News & Politics » Feature

Chef Earl's Original Recipe

Earl Manesky's all-natural hummus is competing with major brands, but that's OK--he's never let anything big and powerful stand in his way before.



By Jeff Huebner

There really is a Chef Earl. "How can somebody come up with that name?" asks Earl Manesky.

"Sometimes I'll be in a store talking to a customer. I'll say, 'Try one of these--they're locally made.' Then it comes out that I'm Chef Earl. They'll say, 'You're Chef Earl? There really is a Chef Earl?' 'Yes, I'm Chef Earl.' It gets embarrassing. Now I know how some celebrities feel."

But he can't afford to act like one. Fridays are delivery days, so Manesky's behind the wheel of a white Econoline van, heading south on Clybourn to one of his biggest customers, the Whole Foods at North and Sheffield. The van is 12 years old and slightly battered, but it still has a fair amount of get-up-and-go. A hand-lettered sign taped to the inside of the windshield says Chef Earl's Gourmet Food Products. The license plates read 9 SALSA. Why 9? "I couldn't get 1 or 2."

In the back of the van six large coolers are stocked with blue ice packs and hundreds of plastic containers filled with what Manesky calls his "world food, ethnically diverse, mostly Mediterranean style" sauces and spreads: hot and mild salsa, salsa verde, hummus, red pepper hummus, tomato basil sauce, marinara sauce, and Asian sauce. The 7- and 13-ounce tubs bear an unfancy label ("All natural"), nutrition facts, and an expiration date two weeks after the food was made.

Unlike some of his competitors, Manesky won't use preservatives. "We operate on the premise of fresh, fresher, freshest," he says. "If our product isn't going to sell in the first week, forget about it--I don't want my stuff in that store. If we have to worry about it not selling in a week, then it's not worth it to bring it in there."

To ensure freshness, batches of Chef Earl's products are handmade and hand packed several times a week in a Rogers Park storefront. Delivering his products to more than two dozen upscale and natural-food grocery stores, Manesky covers the Gold Coast to River Forest to the North Shore.

Chef Earl's isn't a one-man operation. Helping Manesky today is Roberto Mendoza, one of four part-time employees. All of Mendoza's coworkers belong to the same extended family from a small town in the Mexican state of Guerrero. Overseen by plant manager Katy Donlon--Manesky's wife and business partner, who also does the books and prepares the salsa--the young men cook beans, peel garlic, chop cilantro, and blend tomatoes.

"It's the same guys who have been working for us for years," says Manesky. "They got the formulas down. Katy and I just quality control. She's as integral to this business as I am. I couldn't have done this without Katy--no way."

Mendoza likes to talk about nightclubs and girls, though he seems barely to have time for either. Like his brother and two cousins, he holds down a second job at the Heartland Cafe, where Manesky was the chef for seven years--from 1977, the year after it opened, to 1984. Many of his recipes were developed and refined at that countercultural eatery, which, two decades later, still offers Manesky's inventions on its eclectic, vegetarian-oriented menu. Donlon also worked at the cafe, as a manager and codirector. She met Manesky when he interviewed her for a job in 1983, and they married a year later.

Manesky parks off Kingsbury behind the Whole Foods. Stopping the Jerry Garcia tape in midjam, he springs into action. He has the brisk, direct hustle of someone much younger than his 63 years--like most good chefs, he's a man of little wasted motion. It's easy to see why he found a home at the Heartland. Like much of the restaurant's clientele, he looks the part of an aging hippie: longish gray-flecked hair, hiking shorts, a safari vest over a T-shirt, beaded necklaces, and a waist pack adorned with an "Apache horsehair" key ring. But he didn't learn his trade from the health-conscious kitchens of hippiedom. He first trained as a cook at Leavenworth--where he spent nine months after selling LSD to undercover cops.

Clutching a clipboard, Manesky surveys the merchandise stocked in an open cooler across from the salad bar. Chef Earl's shares space with Cedar's Mediterranean Foods and Oasis Mediterranean Cuisine. When Whole Foods opened this, its first store here, in 1993, Manesky's business had already been around for five years. "We were the first company in all these stores with fresh salsa and hummus," he says. But over the years Chef Earl's has gradually lost shelf space--mostly to Cedar's, the industry leader--and Manesky often has to defend his turf.

Outside in the van, he runs down the numbers while Mendoza fishes out tubs from the coolers. "Give 'em 12 hot, 18 mild, 9 salsa verde....Give 'em, let's see, 45 small hummus--they've already sold 38 since Tuesday."

"OK, what else? How many large ones?"

"Thirty-five large hummus." Manesky turns to me. "In the big scheme of things," he says, "this is nothing compared to what these other guys put in." He then returns to the task at hand. "Fifteen small red pepper, nine large red--"

"What about the Asian sauce?"

"They have a lot of Asian." Whole Foods stocks the spicy teriyaki sauce and marinade near the seafood. In some stores, the marinara and tomato basil sauces are kept by the fresh pasta.

