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A Sustainable Life

'We live our life so fast that every now and then you need to slow down.'

By AMELIA LEVIN
Sustainability. It's a single word that has created serious buzz in the food industry. In the eyes of many Chicagoans, what once seemed to be a West Coast, dare we say, '60s term has become an extremely important concept, much more than just a trend.

"It's a way of life," says Jon Bubala, executive chef and owner of Timo (464 N. Halsted, 312-226-4300). "We live our life so fast that every now and then you need to slow down."

The word "slow" is key. Bubala is a member of Slow Food, an international, nonprofit, educational organization dedicated not only to sustainable agricultural practices, but also to "revitalizing" culinary culture in the United States.

Joel Smith, co-leader of Slow Food Chicago, says sustainability is not easily defined. Essentially, it refers to agricultural practices that help preserve the natural environment (such as not injecting dairy cows with hormones and otherwise treating animals humanely and keeping plants free of harmful pesticides), but it also means connecting local farmers to consumers "so they can taste the difference in quality and flavor," Smith says.

At the heart of the Slow Food mission is the idea that food should be thoroughly enjoyed. "We should be enjoying the food we eat on multiple levels, not just the taste, but how it impacts our health, our family and plant and animal life," Smith says. "Slow Food demonstrates that pleasure can be at the heart of a do-good movement, where we are respectful of our world, neighbors, employees and the environment."

Bubala and a number of chefs in Chicago share that outlook. Timo's seasonal menu showcases locally grown produce, as well as meats, fish and other foods that come directly from farmers, ranchers and fishermen with sustainable practices. Bubala says he makes a point of taking trips every season to various farms around the Midwest to seek out the best foods that he can share with his restaurant patrons. In March, he heads with his family to southern Illinois for "ramp fest" to get the best pick of the season's first ramp harvest. Not long ago, Bubala took a trip to an Amish farm in Wisconsin and was shocked to see crates upon crates of homegrown tomatoes that supermarket distributors had rejected.

"Supermarkets only want tomatoes that look the same--round and red--because they fit the packaging better and that's what the consumer in the general public knows," Bubala says. "These (Amish farm) tomatoes had natural deformities--some were squishy and gooey, and others were in the shape of a butterfly, but they were delicious, and I took as many as I could." Even better, he helped out the farmer by literally taking a load off. "Customers have needs, but farmers have needs too," he says. "The best thing is to get to know your farmer."

In the winter months, when locally grown vegetables are more scarce here, Bubala focuses on "winter proteins," ordering chicken and fresh ricotta cheese from Swan Creek Organic Farm in North Adams, Michigan, where proprietor and farmer George Rasmussen lets the animals roam free and graze on pesticide-free grass.

This is precisely how Sarah Stegner, co-chef and owner of Prairie Grass Cafe (601 Skokie Blvd., Northbrook, 847-205-4433), views locally grown, sustainable food--it just tastes better. Period.

"We try to use as much local produce as possible," Stegner says. "As a chef, I feel responsible that we have a continuing availability. To do that, you need to help it grow." That means buying products from local farmers to keep them in business.

In the spring, Stegner seeks out locally grown fresh asparagus, as well as beets, wild ramps, baby turnips, carrots, radishes and wild watercress. She sautees the ramps in extra hot olive oil to sear the tops and then blanches the white part. Stegner also pairs a wild watercress salad with skirt steak and mushrooms. The watercress is best in April, she says.

Throughout the year, Stegner buys all her beef products from former CBS newsman and reporter Bill Kurtis, who owns a ranch in Sedan, Kansas, where he raises free-

range cattle according to sustainable principals. Kurtis created Tallgrass Beef (www.tallgrassbeef.com), which he describes on the website as a grassroots movement to

preserve America's tallgrass prairies and bring back a way of life where "settlers lived in harmony with the land and cattle roamed free." In order to promote this idea, Tallgrass Beef works with various family-owned ranches across the country.

At Prairie Grass, Stegner uses Kurtis' Tallgrass Beef for a tangy, basil-tomato meat sauce that's tossed with perfectly al dente penne pasta. She also uses the beef as a juicy, grilled sirloin steak.

Outside of the kitchen and the ranch, both Stegner and Kurtis sit on the board of directors of Green City Market, (www.chicagogreencitymarket.org),

a year-round farmer's market dedicated to improving the availability of a diverse range of high quality food, supporting local farmers and connecting them to chefs, restaurants and the public through educational and appreciation initiatives. During the spring and summer, the market sets up shop at the center of Lincoln Park, where farmers sell their products and restaurant chefs often cook with the products onsite. During the winter, the market is located inside the Peggy Notebaert Nature Center.

Stegner says she appreciates visiting to and supporting the market because "you can see, taste and feel what you're going to buy. It's an opportunity to talk and connect to the farmers."

Abby Mandel, the founder and president of Green City Market, explains how the selection process for participating farmers is extremely rigid. All farmers must show their products have been certified by the Food Alliance, a nonprofit group dedicated to encouraging sustainable practices. Really, it's the Food Alliance's certification standards that are so rigid. Farmers must demonstrate a checklist of sustainable practices, such as treating animals humanely, providing safe and social responsibilities.

In addition, the market focuses only on states close to Illinois to prevent farmers from unfair working conditions for employees, avoid the use of hormones, antibiotics and genetic modification, conserve the soil and water and otherwise protect the environment.

"Sustainable is different than organic," Mandel says. "Organic mainly just refers to pesticide use." Sustainability certification demonstrates not just a commitment to growing plants, vegetables and fruits organically, but also to environmental and social responsibilities."

