The first – and maybe the most important – thing you should know about Summer Wright is that she’s fearless in the kitchen.
Case in point: Adding parsnips and caramelized onions to an otherwise traditional caramel sauce is a bold move, much less including said onion-parsnip caramel sauce on the opening dessert menu of the year’s most-anticipated restaurant. That’s exactly what Wright, Vicia’s skilled executive pastry chef, did last March when she paired hazelnut financiers with an onion caramel sauce and sunchoke ice cream.
“It was white onions cooked down slowly – think about French onion soup, where you cook onions down for a really long time,” Wright says. “You’re taking that base, and then making kind of a darkish caramel, and combining the two. It’s sweet and savory.”
The dessert was certainly in line with the restaurant’s vision to serve food that’s a celebration of local farms and the seasons, as set by owners Michael and Tara Gallina. But would diners dare to try a dessert with onion caramel sauce? Wright knew it was a risk, so she included a more classic chocolate-soufflé tart on the menu as well, just in case.
“I was terrified about whether or not it would fly,” Wright recalls. “It’s a scary feeling. One of my biggest challenges in the beginning was, what’s going to work? How far can you push it? Are people going to be uncomfortable? Do I play it a little safe when we’re first opening? How vulnerable can we make this?”
As executive chef, Michael assured Wright that if the dish wasn’t an instant hit, they could simply send it out gratis – even picky eaters rarely complain about free food.
“But we never had to do that,” he says with a smile. “We had this vision of utilizing vegetables and celebrating what comes from the farmers every day, and I’ve been really inspired by her ability to take that approach on the pastry side.”
Few restaurants gain as much acclaim in their first 12 months as Vicia; it was named to Bon Appétit’s 2017 Top 50 Best New Restaurants in the country, featured as a top new restaurant of the year by Esquire and appeared on Eater’s national 12 best new restaurants list. In February, the James Beard Foundation nominated Vicia as a semifinalist for Best New Restaurant alongside only 27 others nationwide. St. Louis Post-Dispatch restaurant critic Ian Froeb gave Vicia an initial three-and-a-half-star review before returning after the introduction of its chef’s tasting menu. His subsequent four-star review praised Wright’s “dazzling talent” and desserts, including cantaloupe sorbet with peach-pit semifreddo, herbs and flowers, and grilled peaches with blueberries, elderflower cream and a pistachio crumb.
Dishes at Vicia often include ingredients such as peach pits (menu mainstays include vegetable-top pesto and purple-top turnip tacos), which reflects another element of the restaurant’s mission: using as much of every ingredient as possible to reduce food waste and push creative boundaries. This philosophy was ingrained in the Gallinas during their time at Dan Barber’s acclaimed Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Tarrytown, New York, where Michael served as chef de cuisine and Tara as service captain. Barber has built a career on moving “beyond farm to table,” championing vegetable-forward cooking and eliminating food waste “for the sake of our food, our health and the future of the land.” Wright had a similar awakening working for Michael Turner, chef-owner of The Classic Cup Cafe in Kansas City, in 2002.
“He’s very much an Alice Waters fan, which, osmosis – I became an Alice Waters fan,” Wright says of the pioneering California chef. “We had more than 40 different purveyors who would come into that restaurant; we’d have these giant bags of beautiful greens that you just didn’t see at that point [in time]. He was huge on organic. He was way ahead of the curve.”
Wright went on to work for famed chefs including Daniel Boulud at DB Bistro Moderne in New York City; Gerard Craft at the now-shuttered Niche in its original St. Louis location; and Charlie Hallowell at Pizzaiolo in Oakland, California. It was at Niche that she first met chef Matthew Daughaday, who she would work with again at Reeds American Table in Maplewood, Missouri. When Reeds opened in September 2015, it emphasized the focus on Wright’s work just as greatly as Daughaday’s; far from an afterthought or even a complement, her desserts demanded your attention. This wasn’t just a collection of sweets below the list of entrées – it was a pastry program.
“I think restaurants that have dedicated pastry programs are making a giant investment," Wright says. "Margins are slim, labor is high – so it’s always a moment of gratitude when someone is able to build that for you."
By pure coincidence, a month after Reeds opened, the Gallinas announced their return to Michael’s native St. Louis. The Gallinas spent 2016 and early 2017 hosting pop-up events in St. Louis and Kansas City, introducing themselves to farmers and chefs and getting a sense for the dining scene as they slowly developed Vicia. By chance, one of Michael’s former cooks at Blue Hill, Alec Schingel, found himself back in St. Louis at the same time. When Vicia was close to opening, Schingel recommended Wright, a friend from their shared time at Niche, for the executive pastry chef job. The Gallinas were looking for someone to lead a true pastry program, and with a shared appreciation for creative seasonal cooking, it seemed an ideal fit.
“Farm-to-table has been a conversation happening in this city for a long time, but [Michael and Tara] are doing it in a different way,” Wright says. “We talk about no waste and reusing things all the time [at Vicia]; I think people have always been doing that because you don’t want waste. But here there’s a different train of thought and a next level to how to utilize it in interesting ways that you just don’t see often, while still maintaining delicious flavor, color and life.”