Back in the store, Manesky and Mendoza stock and rotate the salsas. A man pauses in the aisle to consider buying hummus. Cedar's has about ten kinds, with various combinations of herbs and vegetables. Oasis has just slightly fewer. These companies have so many different types of the chickpea spread that each markets an "original" hummus. The containers have colorful, eye-catching labels; the front of Manesky's hummus tubs just say "Chef Earl's," with a sticker proclaiming "No added oil, lower fat."

The shopper ends up plucking a large Chef Earl's hummus off the shelf. "Good choice!" says Manesky. "Thanks." The shopper nods and walks away.

"We really do have a good product," Manesky tells me. "It looks good and tastes good. It's hard to be modest about it, of course. But everybody does say that ours, in all modesty, is the best-tasting product out of all of them--the hummus and the salsa. Even the competitors say that. But still, it's not the best-selling."

Manesky is just one of an increasing number of small entrepreneurs working mightily to make a dent in the local natural-foods market. They don't make truckloads of products or take in tons of cash. They may never hit it big on the regional or national stage. They're in the business simply because they love good food and are convinced that what they serve up is better and healthier than the stuff sitting on the shelf next to theirs or in the big franchise stores. They believe that ultimately quality will carry the day. In an era of food conglomerates, factory-processed products, proliferating chain stores, and slick marketing, they can boast of a devoted, even cultish, following.

Ironically one chain in particular--the Texas-based Whole Foods Market--has proved to be a boon to natural-foods entrepreneurs. "We always try to carry locally produced products," says Kristen Pugliese, the Chicago area marketing director for Whole Foods, which has eight stores in the city and suburbs. "There are more than you think." There are fruits and vegetables, of course, but also products put out by small local businesses like Manesky's, including, to name a few, I.M. Healthy's SoyNut Butter, Sausages by Amy, Hans' All Natural hot dogs, Nicole's Divine Crackers, Michael Seasons' Potato Chips, and Fitzee's B-B-Q Sauce.

Pugliese doesn't think it's difficult for such producers to get their goods into her stores. But until about a year ago, she says, local entrepreneurs could approach each store's department buyers individually. Now products have to be vetted in the regional office; then it's left to individual store managers to decide if they want to carry them.

The criteria remain the same: The food must be all natural, Pugliese says, with no artificial ingredients--no colors, preservatives, or other additives. While the products are judged on quality, they won't get into Whole Foods if there's no room on the shelves. Even if a product makes the cut, she says, the vendor must show "persistence and follow-through, contacting individual stores and making sure it's on the shelf." Gourmet supermarkets like Treasure Island, with six stores in Chicago and Wilmette, and Sunset Foods, with three stores in the northern suburbs, are also receptive to local products, as are a raft of independently owned upscale and natural-foods stores.

Cedar's hummus was the first to appear on the market, in 1981--though it didn't make it to Chicago until 1992. The New Hampshire company boasts 16 ready-to-eat products including tabbouleh, baba ghannouge, bruschetta, lentil salad, and grape leaves. Toledo-based Oasis has been on the market since 1989--since 1995 in Chicago--and is distributed in many midwestern states as well as New York and California, according to local rep Moshe Sperling. Oasis has a similar line and a comparable number of products to Cedar's, but with a more specific Middle Eastern emphasis (the company was founded by a Lebanese restaurateur).

Manesky started Chef Earl's in 1987 with just one sauce, tomato basil, crafted in his own kitchen. As he expanded the line (which at one time also included soups, chili, and lasagna) and got into more stores, Chef Earl's gross sales "roughly doubled" every year through 1994, Manesky says, and in 1995 the company turned its first profit. Sales "slid down" for the next several years, he says, but have picked up since 1999, when the company started doing in-store tastings with Oasis (Manesky and Sperling view each other less as competitors than as allies against the industry leader). Last year, Chef Earl's had gross sales of about $215,000.

Manesky says salsa sales still lead the way, accounting for over 60 percent of his gross, though hummus does well too. At small stores, he might sell a dozen units a week, while larger stores can move several hundred. The numbers vary depending on time of year (salsa moves more slowly in winter), on taste demonstrations, and on the prices of his shelf neighbors. Chef Earl's foods are slightly more expensive; depending on the size of the container, its hummus costs between 10 and 70 cents more than Cedar's or Oasis hummus.

Cedar's and Oasis products have something else Chef Earl's doesn't: their plastic containers are vacuum sealed. This process gives their foods a shelf life of six to eight weeks and allows for wider distribution. (Cedar's also uses preservatives in most of its products; its "Natural Select" line--which doesn't use preservatives--is distributed only in natural-foods stores.) Manesky has been thinking about vacuum sealing too, though he knows he must be careful. His products might not lose their freshness or flavor, he says, but they could lose their homemade cachet. Many in the food business like Chef Earl's just the way it is.

"I'd say he's a pioneer," says Bob Vuckovic, the dairy buyer at Whole Foods in Evanston. "He's been around a long time, and he's really carved out a niche for his product. Customers like the freshness." In fact, Vuckovic says, when Whole Foods Kitchen came out with its own hummus several years ago, it was outsold by Chef Earl's. "It just tastes better."

