GRAND RAPIDS — There is a place for those who know how to pronounce — and how to eat, in tiny portions — things like pâté, rillettes (which does not rhyme with Gillette) and escargot. It is called France, and there they drink wine. In this country, if you order those things with your beer at the pub, you might be called a few French-sounding words, but then you’ll have to settle for your customary burger or wings or nachos or whatever else is actually supposed to go with beer.
Unless you’re dining at Brewery Vivant, in which case your waiter might suggest a beer that pairs well with your garlic-drowned snails.
Yes, at Brewery Vivant, they use the verb “pair” with beer, not wine. It’s not a mix-up. It’s not irony. One of the brewery’s favorite things to do, declares Vivant’s website, is to pair beer with food to “uplift the enjoyment of both.” In fact, the brewpub provocatively claims that “in many cases, beer is a better choice than wine to pair with food.”
This seems like the stuff of scandal, not to mention entrepreneurial suicide. One would expect the wine connoisseurs to turn up their noses and silently take their business elsewhere. One would expect beer lovers to snort and then do the same. But that hasn’t happened. As many in Grand Rapids already know, Vivant makes great beer and great food, and makes them work together in ways that keep people coming back.
The man behind the food is Drew Turnipseed, whose last name alone is proof that he belongs in the culinary world. Other proofs include his training at the Art Institute in New York City, his tenure at Chateau La Gatte in Bordeaux, and his success in restaurants across the country, from the East Coast to Alaska.
What is an advanced sommelier — indeed, a man who learned his charcuterie on the banks of the Dordogne — doing in beer country? Drew says he was “on his way out” of Michigan when the owner of Brewery Vivant, who had attended his wine-pairing dinner for Michigan’s Hickory Creek Winery, offered him a job, a job in which Drew has been able to combine his classical training and his knack for producing exciting new food.
“The place you work is a kind of medium for your art,” says Drew, and the position at Vivant has allowed him to expand the purview of that art.
Drew does many things as the head chef at Vivant, but perhaps the most important is planning the season’s menu. He brags that it is a group effort because his staff is so talented, but it’s not hard to see his influence in this fall’s French-, Belgian-, and Bavarian-themed menu, a virtual roadmap of his time in Europe. Vivant’s menu also reflects Drew’s classical training; he explains that although the fall menu is not as creative as some of the previous selections, it is as authentic as possible, “straight from the book but really well researched, really well executed.”
“From the book” means continental favorites such as chèvre chaud (hot goat cheese) salad, escargot, and a pâté which Drew describes as the fruit of “two trips to France and a bunch of years of heartbreak.”
The pâté is both traditional and approachable, and diners who resist burying it in the delicious mustard and cornichons that accompany the dish are rewarded by the figs and walnuts within. And although pâté is sometimes served in upscale American establishments, one rarely finds rillettes, much less rillettes that balance the delicacy of France and the heartiness of America.
This balancing act is extended to beer-food pairings, which Drew also oversees. In more ways than one, the food often begins with beer. “I pick apart and conceptualize the beer,” he says, “and then build a menu from that.”
The menu items are often physically built from beer as well — there is “a tremendous amount of beer” that goes into the food, as much as possible, according to Drew. This means that where a classically trained chef would use wine, Drew uses ale. He’ll poach a meat, such as Vivant’s foie gras, in beer, or he might deglaze a pan with beer (though he admits that they do keep a little wine around to use when they can’t avoid it).
A marriage between food and beer
While Drew is at the center, the beer pairings at Vivant are no solo effort. Drew spends a lot of time tasting beer with Vivant’s head brewer, Jacob Derylo, and he then holds meetings to collaborate with the kitchen staff. But Drew relies on the brewers to help him detect nuances in the beer, tastes that Drew’s palate absorbs as undertones but might not register as distinct or recognizable flavors.
The language Drew employs — “art,” “conceptualizing beer,” “nuances” and “undertones” — affirms the complexities of his work in pairing food and beer. Still, the fundamentals of a good beer-food marriage are simple and easy to grasp.
The first principle of pairing is commonality. For example, Drew describes a Bohemian dish in which foie gras is studded with truffles, poached in beer, and put inside a trussed pheasant, which is then roasted. He would recommend the Escoffier beer with it, noting that the gaminess of the pheasant complements the similar “barnyard” characteristic of the beer.
The second principle is balance, often achieved through opposition. Sour beers, for instance, are complemented by something sweet, such as cherries or another fruit. In Vivant’s Bohemian pheasant, it’s the foie gras that is “just sweet enough” to balance out the sourness of the Escoffier.
Of course, determining that fattened-goose liver complements sour beer isn’t the finish line for Drew and the Vivant staff. They still have to convince people — stubborn, Midwestern people who might otherwise eat tater-tot nachos with their beer — to try that goose liver.
Understandably, Vivant has encountered what Drew calls “serious roadblocks” in introducing such a sophisticated cuisine, and not just because many Americans find foie gras and bone-marrow tartine strange or even repulsive.
In addition to the sometimes formidable sophistication of the menu, the portions are small. And because of the quality and provenance of the ingredients, the prices are high. Finally, there’s the extra challenge of converting some foodies — the people that already like traditional French cuisine — into beer drinkers.
By now, though, it is clear that any major “roadblocks” are in the past. Vivant might have to fight a few individual skirmishes from time to time, but they’ve won the war. Drop in at just about any time, even at 3:00 in the afternoon as we did, and you’ll find the place humming with customers both eating and drinking.
Drew isn’t surprised. He credits persistence and supportive management for his success. Because the ownership and management are resolved on making Vivant excellent, not big, its product is remarkably authentic. Drew also knows that such a menu is not only possible but normative in other countries. He explains that where the best beer has traditionally been made — that is, Europe — endives, pâté, and Gruyère are standard fare.
The pub’s new general manager, Joel Medina, isn’t surprised either. From the beginning, he witnessed a zealous commitment to quality from everyone involved with the restaurant. The result is satisfying, according to Medina: “We’re achieving a level of experience that is unexpected.”
That means happy customers, very happy customers.
“As long as they’re willing to try it,” says Medina, “I guarantee they’ll leave pleased.”
So if you haven’t tried Vivant, you should. If you have, you should try something different, something braver, something difficult to pronounce. And if you want to try your own hand at pairing or impress your friends before they can ask the waiter, consider the following options, which were suggested by the chef himself.
Try Solitude, Vivant’s trademark abbey ale, with the braised Bavarian pot roast and house-made egg noodles. Or try the Big Red Coq (you may have to wait until this intermittent offering reappears) with the goose-liver-stuffed mushroom caps or something with bleu cheese (a pairing that is strange and inexplicable, according to Drew, but still delicious). You might also consider the Peppercorn Ale with either the braised pork or some form of poultry (perhaps the roasted half-chicken). If none of these pairings attract you, try any food with any beer and you’ll still leave happy.
Whatever you try at Vivant, you can be confident that the craft in your food will match the craft in your beer. So save the tater-tot nachos for your supermarket beers and try some duck confit nachos instead.