For the Gallinas, it was essential to find a pastry chef who was passionate about their approach; what they truly needed was someone who could apply that vision to their pastry program in creative and thoughtful ways. After all, as Tara says, “The end of the meal is just as important as the beginning.”
Although pastry has become Wright’s focus in recent years, she began her career with a passion for savory cooking. She recalls working the garde manger, or cold prep, station at Niche for a year and a half before being the opening pastry chef at Brasserie, Craft’s French-inspired bistro. Later, she was asked to lead the pastry program at Niche, where the restaurant’s seasonal focus led her to develop colorful carrot panna cottas and beet cakes – precursors to the work she’s now doing at Vicia. Part of her ability to see the dessert potential in any ingredient, whether fresh berries or beets, comes from her broad cooking experience.
“If you know the savory and the sweet, and how those things can come together, everything makes more sense,” Wright says. “You open yourself up to trying things that are maybe traditionally pastry into the savory side, and vice versa.”
The root of Wright’s pastry program at Vicia – and in fact the restaurant’s overarching goal – is a connection to Midwest farmland and the desire to share the bounty that springs from it. Tara estimates that Vicia sources about 80 percent of its product from local farmers and purveyors, including EarthDance in Ferguson, Missouri; Bohlen Family Farms in Perryville; and Winslow’s Farm in Augusta, which primarily supplies its sister business, Winslow’s Home, a restaurant and specialty food shop, in University City, Missouri.
These days, it’s more common than not to hear chefs rave about local farmers – a sign of how far the slow-food movement has come in America, thanks to revolutionary chefs like Alice Waters, Michael Pollan and Dan Barber. What we don’t expect to hear is how these farmers are shaping the food we eat; that creative territory is usually reserved for chefs. Perhaps that’s one reason why Wright’s relationship with Anne Lehman of Dirty Girl Farms is so special. Lehman is well known in the St. Louis restaurant community for growing unique herbs such as pineapple sage, Cuban oregano, tulsi basil and sweet mace, and Wright sources as much as possible from Lehman.
“Anne is my secret weapon, not only in what she produces but her knowledge of it,” Wright says. “There’s nobody I’ve ever met who has such a thorough knowledge of what she’s doing and growing. She’s got some wild books – stuff I’ve never seen in my life before – and she’ll send me these really wonderful resources she’s found online, and it’s like falling down a rabbit hole.”
Lehman is also close to Wright in another way: Her 30-by-100-foot farm is in the backyard of her Tower Grove South home, less than 15 minutes from Vicia. This allows her to visit the restaurant often and taste what Wright is doing with her herbs.
“It’s a different relationship than I’ve had with any other chef,” Lehman says. “A lot of my sales are, a chef will say ‘Bring me x dollars of herbs a week,’ and that’s great for me on the one hand, for business. On the other hand, it’s kind of soulless sometimes. I read a little obsessively about herb use in other parts of the world and try things myself. Part of that influences what I might tell [Wright]. If she asks what she might be able to do with peaches, I’ll say, ‘Well, you’re not going to believe this, but winter savory is phenomenal with peaches.’ Most people only think about winter savory with meat.”
Lehman grows produce for personal use at home, but her commercial products are primarily herbs, edible flowers and foraged plants sold to local chefs. She also runs Audhumbla, a small-batch ice-cream company with her husband, Derrick Crass, producing flavors such as ghost pepper, fig leaf and Thai basil. Some of the goods Lehman grows are rarely used in the Midwest or even the U.S., such as fig leaves, Moujean tea and hop shoots, while others, like bison grass, lamb’s quarters and yarrow, can be found by carefully foraging in area fields and forests. Lehman shared some of the bison grass with Wright last spring and summer.
“Bison grass is a sweet grass; it grows throughout the plains in the Midwest,” Wright says. “Anne just went out and found it. You wouldn’t look at it twice; you’d just walk past it and have no idea. It grows quite tall and has these really beautiful vanilla, almond-y notes.”
Wright used the bison grass in three ways: In a custard with a mulberry tart (and later in the season, a blackberry tart), oat crisp, mulberry sorbet and elderflowers; in a panna cotta; and as a leafy liner for a cheese course. “[The liners were] a way to showcase what the animal, the sheep, is eating, to make that connection between what you’re eating and what the animal was eating,” Wright says.
The restaurant’s bar program also benefitted from the bison grass; in Russia, the dried grass is used to make żubrówka, or bison-grass vodka. Instead of drying out the leaves, bartender Phil Ingram infused the fresh product into vodka, resulting in a vibrant bright green hue like you’d expect from crème de menthe. “It was so delicious,” says Tara, who oversees the bar program at Vicia. “Sadly, when it was gone, it was gone, and the cocktail is no more until next year.”
The seasonal nature of the menu means you can’t get too attached to one dish or drink; it also means there’s always a new one joining the ranks to delight and surprise you.
One of the first desserts Lehman tasted at Vicia was an homage to her herbs: Last spring, weeks after opening, Wright debuted Anne’s Garden, a lemon verbena panna cotta lovingly topped with delicate and colorful edible flower petals, a chocolate crumble meant to resemble soil, and an icy kaffir lime granita.