"Great guy, great product," declares Mike McKenna, the deli manager at Treasure Island's Broadway store. "I like it myself. It's not processed--it doesn't come in bottles that have a six-month shelf life. It's kind of a homemade style."

"Earl's a guy of integrity and honesty, which he relates to food," says Michael Foley, the chef and owner of Printer's Row restaurant, where Manesky cooked for a spell in the mid-80s. "He's totally into fresh. That's why his interest in organics is so strong. He was always interested in where we found food, the guys in the farthest towns. He was interested in the raw materials."

Manesky and Donlon invite me to their home for dinner. They live in a Prairie-style house they've owned for four years in the North of Howard area. Both are native Chicagoans and longtime Rogers Park residents--Manesky since the early 60s, Donlon since the mid-70s. They are active in their block club and have been involved in 49th Ward community task forces and committees. No sooner have I arrived than a neighbor phones alerting Manesky and Donlon to what she thinks is a suspicious smell coming from a construction site at the corner of Juneway Terrace and Sheridan.

We walk over to investigate. At the end of the street, earthmovers are digging the foundation for the planned Lakeview Pointe Condominiums, on the site of a former gas station. Manesky, Donlon, and other residents have been fighting the developers for months, and while the block club recently lost a zoning battle--Juneway will be turned into a two-way street, and part of an alley will be closed off, to accommodate increased traffic--Manesky and Donlon have vowed to keep close watch on the project. We don't smell anything now, and a construction worker assures us that nothing is wrong. Manesky's not convinced. "You don't see many residential developments built on top of gas stations, and we're really concerned about that."

Back in their house, Manesky and Donlon bustle about the kitchen, following what appears to be a well-choreographed routine. He minces garlic for bread as she gets water ready for pasta. They are both vegetarians, though Manesky loves seafood; he describes himself as "two-thirds macrobiotic." He pours two containers of Chef Earl's tomato basil sauce into a pan. She sets out some hummus with chips. "We eat all of our own products," says Manesky.

He realizes a small specialty foods producer like Chef Earl's has none of the advantages enjoyed by national companies, but he says he's not complaining--that's business. Still, some things continue to irk him. "Stores want to encourage local entrepreneurs, and they want to feature you," he says. "But they just bow to who has the most sales."

"I can't understand why our marinara and tomato basil don't sell more," says Donlon. "I've tasted these other ones, and they're awful. But they've got the big names and glitzy labels and they sell. And ours--we just make about 50 a week of the tomato basil and marinara, if that."

"It seems that we're always the ones to lose space to products from other companies," Manesky says as he stirs the sauce. "They have more items in their lines. This major company has many flavors--they're like the Campbell's Soup of hummus. It's like, how do you get more space in a store? You come out with all these different things--tomato basil hummus, garlic hummus, extra garlic hummus, roasted garlic hummus....It forces everybody else to lose space. Stores designate space. They say, 'Oh, they sell more than you, so they should have more space than you.'"

"It's like catch-22," adds Donlon, tossing a salad. "If you've got good shelf space, you sell more. And if you got bad shelf space, you don't sell as much. We started out with huge space and it's gradually eroded because another salsa company came out and took space and, of course, Cedar's came out and took space. We're still selling a lot--like at Clybourn, our biggest Treasure Island store--but it's half as much as it was five years ago. There are more competitors."

"Which is OK," says Manesky. "If you're losing sales to competitors, that's one thing. But we're not only losing sales to competitors, we're losing space to competitors, and prime space at that....There's just something about numbers, and about price. These other guys do half-price sales..."

"That's what really kills us," says Donlon. "When they first got into Whole Foods, they'd have half-price sales weeks at a time. Cedar's primarily, then Oasis finally started doing it. So people were just flocking to their shelves because it was two for one. But we can't do that. We're a small business, we make them by hand. We don't do them on a machine. We have a two-week shelf life....To us, a 50-cents-off sale is a big deal--which we do."

"We're starting to do it," Manesky says. "Twenty-five cents off from us, and 25 cents off from the store. What we do is have season sales. We do the summer solstice. We do the spring equinox. We do the fall equinox. Then we do the Super Bowl sale."

"To some extent, stores have promoted us," says Donlon.

"Normally, dairy buyers are the people we deal with," Manesky says. "Since '88, we've seen many dairy buyers come and go. And we've seen store managers come and go. Sometimes I like to tell these guys, 'I'll be here when you're gone.' Sometimes there are people there that are sympathetic."

"Or just really like the product and want to promote it because they like it, and like the fact that it's local," Donlon says.

"But most stores don't have any loyalty--they want the bottom line," says Manesky. He adds spaghetti to the boiling water. "Katy, where are the tongs?"

Chef Earl's receives letters from fans (as well as foes, like from the guy who wrote to say the mild salsa is too spicy). Early last year, Manesky got an envelope addressed to the "King of Hummus." It says, in part, "I have been making hummus at home for years for my family...and now no one will touch mine. To the victor go the spoils and all that...but I have been trying, with total unsuccess, to replicate your remarkable formula, to learn, as it were, from the hummus king. As we use the same ingredients, I have been playing around with quantities, with different cooking times of the garbanzos, with different types of tahini. All for naught....Why is mine always gritty, while yours is so gloriously creamy?"

