Thursday, January 7, 2010

Chicago's Chefs: Green Olympians?

Everyone knows that on St. Patty’s Day we dye the river green in Chicago, but a more profound and lasting greening has also taken place over the past decade. Led by a growing number of chefs and foodies, the greening of our city’s restaurants seems as likely to become as pervasive as dandelions, if not much tastier.

And while the City of Big Shoulders wasn't awarded the 2016 Olympics, it’s a forgone conclusion that the city boasts perhaps the most winning team of eco-minded chefs in the country, if not the world.

A Glimmer of Green

Not that long ago it seemed that organic or sustainably-produced food conjured up images of eating gnarled produce, worm-bitten greens, and grains that you’d hesitate to feed your pet pony. So how did we get to a point where restaurants and chefs that emphasize local, green and sustainable appear to be as popular as Oprah when she arrived in town a few dozen years ago?

While the movement toward locally produced, green and sustainable likely started with Alice Waters in California, it didn’t take long for Chicago chefs to take up the torch in the Midwest. With a more abundant water supply and richer soils, it seems only natural that the region would return its attention toward its rich agricultural heritage.

One of the earliest was Rick Bayless who turned his back on mass-produced foods, opting instead to seek out unusual ingredients, recipes and preparations.

Like Bayless, many Chicago chefs began supporting the Green City Market, which features local farmers and food artisans. And while it could be debated which came first, the market or chefs establishing relationships with nearby farmers, the result was clear: Chicago chefs began working with local farms and food artisans, many participating in the Green City Market or other farmer’s markets, to source their salad greens, fruits, vegetables, eggs, and cheeses.

The Local Advantage

So what was—and remain—the advantages of sourcing foods locally and in a sustainable fashion? When it comes to fresh, the closer you can source the food item the better. When basil is in season in the Midwest, for example, you can bet it tastes fresher, lasts longer, and has a more complex and intense taste and aroma than the same herb that’s shipped here from California.

As water shortages become more common, as evidenced recently in California’s Central Valley, the fact that the Midwest can sustainably produce food will only become more relevant.

While some might complain about our winters, it’s our climate—and a few thousand years of prairie buildup—that make our region so ideal for growing food. Many parts of the country wouldn’t be able to support a viable agriculture industry without vast amounts of water that arrive through irrigation. And transporting water often involves expending energy, not to mention disruption of ecosystems that might like to hold onto the water.

In the Midwest, droughts are rare if not nonexistent. Our raucous summer thunderstorms and rainy springs do the work of massive irrigation structures, dams, and sprinkler systems in drier climates. Water comes naturally to the Midwest, and that’s an advantage that’s difficult to beat.

In addition, shipping food great distances oftentimes leaves a considerable carbon footprint. Finally, by not supporting local farmers and purveyors, we rob ourselves of a critical aspect of any society—the ability to feed ourselves and to support the presence and evolution of food and cuisine as a part of our culture.

The March of the Green Olympians

But let’s get back to talking about other green leaders in Chicago, and how their green approaches translate into better eating.

One of the first and most fervently committed to operating a green restaurant is North Pond’s Bruce Sherman who has run the kitchen at the Lincoln Park restaurant since 1999. Whether locally-sourced corn-on-the-cob for soup or quail with fennel, Sherman takes pains to support local farmers and producers. To the chef, finding producers and artisans that take special care with their craft results in superior and exceptional products, many of them recently harvested or produced.

As with many other green chefs, Sherman is constantly adjusting his menu to react to the seasonal availability of products and produce. Every farmer and producer with whom the Chicago native works receives credit—on the restaurant’s menu and on its website.

In addition to seeking out sustainable seafood from the far corners of the earth, Sherman steps just outside the restaurant kitchen’s door for fresh herbs from a large garden or just beyond to the Green City Market, one of the largest organic and sustainable farmer’s markets in the country.

In Logan Square, Lula Café owners Amalea Tshilds and Jason Hammel have been actively working with and promoting local farms and their fare since at least 2004. In the spring of that year, the forward-thinking restaurant began hosting its now-popular farm dinners on Monday nights. Featuring often more adventurous specials and a bargain prix fixe menu, the painstakingly created dinners rely heavily on seasonal ingredients from local farms. For info on past and upcoming farm dinners, check out

Even more elevated restaurants such as Trump Tower’s Sixteen have caught onto the trend. Chef Frank Brunacci sources eggs, pork and lamb from Slagel Farms, just south of the city. Eye-popping sunrise views in the restaurant’s lofty dining room come with eggs that are literally farm fresh.

