2015 GLOBAL FOOD SPECIAL for CONDE NAST TRAVELER CHINA
By Ashley Heaton
For Chicago’s new crop of rebel restaurateurs, ethical and sustainable farm-to-table dining is not a trend – it’s a way of life
While Chicago, Illinois, might not be the first United States city that comes to mind when one thinks of food, food is certainly the first topic that comes to mind when one thinks of Chicago. Upon telling several friends and family members that I would be journeying from my native Los Angeles to Chicago for a writing assignment, I received but one unanimous reaction: “Will the story be about food?”
For food aficionados around the world, Chicago is best known not only for its fine dining, but particularly for its beef. Its history as a dining destination arises from the fact that it is one of few major U.S. cities that rests within a state rich with farms. Illinois’ wealth of natural resources lends itself to an urban restaurant industry driven by fresh seasonal produce and grass-fed steaks. This farm-to-table lifestyle is quickly becoming Chicagoans’ preferred mode of dining.
In many parts of the world, the idea of obtaining one’s food from a farm might sound obvious, but in the United States it is anything but. Here, farm-to-table dining is a pointed act of rebellion against the status quo.
Johnny Hap, cofounder of Chicago’s Rootstock Wine & Beer Bar, is one of the restaurateurs I will be visiting. He takes great pride in Rootstock’s farm-to-table ethos. “In much of the world, buying food is a local practice,” Hap explains. “People go down the street to a farm or a market and they know exactly where their meat is coming from. But in the 1960s and 70s, farming became more industrialized in America. Meat was coming from huge factory farms where animals were mistreated. The farm-to-table movement is a return to the past – people know their farmers and they know the quality of the products they’re getting. It’s almost a revolution against industrialization.” Because of its position in a farm state, Chicago is a forerunner in this movement. I am curious to meet the other local chefs and restaurateurs who are taking part in the “anti-industrial revolution” Hap describes.
I arrive in the summer months, and am surprised by how warm it is here. I check the weather report, which confirms that it is a solid ten degrees hotter than – and just as humid as – sunny, languid Los Angeles. It is a pleasant surprise to learn that the fabled Windy City I expected apparently only exists in the winter.
The first stop on my agenda is The Butcher & Larder, a hip, stylized sustainable butcher shop housed within Bucktown’s Local Foods retail space. I find Local Foods tucked amid the up-and-coming neighborhood’s sprawl of industrial warehouses and charming brownstones. The shop’s founder Rob Levitt greets me at the diner-style counter with an array of charcuterie, artfully arranged on a wooden platter that is playfully – and a bit morbidly – shaped like a pig. Levitt is a young Illinois native who, in his checkered button-down shirt and horn-rimmed eyeglasses, looks more like a Silicon Valley tech entrepreneur than a Chicago butcher. He immediately puts me at ease with his Midwestern charm. The first question on my mind is, of course, how this unlikely butcher came to open his shop in the first place.
Levitt explains that after working in restaurants to put himself through university in New York, he began working as a sous-chef at a restaurant that used whole animals. The process utterly fascinated him, and he began researching “how in the old days, families would butcher and use whole pigs.” With a new interest spurred in sausage-making and butchering, he and wife Allie decided to open a restaurant and later the butcher shop, where they sell meat to both restaurants and private customers.
Levitt is enamored with his work, and is excited to take me on a behind-the-scenes tour of The Butcher & Larder. He leads me down the back hallway to an ice-cold room filled with massive cow torsos hanging from the ceiling, waiting to be cut into steaks. He then walks me through the area where the meat is cut and smoked, and onward into the curing room. The back rooms are not at all what I expected a butcher shop to look like. All-white and spotlessly clean, the facility feels surprisingly high-tech.
The Butcher & Larder has become an integral part of its city’s farm-to-table movement. Levitt shares, “When farm-to-table really started, some restaurants started listing the names of the farmers with each menu item, and now that’s really becoming the standard in Chicago. If you go to a new restaurant you now expect them to be conscious of their sourcing. I think our presence is helping restaurants achieve that.”
Those restaurants’ chefs appreciate the direct and transparent manner in which The Butcher procures its products. “We work directly with our ranchers and farmers, and we seek out farms whose standards and practices are what we want,” Levitt explains. “These animals live good lives, they eat well, and they have a death that is as humane as it can be. And that absolutely affects the look and the taste of the product. We talk directly to our farmers, and our meat goes from the farm to the slaughterhouse to us. That’s something we are really proud of.”