"Chef Earl" responded with a few tips without giving away his recipe. He suggested soaking the chickpeas with a little baking powder; draining and washing them after at least eight hours; cooking them until very soft; and using cooking liquid from the beans (instead of water) when blending them in a food processor.

Making hummus can be a laborious process. Like, say, potato salad, it's a dish where everybody uses basically the same ingredients but mixes them in slightly different ratios. Its consistency can vary depending on how much moisture the chickpeas retain after they're cooked and drained, how much of their liquor you add to the food procesor (along with the chopped garlic), how long you puree the raw mash, and how much lemon juice and tahini you add afterward. The consistency of this sesame-seed paste may vary. Herbs and spices--salt, cumin, fresh parsley, maybe red pepper--add yet another dimension. It does taste best when fresh.

The spaghetti dinner was as tasty as the hummus. Like the best Italian cooking, Chef Earl's tomato basil sauce uses a few simple ingredients that together make a full, rich flavor. You taste what you're supposed to--the plum tomatoes and fresh basil, the garlic, the black pepper, the salt (Chef Earl's uses extra-virgin olive oil and sea salt in all of its recipes). There's nothing else in the sauce to clutter up the taste, though Manesky says you can add your own vegetables if you want.

Manesky is Jewish, but Italian cooking remains his basis. It was the first cuisine he learned to prepare with proficiency. While working in the kitchen at Leavenworth in the early 70s, he was taken under the wings of two former mobsters. "So I'm basically Sicilian," he says, "actually Sicilian-Calabrese style, the boot of Italy."

For most chefs, cooking is a calling, but for some, it's a profession stumbled into. Many scrub pots or bus tables before working their way into the kitchen; others get hired as cooks because they're not qualified to do anything else. In any case, the new chef receives intensive, trial-by-fire training in the trenches from seasoned pros. Still others enroll in culinary and hospitality schools before landing jobs. But as the saying goes, one must cook with abandon or not at all. Not everyone's cut out for it: the work is arduous, the hours are long, the pay is lousy (at least to begin with), and the heat and stress can be brutal. There's another saying: a chef, by the time he's 40, is either crazy or dead.

For Earl Manesky, the calling came late--he didn't have his first cooking job until he was 40. It wasn't something he'd aspired to. "It was just amazing to me," says Katy Donlon. "All these jobs Earl had--candle maker, disc jockey, hairdresser, jewelry maker, chef--all these things with his hands."

"I wanted to be a sculptor too," adds Manesky. "I figured I could get into the Art Institute with my jewelry slides and learn sculpture. I could've done that. But I had to work--'Earl, we need you to work more hours.' So I missed that one."

Growing up near the old Cabrini Hospital in Little Italy and then in North Lawndale, Manesky doesn't recall having an affinity for food, but his mother tells him otherwise. "My mom says I used to cook my own stuff all the time," he says. "She says she never made me eggs because I didn't like the way she made them. So I used to make my own eggs, from a little kid." His father had been a musician--he played trumpet in jazz bands--but turned to "driving a cab and playing the horses" to support the family. Manesky fondly recalls accompanying his father in the early 50s to nightclubs all over the city to watch jazz performers. His dad died last January; his mom lives in a Rogers Park retirement home.

Manesky attended Farragut and Von Steuben high schools, where he became involved in the school newspapers and the speech clubs; he also handled sound for public addresses and plays. After he graduated, his family moved to Edgewater, but in 1955 he and a friend migrated to San Francisco to be part of the beatnik scene. They fell in with a group of writers, musicians, and actors. "I met a lot of beat guys there, like Mort Sahl," Manesky says. "We did a lot of things in North Beach--a lot of poetry readings at jazz club intermissions."

A few months later he was back in Chicago, where he enrolled in radio broadcasting school. From 1956 to '58 he worked as an announcer at a string of radio stations in Louisiana--in Monroe, West Monroe, Alexandria, and Leesville. "I was 'Earl Phillips' because they didn't want me to use the name Manesky--too Jewish. It was a hard time to be in the south for a Jewish Yankee. One thing, they didn't like Yankees. But they really didn't like Jewish Yankees. This one guy told me we're 'one step above the nigras.'" While in Louisiana, Manesky also acted in and organized community theater.

He moved back north thinking he had a radio job in Grand Rapids. But when that fell through, he found himself in Chicago again. In the late 50s and early 60s, Manesky played a bit part in the city's developing theater scene. "We had a theater company up in the Fine Arts Building," he recalls. "We did all the intellectual stuff--Shaw, Ionesco, Beckett--all that heavy existentialist shit." Manesky says he performed in plays and staged readings with members of the early Second City. "We did things with Alan Arkin and Barbara Harris, with Mike Nichols, where the original Second City was," he says. "It used to be called the Playwrights at Second City, over there where Lincoln and Wells meet. We just used to sit in with people and do readings there."

