Food to Sing About
Journey from Stage to Stove at Springs Landing Fine Country Pub
Catch Kevan Vanek, chef and owner of Springs Landing Fine Country Pub in Mount Airy on the right night, and you might get dinner and an aria on the side. Vanek has a master’s degree in opera from The College of William and Mary, and toured as an opera singer before meeting his wife and trading the stage for a restaurant stove. He said the transition was fairly simple, as he’d spent years working in restaurants, both inside the kitchen and as a staff member.
“The artistic world of opera, it’s travel and there’s not much home life,” he says. “It’s difficult to have a family with all that going on, so I said, ‘I can’t do this anymore.’ That’s how I stopped performing full-time.” But despite the change, he’s found ways to incorporate his love of singing into his restaurant with regular opera nights, where he not only serves dinner, but also performs for guests.
“I’ve sung on stages all over, but I’ve been in station here since I opened,” he says. “Guests always wanted to see if I could sing, and I’d be exhausted from a tough night, so I scheduled times to sing for the guests. I could come on out between courses and have some friends and have a theme and go for it that way.”
“What helps me compose and get excited is colors—fresh herbs from the herb garden and colors to compose with.”—Kevan Vanek, chef and owner of Springs Landing
As for the food, Vanek says he finds inspiration in fresh herbs and in colors, coming up with ideas based on the ingredients he has available. “What helps me compose and get excited is colors—fresh herbs from the herb garden and colors to compose with. … I base my sauces on color components with a strong, vivid backdrop as a focal point with a protein. I love composing that way,” he says.
Though he finds it challenging to pick a favorite dish on the menu, one of Vanek’s favorites is The Pike’s 21+, his dry-aged 16-ounce ribeye ($29), which he ages in house. He says he’s especially proud of the quality at that price point, which is far less than it would cost at a steakhouse in Washington, D.C.
“I know that doesn’t sound very sophisticated, but the reason why it’s a favorite is that I hang my own meats,” he says. “I hand cut my meats to order, cut it and trim it and it goes on the grill—we cook it beautifully. It’s an extra act of love that doesn’t cost me any more, except a little time. … I’m really happy to give that to the guests because it’s a symptom of culinary quality.”
Springs Landing was formerly known as Drover’s Grill and Wine Company and Drover’s Steak and Seafood, and Vanek was in charge of the restaurant in all three incarnations. He says the change to Springs Landing was to allow him greater control and vision for the dishes in the restaurant—his own idea fully realized, instead of incorporating dishes from an established menu.
“I’m a very hopeful and artistic and visionary kind of person. … [Drover’s] was a good concept, but it had no soul for me,” he says. “I did that for three years and my artistic side was kind of rubbing with where I was, and the business side of it was just not going great. It’s a rough location, so I said I need to focus this place on what it is and make it rustic upscale—that’s where your clientele base is.”
His culinary training included times in Italian and French kitchens, and the French inspirations carry over into his endless array of stocks and sauces, which Vanek likens to an artist with a variety of paints to create pictures.
The French background also put an emphasis on clarifying broths and stocks, an extra step in producing clear, cleaner-tasting dishes. It’s a step he says most restaurants skip, but one he considers vital. He has various clarified stocks, like beef stock, plus vegetable offerings, including carrot and ginger purees and beet syrup, all made in-house, to help him compose dishes.
“I’m very visual and I was an artist with paints and sculpture before I ever put my hands on food,”—Kevan Vanek
“I’m very visual and I was an artist with paints and sculpture before I ever put my hands on food,” Vanek says. “I kind of realized in my creating, I go for a gastronomy palette of colors. I love getting this palette of colors based on sauces or purees and composing those in dishes.”
Though he says it might intimidate others, Vanek needs to have his wide array of sauces and purees available at all times to help craft dishes, or put tweaks on old favorites whenever inspiration might strike. “My station might look messy to somebody else,” he says. “I have 14 pots with different stocks and sauces. I go to that like I would to painting a picture with the components on my palette—it’s in the moment, which makes it hard to replicate sometimes.”
As for music, Vanek had previously had the opera nights about once a month, but Vanek has put the opera nights on hold temporarily, as he’s working on opening a second restaurant in Catonsville, to be called Black Kettle.
Despite the challenge of opening another location, he says he hoped to be able to have his annual Charles Dickens dinner at Christmastime. The meal typically includes six courses, ending with a figgy pudding and a toast of good cheer, plus musical performances. “I have former colleagues from Washington Opera sing chorus for me,” he says. “A show of this quality, and I know what I’m talking about because I’ve sung on lots of stages, the guys that sing with me sing all over the country professionally … to get that kind of quality doesn’t happen everywhere. I was wishing I had a bigger venue to do it—I only have 50 seats in here; I really need to do this for 150.”