He hopes, though, that restaurants are not the only parties that will benefit from The Butcher & Larder’s offerings. “The biggest innovation that we’ve offered is taking this farm-to-table idea that’s going on in restaurants and letting people do that at home. They can get the meat that the restaurants use from the same sources.”
As someone who has lived in the Chicago area for much of his life, Levitt is something of an expert on the history of Chicago’s dining scene. “I think Chicago has always been a food city; I just don’t think it was always a very cutting-edge food city. That happened in the last ten years,” he says. He explains that in the 20th century, Chicago was known for its traditional fine dining only, which was limited to steakhouses such as the famous Charlie Trotter, and French cuisine. “In the early 2000s that changed with guys like Paul Kahan. He took a lot of the pretense out of it, taking the tablecloths off the table and creating a very design-heavy room to push fine dining into more of a contemporary realm. I feel like Chicago is a young upstart, taking what other cities in this country have done to compete with the rest of the world, and giving it a big push into the future.”
Before I leave, Levitt is kind enough to offer a few recommendations for his favorite farm-to-table restaurants – among them North Pond, Community Tavern, Rootstock Wine & Beer Bar, and, of course, Paul Kahan’s restaurants.
First I make my way toward North Pond. This is no easy feat; I find myself trekking through the dense greenery of Lincoln Park to a quiet oasis hidden deep in the woods. I am overwhelmed by the nature preserve’s vast, sublime beauty. I cross over a bridge to the restaurant, an Art Deco-style brick cabin that rests beside its namesake body of water. A few ducks cross my path before I enter. I can’t help but laugh, as I no longer feel like I’m in a city at all.
North Pond is one of the restaurants where Levitt began his culinary career. While it fits squarely into the traditional fine dining establishment, it sets itself apart from the rest of the “old Chicago” crowd by offering a seasonal menu of farm-to-table fare.
I am seated in the open-air portion of the restaurant, and am treated to a tranquil view of the pond. The tone here is extremely sophisticated, with a crowd consisting mainly of older, well-heeled society types; also in the mix are a few young couples dresses to the nines for special occasions, and some food connoisseurs on holiday from Europe.
My host is Natalie, an elegant brunette in a perfectly tailored suit, who walks me through Chef Bruce Sherman’s menu. The fresh summertime offerings combine sweet and savory flavors to spectacular effect (think unusual combinations like lobster with sourdough waffles). I order the grass fed beef with zucchini, and a beet salad with mackerel mousse, both of which are outstanding. I am left with the feeling that North Pond must be one of the most beautiful and relaxing places to dine in all of Chicago.
In the morning, I have a full day ahead of me. First up is Community Tavern, an off-the-beaten path Zagat-rated restaurant in the Irving Park neighborhood, where I meet with the restaurant’s Executive Chef, Joey Beato. Upon arriving I am quick to spot the difference between the “old Chicago” fine dining embodied by North Pond and the “new Chicago” food scene Rob Levitt described. The décor here is quirky and rustic, and the neighborhood is not at all a typical “shopping and dining” area. Beato, a tattooed and bearded young chef with an antiestablishment attitude to match his look, is a perfect fit for the restaurant, which he describes as a “boutique steakhouse.”
Beato sees Community Tavern as an alternative to traditional steakhouses: “It’s not a typical steakhouse where you have 20 different steaks and it’s super expensive. We have about five different steaks we do very well, and our price point is much lower.” This is quite a feat considering that their food is top-quality and locally sourced.
Beato downplays the impressiveness of this fact. He does not consider farm-to-table dining to be a trend or a movement, but rather a mode of being that Community Tavern has fallen into by virtue of wanting to serve nothing but the best.
“Farm-to-table, to me, is just getting ingredients from farms. A lot of people think it’s this crazy thing where every chef is out there picking vegetables. But all of our meat comes from a ranch in Illinois, all humanely raised; and all of our vegetables are from farms within 150 miles. It tastes better and that’s why we do it.”
Community Tavern is a favorite among locals who eschew restaurants that have become crowded tourist destinations.
“There are a lot of steakhouses around, but in this neighborhood, there are no other restaurants on our scale,” he says. “People don’t need to leave the neighborhood and go downtown to get good food. We get a lot of locals who have lived in this neighborhood for 10 or 20 years, and they love us because they have something to do here now. But we have also had some international press now, so we are starting to see more travelers. We’ve had customers visiting from Europe just to come here!”
My next destination is Rootstock Wine & Beer Bar. Like Community Tavern, Rootstock is Zagat-rated but is quite nontraditional and not located in a dining neighborhood – in fact, it’s the only wine bar in Humboldt Park, and one of few places to dine there at all.