According to Brunacci, “Buying local makes sense. Not only does it minimize shipping costs, but more importantly, supports quality products and our neighbors who take such great pains to provide them.”

A more recent arrival, The Bristol in Bucktown, emphasizes an Old World or yesteryear approach of using nearly every part of the animals it features on its menu. Resulting in less waste and fresher and better-tasting dishes, the approach is being picked up by other restaurants such as the Publican.

"Like any chef worth his or her salt in Chicago today, we're serving organic and locally-grown food as much as humanly possible," says chef/owner Chris Pandel.

For Evanston’s Michael Altenberg, one green restaurant isn’t enough. After turning Bistro Campagne in Lincoln Square into a virtually organic restaurant, the chef opened a second restaurant in Wicker Park. CRUST, the first third party certified organic restaurant in the city, prides itself on its thin pizzas that are easy on the environment, good for organic producers and tasty for those lucky enough to savor them.

While both restaurants offer sustainable fare and have the same owner, that’s about as much as they share in common. Bistro Campagne evokes a classic Parisian bistro, albeit with many ingredients sourced locally, and boasts quaint gardens that provide a tangible tie to the countryside from which Altenberg sources many of his organic ingredients.

In addition to organic produce, the kitchen uses grass-fed beef from Bill Kurtis’ Tallgrass™, which is not only a more sustainable way to raise cattle, but also produces beef that’s lower in fat and healthier. Think of it this way: a corn-fed cattle operation demands fields of corn which are typically fertilized and doused with pesticides. In the Midwest, these fertilizers and pesticides run through our waterways to the Mississippi River and directly into the Gulf of Mexico where they help create an enormous dead zone.

So eating grass-fed beef not only reduces your likelihood of heart disease, but can have far-reaching effects for wildlife and fishermen over a thousand miles away.

Even wunderkinds such as Paul Kahan of Publican pursues a greener agenda. Like The Bristol’s Pandel, Kahan uses the “whole animal” approach to slaughter, and is well-known for his handcrafted sausages and encased meats.

To support local brewers, The Publican hosts monthly beer dinners on the last Sunday of each month. Featuring Midwestern breweries such as Great Lakes and New Holland, the dinners include a four-course, family-style menu designed to complement selected brews.

Comforting Conclusions

And leave it to Michigan Avenue to ensure that green desserts don’t receive short shrift. The Hotel InterContinental’s ENO boasts an impressive array of award-winning local cheeses, but the buzz recently has focused on the restaurant’s selection of chocolates by Madison, Wisconsin’s Gail Ambrosius. There are some products that many of us just have to have, and for me, one of those is chocolate. While the fertile soils of the Midwest can produce many things, they can’t sustain cacao trees. And so, obtaining chocolate from afar is necessary. But not all chocolate producers are equal—in terms of taste, quality and impact on the earth—and that’s where Gail comes in handy.

With an ever-evolving array of chocolates sourced, fairly traded and crafted by Ambrosius, ENO offers guilt-free, sweet delectables that clearly reveal the superior quality of hand-made, artisan foods.

If you need further evidence that green, local and sustainable are more than mere buzzwords or a passing trend, I encourage you to visit Chicago’s Green City Market held on Wednesdays and Saturdays, or visit any of the aforementioned restaurants. To me, seeing is believing—as is tasting—and savoring the sweetness of just-ripe Michigan peaches in a cobbler or the leanness of a cut of grass-fed beef is all the proof I need that green, local and sustainable are better tasting.

And if you don’t believe me, could so many award-winning chefs be wrong?

Photo: Smoked Rushing Waters Trout, The Publican, Photo Credit Grant Kessler Photography


Joan N on January 14, 2010 at 2:51 PM said...

Thanks for all the kind words about Gail! I'm very lucky to work with her and she's just as incredible as her chocolate. She recently launched a new online store at that offers a wide assortment of her chocolates. While a trip to Madison or ENO is a lot of fun, so is coming home to a box of her great truffles.

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