Exec chef Brandon Foster on Vesta's new menu, Matt Selby and coping with a tragic death
"I'll just wait to read what they say about me," declares Brandon Foster, striding past the line at Vesta Dipping Grill and into the sunlit dining room, where there's already a buzz humming from an early crowd. "He's the heartbeat of the kitchen," offers one of Foster's cooks. "He's incredibly genuine," pipes in another. There's a consensus, too, that he's "supple."
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Foster, for his part, says that he "just likes a challenge," and he's been faced with several challenges over the past year, beginning with the departure of Matt Selby, who was the face -- and chef -- of Vesta for more than a decade. Selby left last October to become the chef at Corner House, in Jefferson Park, and Foster became the soldier of the kitchen. "It was weird, because I didn't think Matty would ever leave," admits Foster. "I worked for Matty for a long time, and I learned so much from him, and then he was suddenly gone, but I'd also be lying if I didn't say that I was also excited about the opportunity," he adds.
As a six-year veteran of the Vesta kitchen, Foster eased into his new position quickly, putting his own stamp on the menu and bantering, as the he normally does, with an extremely tight-knit staff. And then an inexplicable tragedy struck. Curtis Caldwell, who'd been the sous at Vesta, all too suddenly passed away from complications related to an infection that blocked his airways. Just days after Caldwell had lapsed into a coma, Foster, Selby and the rest of the Vesta team, including owners Josh and Jen Wolkon, were struggling to keep it together at his memorial service.
The loss, says Foster, through a blur of tears, still haunts him every day. "Curtis brought so, so much to our daily lives, and when he passed away, I had to be the leader and keep pushing us onward, and I can't even begin to tell you how hard that's been. There's not a day that goes by that we don't think about him, and we're all still hurting. You can't fight grief," says Foster.
But with Caldwell's death also came inspiration. "I try really hard to embrace Curtis's thoughts and immerse myself in this job the way that he did," says Foster, whose new menu has a light, easy step, much like Caldwell did. And the kitchen as a whole has lightened up a bit, too, stripping away its chef coats for gray utility shirts, inked, in red, with the name of each cook. "The idea is to give everyone a sense of ownership of their job," explains Foster.
And now that Foster "owns" the menu, he's making tweaks here and there, integrating some of Vesta's signature dishes -- dishes, like the venison, that would make guests come unglued if they were yanked from the menu -- with his own. "I wanted to try and stay true to some of the classics, but also bring a fresh approach to the menu that emphasized defined and refined flavors, textures and a bit of boldness combined with lightness to achieve balance," notes Foster. "When we used to write menus, we'd focus on dishes that weren't selling as well as some of the others, and now the goal is to get away from the complacency of keeping the same dishes on the menu just because they do sell well," he points out. "Yes, a dish may sell well, but I want to do something better -- dishes that will sell even better, and that's the approach that we're taking with the whole menu."
And that includes Vesta's endless parade of sauces, which have always been synonymous with the Vesta concept. "For a long time, we had this arbitrary list of sauces, but we'd fallen out of incorporating them into our menu changes," notes Foster. "In addition to switching out about 75 percent of the menu, we changed more than half of the sauces, which are now given the same importance as everything else we're doing." In addition, the two-page menu now ballyhoos a sauce glossary, inclusive of all the ingredients in each sauce. Of note: the duck and chicken broth scented with truffle oil; a garlic, ginger, molasses and brown sugar barbecue sauce spooked with ghost chiles; watercress and spinach pesto; dried berry chutney; and a pineapple and bacon marmalade spiced with chile powder, coriander and paprika.
The menu, separated into small plates, cheese and meat, entrees and dipping sauces, which now number 24, includes a terrific housemade tagliatelle brimming with English peas and dried cherry tomatoes in a sweet corn soubise (pictured above); a summery tomato and avocado salad bolstered with house-cured bacon; coins of housemade venison kielbasa paired with a duo of mustards, sunchoke mash and housemade giardiniera; and a boneless duck breast dusted with achiote chiles and plated with smoked-corn risotto.
"I want Vesta to be around another sixteen years," says Foster. "We're doing some really awesome things in the kitchen and behind the bar, and with the new menu -- and future menus to come -- we want to keep things fresh and interesting, both for people who have been coming to Vesta for years and for guests who might be trying Vesta for the first time. Either way, we want to inspire diners and make sure that they're enjoying what we're doing here as much as anywhere else in town."