Hanging around Old Town, Manesky became friends with actor Severn Darden and Albert Grossman, who would become Bob Dylan's manager. "One of my first trips in '59 was with Grossman and Darden, over on Wells Street," he says. "We did the Huxley thing, mescaline. Everybody had just read The Doors of Perception, so we had to try it. Darden was great. And Theodore Bikel was around--though he never tripped with us. And Avery Schreiber--I grew up with him on the west side. We were kids together."

Manesky also worked as a bellhop at the Conrad Hilton. His claim to fame was being at the beck and call of Queen Elizabeth when she visited Chicago in 1959. "I was one of the cleaner, younger guys, so I was assigned to her. I was with them as long as they stayed, handling her furs and stuff." Little did the queen and her entourage know that Manesky had often smoked a joint or shot dope--he was experimenting with heroin at the time--before punching in. "I'd be high, taking care of the fuckin' queen of England," he says, relishing the memory. "But they liked me because I was such clean-cut-looking guy."

Manesky married his first wife, Sandra, in 1961, and they soon had a daughter, Robin. Sandra also had a son, Elliott, from a previous marriage. Finding it hard "to do theater stuff" with the demands of a family, Manesky enrolled in a State Street beauticians' school. "I did hair for a while, all over," he says. "Then I worked at a millinery company that sold wigs. They found out that I'd been a hairdresser, so they said, 'Oh, you should sell our wigs.' They had millinery stores all over the midwest." During the mid-60s, "Mr. Earl" flew to cities like Appleton and Kalamazoo and did wig demonstrations. "They were cheap, terrible wigs," he says.

In 1968 Manesky started making candles for a company on the seventh floor of what's now the Central Arts Building at Franklin and Superior. "We made the world's best fuckin' candles," he says. They were sold in shops throughout the city, including Candles and Things at Clark and Wrightwood. Donlon vividly remembers in the late 60s walking into the store--"totally dark, all candlelit"--and buying one. "It turned out that it was made by Earl," she says.

"It was the first time she had something I made before she knew me," he says. "The second time was when she had my chili at the Heartland." But that was years away.

"We all had long hair and were hippies," says Manesky of his circle the late 60s and early 70s. "We were against the Vietnam war. We went to rallies and protested the war, all those kinds of things--'68, Grant Park, I was there, just before the Days of Rage." Candle making wasn't his only source of income.

"I was a drug dealer, a marijuana dealer," Manesky admits. He recalls handling shipments with "hundreds of pounds" of pot--trucks rolled up to the loading dock in the alley off Franklin Street; he'd haul the pot up a freight elevator and store it in an unused water tower atop the building. "I had probably been arrested twice for marijuana but was never convicted," he says. But the police paid visits to his house. "They had information I was a dealer, but everything I ever had was thrown out--they never had anything on me." Manesky maintains he never made "big, big bucks" on drugs. "I mainly got into it because of the outlaw, countercultural, antigovernment thing of it."

Manesky began dealing LSD too. By chance, he and a partner in New York came into enough acid to turn on nearly every adult in Cook County. "Some guy from England brought a pound of LSD here and freaked out, and this friend of mine wound up having it. It was wonderful acid, British clinical acid. We had the powder--we used to take just a little match head. We had it probably three years before we even knew what to do with it." Then Manesky's partner got hold of a machine that made blotter tabs by mixing the powder with a saline solution. "I had the last 100,000 hits out of that pound, little tabs. It was marvelous."

In 1970 Manesky divorced Sandra, who had developed a drug problem. Their second daughter, Andrea, had been born the previous year, and Manesky took care of the children. While living in a house at Columbia and Lakewood, Manesky and an acquaintance "made a couple of sales, maybe 1,000 and then 100 hits of LSD" to someone who was dealing to undercover police. In the fall this customer told them he'd lined up a buyer who wanted 20,000 tabs; Manesky said fine. His acquaintance was to meet the guy elsewhere and make the exchange.

"But he didn't follow orders," says Manesky. "It turns out that he brought the guy to my house, followed by cars of feds. I saw them coming. I saw all these guys out there. I stashed the package of trips downstairs, on the back porch. I saw them dispersing, running all over the place. I knew they were there. I saw them come up the stairs. I said, 'You know, you brought the feds with you, you brought the police with you.' I saw them all over the place. Here I had a bunch of reefer stashed in the basement. And there were a bunch of feds hiding down there."

The police raided and searched the house. They didn't find the pot, but they did find the acid. "They arrested me, took me downtown," Manesky says. "It was funny--so many of these guys looked familiar. A lot of them were undercover, so they'd been around the neighborhood. Rogers Park was a big drug hotbed in the late 60s. So I said to all these guys--I'm being the tough guy, doing the outlaw--'I know what all you guys look like. I hope I don't see any of you around anywhere, because I'll blow your cover.'"

Manesky was not only arrested for possessing LSD with the intent to distribute but he also faced a drug conspiracy charge. "Everything in those days was 'conspiracy,'" he says. "This was after the political trials. So to make sure they got you, they got you for conspiracy." Manesky was released on bail and remarried Sandra in 1971 as his case dragged through court. He'd originally been sentenced to five years and another five years probation, but at a plea-bargain hearing a dozen witnessses testified that even though Manesky sold drugs he always held down straight jobs--he had a wife who was an addict and three kids to support. His family couldn't get by without him.