“It was beautiful; it looked like a little garden path,” Lehman recalls. “It was a lemon verbena panna cotta – and the first time I tried her lemon verbena ice cream, I cried, because she really captures the essence of the herb. It made me feel like I was a little girl again.”
Lehman also provided Wright with what the chef calls her latest muse and “one of my favorite herbs that she grows,” Moujean tea, which is native to the Bahamas. Last summer, Wright used Moujean tea to make a “cloud” served with cucumber sorbet, raw husk cherries and lime curd. The cloud was made by infusing the Moujean tea into a custard base, which was then added to a whipping canister and injected with nitrous oxide. The result was an airy cream that Wright jokingly compared to “a Reddi-wip whipped cream toy for grown-ups.” Lehman says the creativity and pure, authentic flavor of the dish blew her away.
“I think she’s an artist,” Lehman says. “Not only does everything taste really good, the composition of what she does on the plate is always very playful. With the Moujean tea cloud, she hid the husk cherries inside the dessert. I think she does that – she hides things in her desserts – so you don’t always see what [you're getting]. That playful composition is very rare.”
There's also a perfect balance to all of Wright’s desserts. She’s not afraid to employ an herbal, botanical, savory, spicy, bitter or acidic component to balance sweet notes. “She’s not shy and she doesn’t hold back,” Lehman says. “She’s really brave about letting things remain subtle, yet when you look at the plate, the things that you think are going to be subtle, aren’t. She can alter people’s minds.”
Michael says that such thoughtful and surprising balance is one of his favorite elements of Wright’s approach.
“I wouldn’t say I have a sweet tooth," Michael says. "I don’t always crave sweet things, and that’s what I always love about her desserts – it’s not this punch-in-the-face, sugary dessert. It’s balanced. It’s taking the natural sweetness of a vegetable or fruit, and having that be something, instead of pumping something full of sugar just because people tend to associate desserts with sugar. To actually taste what you’re supposed to be tasting, for example with the sunchoke ice cream, and that’s what pops out to you – it tastes like what it’s supposed to be.”
But what if you don’t really know what something is supposed to taste like? When presented with unfamiliar ingredients like bison grass and allspice leaves, Wright first does her research before delving into development for her menu. She’ll study where the ingredient comes from, consult Lehman for advice, investigate what other chefs have used it with and how to interpret it in her own personal style.
“When you clock out, you’re never really clocked out,” Wright says of her process. “You go home, research things, think about things, write down notes, read books or websites, constantly trying to satisfy your own curiosities. I’ve learned how to push the limits here.”
If an ingredient is unknown to a chef, it’s likely just as foreign to a diner, which is why the service team at Vicia also receives an education about every ingredient on the menu. Tara says one of her greatest joys at Vicia is sharing those discoveries and stories with diners.
“Not everybody is there to listen to you tell a story, but there definitely are people who are,” she says. “I’ve had a lot of conversations with people who are like, ‘Allspice leaf? Where do you get that?’ Or, ‘I’ve had allspice, but never the leaves.’ And it’s like, ‘Well, believe it or not, there’s this lady in Tower Grove South who’s growing all this crazy stuff behind her house.’ And it starts this whole other conversation. And hopefully that’s the takeaway from their experience – I learned something. Sometimes people come back and tell stories about what they’ve done to emulate a thing they’ve tried [at Vicia], and I find that to be the most rewarding.”
If bison-grass cocktails and allspice-leaf ice cream aren’t your thing, that’s OK. The team at Vicia knows that sometimes you just want a grilled ham sandwich or apple-butter turnover for lunch, or a hearty cut of Berkshire pork for dinner. Those dishes still adhere to the restaurant’s mission, though: The sandwich is smeared with a squash mustard, and the apple butter is partially made with apple cores. An ingredient doesn’t have to be unfamiliar to be made in an unfamiliar way.
“Last week I was looking at my pastry assistant, and I was like, ‘Is it weird to have a byproduct from a byproduct?’” Wright says. “And then I said, ‘No, that’s how it works.’ So we candied these orange peels [that were leftover from juicing oranges at the bar], and you get this really beautiful syrup that goes back to the bar. I took the bar’s trash and made something delicious that works for me, and now I’ve giving [the bar] back my byproduct; it’s full circle. Nothing is wasted, and it’s all in different forms: juice, syrup and this chewy candied fruit.”
Tara nods, laughing: “It makes you feel good about buying citrus in California.” The syrup is currently being used with a build-your-own Manhattan cocktail as a pairing with the chef’s tasting menu.
As with her onion caramel sauce last March, it's creativity and curiosity that fuels Wright's fearlessness in the kitchen. Still, her ultimate goal is to thrill guests – or rather, to share how thrilling dessert can truly be.
“It’s really satisfying when I hear ‘Oh, I didn’t think I liked pumpkin, or black licorice,’” Wright says. “The [other] warm-fuzzy feeling is when somebody comes in and says they’re just here for dessert. Or they had dinner somewhere else and they came here for dessert – God, that’s such a great feeling.”
Vicia, 4260 Forest Park Ave., St. Louis, Missouri, viciarestaurant.com