“We opened in 2009, and people thought we were crazy for choosing this location,” admits co-founder Tonya Pyatt, a tall, model-beautiful brunette with an infectious smile. “Humboldt Park did not really start gentrifying until 2013, so when we opened there was nothing else here.”
Rootstock shares another trait in common with Community Tavern – it is part of the recent trend in the Chicago food world that Rob Levitt mentioned to me, in which more and more restaurants are moving toward top-quality casual dining and away from traditional high-end fine dining.
Pyatt and her business partners Johnny Hap and Jamie McLennan, who met as coworkers at Webster’s Wine Bar in Chicago, had a very specific vision of an informal and ethical farm-to-table wine bar and restaurant. Their concept was to create a fresh and locally sourced kitchen and beverage program, using quality hormone-free meats and organic produce, in a casual atmosphere. To that end, there are no tablecloths or silverware on the tables. I compliment the vintage mix-and-match aesthetic of Rootstock’s furniture, and Hap proudly shares that it was all obtained from thrift shops.
Hap, a history buff and activist who dabbled in politics before opening Rootstock, has a rugged, punkish intellectualism about him, reminiscent of a hip college professor. He is full of fascinating anecdotes and facts about how Chicago’s history shaped its modern food industry.
“To go back further into Chicago’s history, the slaughter yard here, called “Back of the Yards,” was the biggest urban slaughter area in the United States, back in the 1920s and 30s. Trains would come through the yards, and cattle would be slaughtered there and shipped out.”
Today, Hap’s pet cause is better treatment of animals in the food industry. He expounds on why a strong ethical stance is so important to the Rootstock team. “More and more people want to know where their meat comes from. They realize the way animals are being mistreated and drugged up and they don’t want to participate in that economy anymore. The less people partake in those practices, the less of them there will be.”
Like its food, Rootstock’s wines and beers are also sourced from local, independent sources. Beverage Director McLennan is trend-conscious, always sourcing the most cutting-edge drinks for the menu. His current favorite beer trend? Low-alcohol “session ales,” which pair better with food and can be sipped for long periods of time (in contrast with the previous trend of heavy, hoppy European beers). As for wines, he raves about dry Riesling and Rosé, which comprise a large part of Rootstock’s menu in the summer months. Hap, meanwhile, highly recommends two sparkling wines, which he insists I sample. The 2012 Raventós i Blanc is a light and summery wine from Catalonia, with floral and white peach notes and a hint of brioche. The NV Catherine et Pierre Breton is a slightly richer organically farmed French bubbly with flavors of apricot, white lily and toasted croissant. Each is indeed remarkable in its own way.
True to its Chicago roots, Rootstock also has some phenomenal beef offerings. Their grass-fed hamburger is upheld as their signature dish, and is the one thing on the menu that never changes.
It feels fitting that the last stop on my tour of Chicago’s food scene is an interview with Paul Kahan at his restaurant The Publican. My de facto tour guide Rob Levitt – among several of the other Chicago restaurateurs I spoke with – lauded Kahan as the man who changed the face of Chicago cuisine and made the city’s dining scene what it is today. As I approach The Publican, I feel a bit like I have conquered the yellow brick road, and am finally headed to meet the Wizard of Oz, the lofty man behind the curtain.
As it turns out, the Wizard is a friendly, bespectacled, grey-haired-but-youthful man who is today dressed down in a t-shirt. He welcomes me into the restaurant, offers me a water and asks me all about my trip. I immediately realize that – in addition to his immense talent – it is Kahan’s magnetic, genuine personality and humble character that have made him such a highly regarded personality here in Chicago.
In addition to The Publican, Kahan is also the Executive Chef behind the much-praised restaurants Avec, Blackbird, Big Star, and Dove’s Luncheonette. He grew up in Chicago, where his father owned a Jewish deli and a fish market. Out of all of his restaurants, the Publican holds a special place in his heart because it is located in the city’s old meatpacking district, where his father’s fish market once stood.
The Publican arose from a simple catchphrase – “oysters, pork and beer” – and serves New American cuisine inspired by the gastropubs of Europe. To prepare for the restaurant’s opening, Kahan visited beer halls, pubs, Trappist monasteries and museums in Belgium and the South of France. These inspirations are apparent in the Publican’s décor, which recalls a European beer hall with its tall, squared off wood bench seating and its abundance of open space. Next door is Publican Quality Meats, a more casual outpost of the same concept. PQM has a retro 1950s charm and a definite European feel.