The court reduced the jail sentence to two years, but kept the five-year probationary period. Manesky would eventually serve 16 months, finishing the other eight on parole.

In February 1973 Manesky was sent to Sandstone Federal Correctional Institution, a minimum-security prison in Sandstone, Minnesota. It would be his home for the next seven months.

"I was in prison with a lot of people who were draft evaders, draft board robbers--political prisoners," he says. "Some people were in a big National Guard scam. There was a captain there who said he'd keep people out of the [Vietnam draft] lottery if they joined the National Guard. They were getting money and got nailed. There were accountants there who got caught embezzling; there were other white-collar criminals. There were some gangsters there, and there were also prisoners finishing out their long terms," including a sheriff who was involved in the murders of three young civil rights workers in Philadelphia, Mississippi. "There was an ex-alderman, Fred Hubbard, who was there--a black guy, a really nice guy. And there was the Minnesota Six draft board robbers--three hippies, a priest, and two seminarians. They were great guys. They were some of my friends."

Manesky worked in the bakery, which he says inmates called the "red bakery" owing to the many socialists who worked there. "We basically did cleanup. When you work in the kitchen, you get special privileges. We could be in the kitchen during lockup. We could break all the rules, and they never said anything to kitchen people. It was fun, really. We used to bring bread out during the meals. We'd cut the cakes and bring out the cakes. We made all our own meals. I turned vegetarian in prison because there was such shitty food. We used to scrounge and make all our own food in the kitchen. We got to maintain a good diet. I had plenty of vegetables. I didn't have to eat the slop that they cooked for those guys."

He came up for parole every three months. The second and last time, prison officials asked him if he wanted to finish his term at Marion, Illinois, where his former drug acquaintance (who'd also been sent to Sandstone) was being transferred. But Manesky didn't want to go; he'd heard about the drug scene there and wanted to avoid it. He told officials he'd prefer to be paroled in Minneapolis, where he could start a new life with his wife and kids. Manesky said he had a job lined up in Medina--some friends ran a candle-making business there.

Instead, he was shipped off to Kansas and the Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary, where he'd spend nine months. He believes he received this punishing blow partly because he'd been "very political" at Sandstone. "They didn't like that at all," he says. "I was organizing. I made sure all the Jewish guys there had Sabbath services. I was hanging around with all the draft people. They didn't like that. I said, 'Who do you want me to hang around with--criminals, bank robbers? You want me to hang out with real criminals?' I said, 'These are really nice guys; they're all college-educated guys.' But they said, 'Oh, you're hanging out with a bad, subversive element here.' It was the funniest thing in the world. These were some of the smartest, most brilliant people I've ever met."

Leavenworth consists of a maximum-security prison and a minimum-security camp. Before serving time on "the farm," though, Manesky had to spent a week inside a cell block--the worst experience of his life. "It's scary being inside," he says. "It's an animal house. All the worst criminals were in there." He remembers keeping to himself and reading the book Black Elk Speaks twice. "I was in another world."

Once on the farm, Manesky started working in the kitchen. "I met a guy who'd been a narcotics cop in Chicago who got caught selling dope," he recalls. "But he was the most urbane, sophisticated guy. And he was Jewish. When I came in he said, 'Oh, you're the only other Jew here.' He became my friend and got me into the kitchen."

That's how Manesky learned to cook. "I worked with two Mafia guys. It was great. This one guy was from Taylor and Racine, and he said he remembered me from when I was a little kid. 'Oh, come on.' 'No, I remember you.' He taught me a lot of stuff. And another guy--his name was Frankie--showed me a lot of Sicilian stuff. He was like the head of the kitchen. He wasn't really a chef. It was just personal cooking, Sicilian family style. He taught me a lot of those techniques. When Frankie got out he was killed--he was a snitch. There was another cook in there who was a top guy at a place in Chicago; he said he robbed a couple of banks. He was a fabulous chef--I learned a lot from him."

The penitentiary also provided education of another kind. When Manesky wasn't cooking, he was reading books, most of which were sent to him by friends in Chicago. The books were on revolutionary China (though he later became a fan of the Dalai Lama), black nationalism, Malcolm X, feminism, and Native American theology. "It was really inspirational when I was in there," he says. "I came out more heavily radicalized than when I went in. Before I was just against the war. But when I came out, I was more of an intellectual radical."

Released in July 1974, Manesky headed back to Chicago where he was reunited with his family. "I was totally at war with the system," he says. "I said, 'I'm gonna fuck the system.' And I did." For the next several years, he and his wife took advantage of ADC and unemployment insurance as well as disability grants available to ex-cons. "I was bitter for a long time," he says. "They didn't have to do to me what they did. I didn't look at myself as a bad guy. I didn't sell stuff to kids. I was doing it to subsidize my family's income."

