Interview by Jenny Hong
James Sumpter, a veteran of the culinary scene, is new to Vinology. With a deep knowledge of wine pairing and a passion for farm-to-table dining, which he honed at Gracie’s Place in Williamston, Michigan, where he cheffed before coming to Ann Arbor, Sumpter is committed to using only the freshest ingredients sourced from small local farms. Vinology’s current menu features playful twists on traditional recipes incorporating ingredients that are in season.
Current recently spoke with Chef Sumpter about his philosophy on wine pairing, his vision for the restaurant and his favorite ingredients to work with.
Where does your passion for cooking come from? My grandmother’s kitchen. We started baking cookies and Southern biscuits together when I was eight. The passion grew the first moment I was in a professional kitchen. Cooking farm-to-table was also a significant experience for me. While it takes more time, the flavor difference is there when you taste the fresh food. Farm-to-table gives a sense of respect for the ingredients and I don’t want to waste any part of them. Trying a local product for the first time and sampling it with the crew brings me so much joy.
What drew you to wine pairing and how does it inform your culinary style? Working with winemakers on special dinners is what started, and what continues, to inspire me. I was fortunate enough to work with sommeliers who helped me understand the way that they see wine. My approach to wine pairings is to treat each aroma as a flavor and ingredient in the dish. It’s an enjoyable challenge that provides me with a particular focus when creating dishes for a menu.
What ideas do you seek to illustrate through the food you serve? I don’t just focus on making presentable dishes— flavor comes first. When pairing seasonal dishes with wine, I work the wine wheel to make sure the dishes hit a spread of wine categories.
Explain your creative process when building a menu? I start with the ingredients that are available to me. Each season is broken up into smaller sections based on the types of produce that become available. For example, there is a short window of time when squash becomes ripe but tomatoes are still around. I enjoy taking advantage of unique seasonal moments like that in my dishes.
What is your vision for the restaurant moving forward? I want Vinology to be a place that connects people to the community with a fresh and exciting vibe, and I hope to be the kind of place where restaurant chefs love to work. We are working on a HACCP plan for sous vide [a French technique that uses a vacuum-sealed bag to cook food in a water bath], and we will be one of the few restaurants in Ann Arbor to do that. We will be doing more wine dinners, wine tastings, and in-house catering, which can be done in a beautiful, private space in the restaurant’s “bubble room.”
What is your favorite dish to make and why? Two dishes come to mind: Braised lamb neck over fresh pasta, and almost anything involving heirloom tomatoes. Like a good wine, each tomato has so much diversity in flavor.
Any misconceptions about being a chef? That we are angry or egotistical, but we are not all like that. I want to be a leader that supports diversity and uplifts others. I lead by example and hope to get the front and back of the house working together. I’ve seen bad examples in my career and I learn from those to be better. I want to focus on the culture and create a positive environment.
110 S. Main St., Ann Arbor
734-222-9841 | Vinologya2.com