Kahan too is a vocal supporter of the farm-to-table movement. “If you look at the menu, it says where the main ingredient of every dish is from,” he shares. “Obviously if we could get everything locally we would, but we have long, cold winters here and we don’t have saltwater. But we’re very producer-driven, and a good portion of the menu changes every day. We get a delivery of farm and seafood products each day, and we base the menu around those products.”
He opens up about why he thinks farm-sourced food is so important. “I think as time goes on, in this country in particular, we’ve developed so many allergies and diseases, and our diet affects our health and our world. People’s level of consciousness around where their food comes from has grown. People want to eat healthier and support sustainability.”
Kahan echoes Rootstock’s Johnny Hap in his sentiment that the best course of action is a move away from industrialized farming and toward more ethical farming practices.
“In my eyes, things started to go haywire in the U.S. in the 1960s and 70s, when we had to produce a lot of food to feed masses of people in an economical way – which I would imagine is similar to what is going on in China now. A lot of ideals and things that are healthy were eliminated in the process, and the generations growing up now are living through what we’ve created.”
This is indeed food for thought. How can we make more thoughtful choices in our food production and consumption today, in order to ensure that future generations grow up to make more healthful – and ethically sound – decisions than we are making here in the present?
Before my trip comes to a close, I decide to take in the sights of sprawling Millennium Park, and to indulge in some culture at the rare book and record stores in the edgy Wicker Park neighborhood. I leave Chicago feeling energized by the city’s vibrant, cultured and giving community – and I return home feeling inspired to make more conscientious choices in my own day-to-day dining.
The Butcher & Larder at Local Foods / 1427 W. Willow Street, Chicago, IL 60642
North Pond / 2610 N. Cannon Drive, Chicago, IL 60614
Community Tavern / 4038 N. Milwaukee Avenue, Chicago, IL 60641
Rootstock Wine & Beer Bar / 654 N. California Avenue, Chicago, IL 60622
The Publican / 837 W. Fulton Market, Chicago, IL 60607
Publican Quality Meats / 825 W. Fulton Market, Chicago, IL 60607
SIDEBAR: Chef’s Favorite
Where do Chicago’s best chefs and most famous restaurateurs go to dine? Follow their discerning lead by visiting these top-notch dining destinations.
Intro has gained recognition among in-the-know Chicagoans for its unique concept: It features a rotating array of chefs hand-picked by famed restaurateur Rich Melman, the name behind such hotspots as RPM. Each chef curates the restaurant’s menu and selects its design. Chef Aaron Martinez will be at the helm through the end of October, offering beautifully presented farm-fresh seasonal fare. His six-course tasting menu with wine pairings is a must – from salmon with Dijon “ice cream” and edible flowers, to a dessert of strawberries with elderflower and white chocolate, each course is more decadent and unique than the last. Intro counts Chef Joho, the famed Executive Chef of the Chicago restaurant Everest, as a fan – in fact, I ran into him while dining there.
“I think that when people come to Chicago they are completely blown away by the growing food scene,” says Melman’s son Jerrod Melman, an Executive Partner at the family’s restaurant group, Lettuce Entertain You. “The perception of Chicago is that we are all about deep-dish pizza and hot dogs, but it is unbelievable how many different types of great concepts and cuisines are opening up here in Chicago.”
2300 N. Lincoln Park W, Chicago, IL 60614
Lula is the Chicago institution that revitalized the now-trendy Logan Square neighborhood. Paul Kahan, Rob Levitt and Tonya Pyatt all laud Lula as the restaurant that started and perfected the farm-to-table movement. Levitt names it as his favorite restaurant in the city.
2537 N. Kedzie Avenue, Chicago, IL 60647
Levitt cites the award-winning Alinea as one of the most innovative restaurants around. Founded in 2005 by Chef Grant Achatz and Nick Kokonas, Alinea features a single seasonal tasting menu of between 18 and 22 courses. Rare ingredients combine with artistic presentation and scientific precision to create a modernist dining experience. A James Beard Award winner, Alinea is also the only restaurant in Chicago to earn the Michelin 3-Star rating.
1723 N. Halsted Street, Chicago, IL 60614
Parachute serves Korean-American fusion cuisine as well as wine, beer and cocktails. The award-winning independent restaurant is a favorite of Kahan, who says it served him “one of the best meals (he has) ever had.”
3500 N. Elston Avenue, Chicago, IL 60618
The Girl & the Goat
Kahan praises The Girl & the Goat, which revitalized the meatpacking district where his restaurant The Publican is also located. Stephanie Izard’s flagship restaurant serves a family-style menu of global flavors, alongside locally produced craft beers and wines.
809 W. Randolph Street, Chicago, IL 60607