For a year Manesky returned to making candles. Though he considered himself a "premier candle colorist," he really wanted to "create things that were more long lasting." Federal and state grants enabled him to apprentice with a jeweler--the government money also paid for metals and supplies--and he learned how to be a silversmith and a goldsmith. He rented space in a cooperative artisans' gallery off Michigan Avenue and then joined forces with another jeweler to open a shop in Winnetka. "I started to make a lot of gold and was loving it," he says. "But what killed me was when gold prices went up in '75, '76. Where I was politically in my head, I couldn't rationalize selling a pair of earrings for $300."

Manesky and his wife divorced again in 1976, and he again took over raising their three kids. He now speaks of his ex-wife with pride. Her life is on track. She's whipped cancer. And she's been clean for 16 years, as a member of Narcotics Anonymous.

"We were quite a couple," says Sandra Manesky, who now teaches art to homeless men at the Peoples Church in Uptown. Her own surrealistic paintings are currently on display at the Chicago Diner. "He was quite a character--between he and I, we could probably write two books. He basically had a lot of love and tolerance. He was a good father."

Both of their daughters are educators: Andrea is a teacher at Marshall Middle School on the northwest side, and Robin is a tai chi instructor and macrobiotic cook who's training to become a teacher in a Waldorf school. "My dad didn't have a conventional kind of life--he hopped around a little bit," says Robin. "While I was growing up, he was gung ho to do whatever needed to be done. He was always there when you needed him....I felt he was like a tree trunk, with strong roots, always there. He didn't want to deprive his children of their mother. Despite some of the harsh times, he let us maintain a relationship. He has a compassionate side that lets people be who they are. He also surrounded himself with people who were good role models. He's done the right thing."

Though raised on the far northwest side, in Edgebrook and Sauganash, Katy Donlon had old ties to Rogers Park--she'd gone to Saint Scholastica High School. She and her three children moved to the neighborhood from Skokie in the mid-70s after she and her husband, an engineer at Motorola, divorced. She recalls wanting a kitchen job at the Heartland Cafe so she could learn to make the chili, but she didn't seriously consider it until late 1983, when she'd been laid off as a public relations officer at Mundelein College.

"My mother and sister and I go and have lunch," Donlon remembers. "I'm feeling kind of down--I don't have a job. We get served this fantastic meal--I don't know if I had chili or quiche that day. I'm looking around. It's really homey. I decided I'd really love to work there. It's got a great environment and I love the food. I talked to Michael [James] and Katy [Hogan], the owners, and said, 'I'd love to work in the kitchen.' They said, 'You'll have to talk to Earl Manesky.'"

Activists James and Hogan founded the Heartland in August 1976 with the slogan "good wholesome food for the mind and body." Hogan recalls how Manesky often came by when she, James, and their "extended family of friends" were gutting the former steak joint at the corner of Lunt and Glenwood. "He was one of the few people who knew what we were trying to do, and he was interested," she says. "It turned out the guy was way advanced on natural foods, back when Chicago was a desert for that stuff. He put a lot of taste into our early vegetarian food."

Manesky was hired as a cook in early 1977; by the fall he'd become the chef and kitchen manager. His resumé states that he "specialized in whole grain foods, fresh produce, fresh fish and chicken, blending classical food techniques with meatless cooking." The Heartland's low-key, communal atmosphere suited Manesky's culinary style--it was, in some ways, like cooking for a house full of guests, and he could experiment with dishes he'd been making for years for his family and friends. Chef Earl created many of the cafe's staples--the scrambled tofu, the fried bean plate, the Mexican chicken, the salsa, the vegetarian chili, and the "Duke's Tostadas," named after Manesky and inspired by Gene Chandler's "Duke of Earl."

Hogan says a lot of cooks contributed to the menu over the years but "Earl stands alone in the annals of chefs at the Heartland as a person I did politics with. He's a great community member--that's the thing I treasure about him. He's been a model father, a feminist, and a bit of a commie. He's been a great comrade in arms in many community-based and global causes over the years. Deep down in his heart he's a genuine sacred human being. His main sin is that he truly loves humanity, and he wants to improve the lot of all of us. He did become family." Hogan says the restaurant even wore Manesky's past as a badge of honor. "We bragged about it: 'Our chef learned how to cook at Leavenworth.'"

Yet working at the Heartland posed some peculiar risks. Manesky was on probation until 1979, so he couldn't associate with criminals. "I had my parole officer come into the Heartland once a month--they were very proud of that, their ex-con," he says. "All these underground guys used to come in there when they were on the run--Mark Rudd, Abbie Hoffman, Bernardine Dohrn, Bill Ayers. Rudd even gave me some guerrilla literature. I said to Michael and Katy, 'I can't be seen talking to these people over here. They're wanted by the FBI, and here I am doing my five-year probation.' If I would've violated any of that probation time, I would've wound up back in the penitentiary."

Manesky didn't go back to jail, but he did return to school, getting an associate's degree from Triton College's restaurant training program in 1980. He also got married again. When Donlon interviewed for the cooking job in 1983, she says, "We spent about an hour talking. Earl says he wanted to ask me out--he knew then--but I had no idea. The upshot was, he didn't hire me for the kitchen because I didn't have any experience. But he told Michael and Katy they should hire me because I'd be a good worker."

