The thing about wine lovers is that they’re also always food lovers (the reverse is hardly true). They tend to have as adventurous, precise, and passionate palates for what they eat as they do for what they uncork. Keeping this in mind, when we set out to add a food component to Verve Wine, we had to be similarly finicky in our choice of chef for Verve Wine +Provisions in Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood.
We were lucky to find our guy, chef Ryan Epp, who has about the most amazing resume that one could imagine. But he also loves wine, knows great products, and believes in deliciousness. He gave us a few moments to chat, and what we learned is fascinating.
Verve Wine: So, how did cooking come into your life?
Ryan Epp: I was lucky that my family sat around the dinner table at night, and my mom always cooked a nice meal. She wasn’t a chef, but she always tried hard. The culinary focus, though, came from my dad’s mother, who grew up poor in the South, cooking for her family. But then she became an army nurse and lived in France and Germany and fell in love with European food culture. Ultimately she devoted a lot of her adult life into learning about food and cooking. I grew up making baguettes with her and so on.
VW: When did you start to think that cooking could be a way of life?
RE: I’d always worked in food service since I was 13. After high school, I did about a year and a half as a pre-law student before realizing that I loved the kitchen. So I switched my major to culinary science — basically wrote myself a study abroad program — and moved to Spain when I was 19 and lived there for two years.
VW: What was it like cooking in Spain?
RE: Life Changing. An internship took me to the Hotel Arts in Barcelona, a Ritz Carlton, which was at the time the number one European food and beverage hotel in the world. This was right in the middle of the renaissance of Spanish cooking. I started in the catering department, then worked in a modern tapas restaurant by the great Sergio Arola. Then I went to Enoteca, under Paco Perez, who became my mentor. It had one Michelin at the time; now it has two.
Paco invited me to work in his 2-star place in a little village up the Costa Brava, right on the Mediterranean. That was insane. I was 20 at the time, staying in a little village of 2,000 people that was like the Hamptons for Barcelona. In the summer it just blew up with high-end tourists.
The seafood was unreal. We got fish right off the docks. When we opened the sea urchin, we would walk to the beach and scoop up the seawater to wash it. I’d ride a bike up to the mountains to pick wild fennel and borage for that night’s service. While they had a very contemporary menu and avant garde style, it always translated back to the classic cooking and relatability. For instance, there was a classic menu of spanish black rice with rabbit and squid. As a kid from Nebraska, it was very eye opening to see an entire other culture’s version of surf and turf.
VW: Sounds incredible. How did your journey continue?
RE: I was going to move to Berlin to open a place for Paco and came home to sort things out. But delays happened and so I accepted a two-day stage at Alinea that became a job, which I held for about a year and a half. But I realized I’d cooked all this modern European food and now was at the cutting edge at Alinea, but I’d never gone to culinary school or got a background in the classics. I wanted that classic French regimen, so I went to New York and did about five stages around town, but really fell in love with Thomas Keller’s Per Se, where I stayed for four years. Then I opened Grant Achatz’s Aviary in New York and eventually came back and ran Roister and then here.
VW: Quite the resume. What’s your vision for Verve Wine +Provisions, where the model isn’t exactly Grant Achatz and Thomas Keller?
RE: I’m going to draw from all of my background, but also from all the home cooking I’ve been doing over the last year, which has been truly inspirational. This is, at its heart, a neighborhood restaurant, so I’ll forgo some of those finicky knife cuts, over-manipulation, and fussiness. Here, the idea is if you come in three times in one week, you can have three different experiences. One night maybe you just want a glass of wine and some olives. The next night maybe you want an intimate dinner with your significant other and a nice bottle. And the third night you’ve got a business meeting and you need a private room and go crazy on your expense account with crazy bottles, truffles, and caviar. We’re prepared for all of it.
VW: What are some ideas that have come out of your home kitchen?
RE: The Caesar Tapenade on artichokes is something I started thinking about at the beginning of the pandemic. My wife was pregnant at the time and I was doing a lot of home cooking. I always loved artichokes, and had a weird obsession with caesar salad, which kind of started at Per Se and the dressing for staff meals. It was very important there — if your Caesar was good you were a hero, but if it wasn’t up to snuff, they’d have a problem with you. So it was a play with those flavors and the artichokes were inspired by Roman-style artichokes which are poached in oil.
VW: Tell us your thoughts on sourcing.
RE: Super important. A chef can’t make great food without great product. We have great relationships with a number of farms out here, and I want to grow that. I maintain some older relationships: like, say, Elysian Fields in Pennsylvania, which raises some of the greatest lamb in the world. I got to know them through Thomas Keller when I was a butcher at Per Se. But we’re developing a relationship with a farm here in Illinois that does work of a similar quality.
The closer to home we can get the happier I am, as the idea of sustainability is important to me. The more I witness the wastefulness of the restaurant industry the more I want to make sure we’re really doing our part. Being conscientious about what we use, how we use it, and how much of it we can put to use. With beef, for instance, I want to make sure every bit is used for something—rendering the fat to cook with, grinding the trimmings. Everything will be thought about, down to vegetables. Can we use the peels of the carrots or the stems of the cauliflowers?
VW: What are your thoughts on wine?
RE: I love all wine, but I gravitate toward honest wines that are easy to drink. I want it to be fresh and enjoyable but don’t want to be fatiguing. I look for balance, good acidity, purity. Kind of like my food, where the idea is to balance the food with the acidity and richness so that it’s not too heavy — refined but also exciting and bright. In every dish, whether it’s mussels or the eggplant parmesan, it’s trying to find the balance then stripping away the bloat without sacrificing flavor or authenticity. It’s the same with wine.
Find out more about Verve Wine +Provisions, check out the menu, or make a reservation here