In addition, the market focuses only on states close to Illinois to prevent farmers from having to travel long distances, which both ruins the quality of the food and uses up natural resources. "Everything is freshly harvested, picked the night before," Mandel says. "When you buy sustainable foods, you're not only getting a high quality food, but at the same time, you're preserving farmland in our region and protecting the environment."

Bruce Sherman, executive chef and owner of North Pond (2610 N. Cannon, 773-477-5845), also sits on Green City's board of directors and is perhaps one of Chicago's earliest advocates of using sustainable, locally grown products in his restaurant. For years, Chicagoans have considered North Pond as one of the places to go for seasonal, super-fresh food, where the menu changes with what's available and fittingly and where glass windows at the front of the quaint, former ice-skating hut open up to a pond in the midst of Lincoln Park.

Sherman says he doesn't even have to try hard to be a proponent of sustainability. Locally grown food, like Stegner says, just tastes better. "We're just interested in creating great food," Sherman says. "For me, it's all about cooking food to season where we live, not in Australia or South America, but at the same time, we can also be a lot more responsible in doing so."

Sherman buys ingredients from a number of local farmers, many who supply to Green City Market. He also steers clear of ordering endangered fish, a growing list of fish that includes Chilean seabass, monkfish, swordfish, caviar and some shrimp. "If something is endangered or raised in an unsustainable way, I don't put it on the menu," Sherman says.  "I also steer away from anything treated with hormones or antibiotics. They're not good for any animal, they're not good for humans to ingest, and they're not good for the environment because of all the harmful byproducts created."

This spring, Sherman looks to include fresh Alaskan halibut and wild salmon on his menu. He'll look for baby vegetables, such as beets, carrots, green onions, leeks, asparagus and delicate herbs this spring. "I'm very excited about the spring," Sherman says. "Finally, I can serve something green."

This year, the National Restaurant Association released its 2007 forecast survey, reporting that 87 percent of fine-dining restaurants say they serve some locally sourced items. Head into any Chipotle, and you can stuff your burrito with hormone- and antibiotic-free, free-range carnitas from Niman Ranch. While we might not be able to reverse years of havoc wreaked on the environment, we sure can try to start anew. Here are some notable chefs and restaurants in the city doing just that through their support of local farmers and sustainable ranches:

Bistro Campagne
4518 N. Lincoln, 773-271-6100
Executive Chef Michael Altenberg has for years been a vocal proponent of using organic, locally grown and seasonal foods both in of his restaurants (including Campagnola in Evanston). At press time, Altenberg, a Slow Food member, was working on opening up Crust, a new, certified-organic eatery in Wicker Park that will focus on flatbread pizza from a wood-burning oven, plus sandwiches and salads.

Lula Cafe
2537 N. Kedzie, 773-489-9554
Husband and wife chef duo and Slow Food members Jason Hammel and Amalea Tshilds have made this Logan Square hotspot popular for its ethnically varied menu featuring organic and locally grown fare, especially among vegetarians. The eatery also draws a crowd for breakfast, when patrons can choose from a range of omelets made with farm fresh eggs and ramps, when in season, or fiddlehead ferns. Look for standout fish entrees with interesting spices.

Blackbird and Avec
619 W. Randolph, 312-715-0708
Restaurant Row master Paul Kahan has been incorporating fresh, locally grown and sustainable foods in his menus for years, before it was even popular to do so. Look for duck breast from Grimaud Farms, Royer's Farm rabbit, plus other unique vegetables and fish.

Naha
500 N. Clark, 312-321-6242
Chef and owner Carrie Nahabedian sits on the board of the Green City Market, and that's evident from Naha's menu, which focuses on seasonal ingredients and Mediterranean-inspired dishes that reflect her Armenian background.  Nahabedian is a master at blending the sweet with the savory and creating interesting flavor combinations using fresh produce, like wild mushrooms and leeks, unique spices and unusual meats, like the occasional squab entree.

312 Chicago
136 N. LaSalle, 312-696-2420
As a Slow Food member, Chef Dean Zanella, who came from Trotter's and Gordon, has done a lot for the sustainability cause, including auctioning off a home-cooked meal for up to eight friends for one SF event. In his restaurant, he's further supported the Slow Food mission with a menu featuring contemporary American dishes, some with Italian inspiration, many of which have been passed down through generations in his family.  The menu changes seasonally, but look for favorites such as the grilled lamb chop and fresh fish selections.

Vie
4471 Lawn, Western Springs, 708-246-2082
Chef Paul Virant, a Slow Food member who's worked at Blackbird, packs his menu at this West suburban hotspot with seasonal, local ingredients, through which he intends to educate and please. Spring menus heavily showcase local ingredients like ramps, Illinois shell beans and purple turnips. Other seasonal items feature delicious game like quail and venison, as well as roasted rack of lamb, sausages and grilled pork, all presented in unique ways with interesting compliments, like pickled vegetables and truffles.

Terragusto
1851 W. Addison, 773-248-2777
"Sustainable" is a popular word at this bright and cozy corner cafe along Addison in Roscoe Village. Chef Theo Gilbert, who's cooked for Trattoria No. 10, Spiagga and the popular Bartolotta Ristorante di Mare at the Wynn Las Vegas, chooses all the ingredients from local farmers, butchers and suppliers. The tasty Italian sausage that's in the delectable and moist baked polenta with basil olive oil and broccolini comes from the Paulina Market down the street. The tender and juicy boneless roasted chicken comes from a nearby farm, and the butternut squash for the ravioli in a sinful brown butter and crushed amaretto cookie sauce also comes from a local farmer.

Published: April 01, 2007
Issue: Spring 2007

Comments

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Margaret Kramer, Jul-04-2010