relative one. I’m conservative relative to natural systems. I’m quite conservative in lifestyle but relative to dominant culture, I’m radical relative to that system. And that, relatively speaking, that radical system is the re-education I give myself building on Dartmouth education and graduate school. During that time, I got into foraging wild foods, delving into nutrition. I found the cuisine I was developing was the perfect dovetailing of ecological consciousness, rebuilding sustainable communities and nourishing people.

What are the challenges of having a 100 percent local restaurant?

DL: It’s the only restaurant I’ve ever had. The challenges we have around finding ingredients we need to have totally satisfying and uncompromised cuisine are welcome challenges to me. Whatever challenges I face are a small price I pay for the benefits of the form. I don’t have to worry very much about what it is my basis for doing Maine food or maritime food. The form itself has that covered. I’m only using local ingredients. Looking to hold to Maine or maritime or Acadian French tradition, but most of all, I’m looking to the land. By working strictly with land, it’s a pretty strong case that it’s a cuisine of place. The form is incredibly liberating in that sense. The challenges of sourcing aren’t even challenges. It’s a joy really to be constantly engaged with farmers and craftspeople and know that the menu has to be fluid and that sometimes we either have to change a dish or replace a dish. The really tough parts are challenges common to all restaurants, of getting word out, controlling message, maintaining quality control, keeping organization in the space, dealing with ups and downs of the individuals of my staff, dealing with things breaking and having to replace things I can’t afford and having to raise money in the first place. The biggest challenges aren’t unique to Vinland as 100 percent local restaurant. Things that are unique are a joy.

What advice would you give to current students who want to go into the culinary industry?

DL: Oh boy. That’s a great question…it’s a tough one. I would say, for one thing, be sure that it’s something you’re passionate about. And be sure you’re going into it for the right reasons. It’s a low-paying industry and Dartmouth grads have lots of opportunities for high-paying careers. Go into it with open eyes. It always has been a low-paying industry. It demands long hours and physically uncomfortable and dangerous environments. You will get cut and burned. It can be a gruff industry. It’s not one where people are in any way coddled. If you have a clear sense of why and willing to make certain sacrifices, I would say don’t do culinary school. Go and learn on the job. Learn as much as you can. Stay in places long enough that you aren’t transient but don’t get stuck in one place for many years and not experience anywhere else. A great thing about the industry is that there is a well-established, vital tradition of apprenticeship. It’s typically not paid at all, maybe just a small stipend or room and board and you will work long hours with a lot of work, but you will be there behind scenes, seeing how everything is done. A month of apprenticeship is worth more than a month of culinary school.

People have to have clear sense of why. Regardless of anything around them, political or environmental reasons which are of interest to many students, virtually everyone in this industry who stays in it for very long is in it and loves it because of the human connections. Unlike so many other jobs these days, including many open to Ivy graduates, it is not sitting all day. You’re doing a variety of tasks involving hands, body and brain and not staring at a computer screen. You’re engaging with people day in and day out. There are long days, but stimulating days. In terms of being immersed in human community, it is a wonderful job. As long as you’re doing with integrity, providing something undeniably good and needed.

Also would advise a student or graduate to be ambitious. It’s a world where there is every opportunity for visionary person, enterprising person who has desire to be successful entrepreneur. You need to have confidence and chutzpah and you need to keep your eye on the prize because it’s really a grind working in any pro kitchen, especially anyone who will push you to grow. ... If you manage to do that, you have the opportunity to do something great. Nothing is like being your own boss. It comes with slew of unique challenges, and can be very difficult in many ways, but people who are working for others often long to be their own bosses. People who are their own bosses rarely want to go back to working with others. You can be the master of your destiny. It’s an industry where people graduating from Dartmouth, in terms of being a very highly-selective school, have advantages that a lot of people don’t. It can cut both ways, but it can be the basis of thinking outside the box and seeing ways to bring in ways of thinking that maybe haven’t been used in culinary world and do incredible things. Anyone who feels a passion for it should pursue it and with very open eyes. Anyone who thinks it’ll be anything but extremely hard work might want to think twice.

This interview had been edited and condensed.