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Taking matters—and cheese and cured meat—into your own hands

When the Sofitel's Café des Architectes was mandated to undergo intensive certification, chef Greg Biggers decided to have some fun with it—and launch in-house charcuterie and cheese-making programs.


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"A pirate band," the cooks at Schwa once called themselves, summing up the romantic view of the rebelliously creative storefront kitchen as one of the last holdouts against modern corporatized life. At the other end of the spectrum, in the halls of a hotel kitchen, the atmosphere is less buccaneer than cruise liner. There may be the star chef at the helm, but behind him or her there's a large crew pumping out French toast and club sandwiches on carts that roll morning, noon, and night. And above that chef there's a vast corporate chain of command, giving orders that must be obeyed.

"We got a directive from Sofitel corporate a couple of years ago that by 2015 they wanted all the hotels in North America to be HACCP certified," says Greg Biggers, executive chef of the French-owned Sofitel Hotel Chicago and its restaurant Café des Architectes, as we weave through hallways of parked room service carts to a small office next to a couple of humming coolers.

"What that boils down to is a food safety certification," he explains—which goes beyond what's typically expected from restaurants in the U.S. He waves at a shelf of fat navy-blue binders, each stuffed as full as a turducken. They're HACCP (hazard analysis and critical control points) manuals, full of regulations and records.

Biggers says the regulations don't really force a restaurant to do things differently—they're more about keeping voluminous logs to prove that you've done them. It's an additional layer of bureaucracy. "We went through months of training and upwards of ten grand to do this," he says. "And the chef in me was like . . . so what's in it for me?"

Biggers decided that if he and his team were to endure an arduous and time-sucking certification process anyway, why not take advantage of it and get the approval to do things in house that restaurants don't normally get to do? He pitched the hotel on starting what he calls Chestnut Provisions, named for the Gold Coast street the hotel is on, which would produce artisanal cheese, cured meats, and preserves for Café des Architectes—and might help attract patrons of Chicago's crowded fine-dining scene.

His first certification was for sous vide, a technique common enough in fine dining, but one that requires certification in Chicago. It was his introduction to how the city regulates the relatively tiny culinary avant-garde. Inspectors spend most of their time probing hot dog joints, not cutting-edge kitchens. So when it comes to new techniques, "they don't know," Biggers says. "They'd much rather say nope, you can't do it, than be ahead of the chefs and teach us how to do it."

Greg Biggers learned cheese-making at Zingerman's Creamery in Ann Arbor. - MICHAEL GEBERT
  • Michael Gebert
  • Greg Biggers learned cheese-making at Zingerman's Creamery in Ann Arbor.

So Biggers went straight to the top, to the city's top food safety official, Gerrin Butler, to gain up-front approval for the new techniques he wanted to utilize in his kitchen—and then displayed her letters prominently for visiting inspectors to see. "I had to figure it out all on my own, and go to them and say here's everything possible you could ever want, instead of them giving me a directive of here's what you need, here's how you do it, and this is why." He says there's nothing unusual about Chicago this way: "I think it's the same for New York. A lot of the health departments, they're so behind the chefs in terms of all these techniques that we want to do—even the old-school stuff like fermenting."

From there he commandeered a small walk-in to be his cured meat and cheese cave—to the grumbling of the French toast brigades—and divided his staff to tackle different skills. He called on chef friends to help with training: two of his sous chefs staged with Jared Van Camp at Old Town Social to learn charcuterie, others learned preserving and canning from Paul Virant, and Biggers and pastry chef Leigh Omilinsky went to Zingerman's Creamery in Ann Arbor to learn cheese-making.

"Cheese was the big one," Biggers says. "According to the state of Illinois inspectors, there's no other hotel or freestanding restaurant making cheese. So they sent two inspectors who were really up in all our stuff. They were like, what the hell are you guys doing?" There's a certification for a dairy manufacturing plant, but not for a restaurant making cheese. "So we've got the same certification as Dean's or Prairie Farms."

Finding equipment that would meet their scale and pass muster with the inspectors was a constant struggle, and the results are artfully jerry-rigged, like the five-gallon pasteurizer he had custom-made. "Normally these are 100 gallons," he says of the tabletop Rube Goldberg-style device that warms the milk, paddles it around, and tracks its temperature on a chart recorder. "The inspectors were totally baffled."

Cheese also proved to be challenging in other ways. "It's like a welder learning to be a nurse," Biggers says of his cheese-making efforts. "We've thrown out probably 300 gallons of milk. Either it doesn't work or we weren't happy with it." He told Omilinsky one day: "'Stop, we've got to reapproach this.' We were so far out of our element that we forgot how to cook. The recipe would say, let it rest for 45 minutes and then cut it. Instead of touching, feeling it like we do everything else, we were cutting it after 45 minutes, and it wasn't ready."

The jams and preserves were easy compared to chef Greg Biggers's challenges making cheese. - MICHAEL GEBERT
  • Michael Gebert
  • The jams and preserves were easy compared to chef Greg Biggers's challenges making cheese.

We go up a floor from the kitchen to the cave, a small walk-in with a sign on the door basically warning the rest of the staff to stay out. There's a thick forest of salumi hanging on one side of the room, giving off gorgeous meaty aromas. Yet there's only ten or so rounds of cheese, sealed in wax to keep out meat flavors, resting on the wooden shelves—a sign of how hit or miss the process has been.

"I was trying to run before I could walk," Bigger says. "After our first batch I was all like, let's get the raw milk in! Let's ash-rind the cheese! So I pay a ton of money for this raw milk and make cheese, and after three days, we're like, 'Get it out of the cave and into the garbage!'"

The jams and preserves were easy by comparison; the charcuterie turned out beautifully; the cheese, well . . . Biggers admits they're still learning, and that guests only see the ones that work. So what's he doing with all the products of his kitchen?

"Right now, it's on all the menus," he says. "We do a Chestnut Provisions tasting, which is charcuterie, our cheese, pickles, mustard—the whole thing is stuff we make in-house. I do a baked Brie on the menu with pickled mustard seeds and cherry mostarda. I was going back and forth, do we really want a baked Brie on the menu?" he asks, recognizing that it's a cliche of 80s entertaining. "But one, people love that stuff, and two, it's delicious. We're doing jams and jellies and charcuterie in the banquets, we have a cheese board in the bar—it's in everything."

One of his chefs brings over a board with an assortment of the kitchen's handiwork, and we dig in. "When I brought all this up to [the hotel management], they were like, one, it'll never work, two, it's a whole lot of work," Biggers says. "Now that I've put us through the wringer, my chefs learned a hell of a lot. We have 12 inspections a year, by four different agencies, and it's not like 'Oh shit, the health inspector's here, let's try to fix everything!' Everybody knows the drill."

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