Manesky and Donlon married in 1984, the year he left the Heartland. She'd work there for the next eight years as manager of the retail store (when the company declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 1988 and had to reincorporate to satisfy the IRS, Donlon was named president, a position she held until 1996). But for Manesky, "It was time to move on. I wanted to expand my horizons and work in a restaurant."

He landed first at Printer's Row on Dearborn, where over a seven-month period he worked as garde-manger (cold foods) chef and later became responsible for fish and seafood. He says making the leap from vegetarian cooking to classic cuisine "was hell." Chef-owner Michael Foley serves American cuisine with an emphasis on midwestern ingredients. "He was tough," Manesky says, "but he was the sweetest guy in the world. He was my mentor. After I left there, he was my resource. I would call him up all the time and ask him questions when I was working other jobs. He's got wonderful tastes--came from a good background. I helped him get into vegetables, really. I turned him on to sprouts."

Foley--who says he'd had cooking jobs throughout France as well as in 12 other countries before opening Printer's Row--laughs at the memory. "As soon as he got me into sprouts, we were sprouting everything," he says. "Earl came in with a bunch of people when we were on the discovery path. There were only six people in the kitchen, and we did everything from scratch. They had to be flexible, have a sense of humor, and be willing to work hard....Earl was really enthusiastic, very patient. It was great to have people really interested in the American food movement committed to working in the trenches to make a new base for people to eat from. We couldn't have created a colorful, intense cuisine if we didn't have people that dedicated."

Manesky left Printer's Row in early 1985 and plied his trade at P.S. Chicago, She-Nannigans, and Michael Stuart's, where he served as garde-manger chef for a year and a half. He also cooked for Chicago Caterers (where he developed his marinara recipe) and set up his own catering and consulting business. As a consultant Manesky returned to the Heartland Cafe for a couple years in the late 80s. He usually worked two days a week, filling in on the chef's days off, and helped out with food presentation and portion control. He designed the daily vegetarian, whole-grain, seafood, and chicken specials and made the soups and sauces.

That's when I met Manesky--I was working at the Heartland as a part-time cook and as a writer for its Heartland Journal. Unlike other chefs I'd worked for, he wasn't an insanely demanding maniac who enjoyed inflicting psychological abuse upon the kitchen staff. While a perfectionist, he was laid-back, gregarious, and open to ideas--this was, after all, the Heartland, not Charlie Trotter's. I remember he could make the most mundane soups--bean, sweet and sour cabbage--taste great. He got results from others through kind encouragement. He devoted the rest of his week to refining recipes and hustling sauces. Chef Earl's was busy being born.

The turning point came in 1987. Manesky was spending a weekend in Michigan, at a gathering of Donlon's family. When it was Manesky and Donlon's turn to cook dinner, he made his tomato basil sauce. His sister-in-law Laurie said, "I wish I could buy something like this in a store."

That summer, Manesky, Donlon, and two of her sisters, Laurie and Maggie, pooled their money to start Chef Earl's (the company name on the labels, ELCM, Inc., takes the first letters of each of their names; Katy's full name is Catherine). Manesky went to work making tomato basil sauce, and he soon convinced a dozen area stores to carry it. Donlon shows me their first expense sheet, for the last two months of 1987: with a start-up investment of $1,070 for food and other supplies (including labels, plastic containers, and a food processor), Chef Earl's took in only $393.

Looking back, Donlon says making the sauce in their own kitchen "was probably illegal, but we weren't thinking about it." Soon they rented a space on Glenwood across the el tracks from the Heartland. Manesky added marinara sauce and hot salsa to his repertoire. "I convinced him to make salsa in the first place," Donlon says. "I still believe we could win a locally judged fresh salsa contest hands down." The company was truly a family affair: at one time or another, every one of Manesky's and Donlon's kids, plus her two sisters, helped produce, package, or deliver the products.

In 1991 Chef Earl's leased its storefront plant at 6623 N. Clark. Manesky, Donlon, and their staff--now made up mostly of Heartland employees--began turning out batches of hummus, red pepper hummus, salsa verde, mild salsa, and teriyaki sauce, in addition to the old standards (for a while the company marketed garlic clam sauce and cilantro pesto, but they never really took off). With expanded facilities, Chef Earl's also put out a line of vegetarian, dairy-free soups and meatless chili and lasagna--all of which Manesky delivered to several area cafes and delis. He discontinued this side business two years ago: it was getting to be too much work, he says, and his biggest account, Lo-Cal Zone, had gone out of business.

"There are just so many things you can do," Manesky says. Sometimes in the summer he still makes his gazpacho "for select stores."

These days Manesky is making no small plans. While traditional retirement age approaches, he has no notions of retiring Chef Earl's. Instead, he's poised to take the company to the next level--today Chicago, tomorrow, perhaps, the world. "After all," he says, "they are world foods."

He wants to get back into making soups and chili, but instead of delivering them to restaurants by the gallon, he'd like to bottle them in individual portions and sell them in stores. "I got 16 soups that I make, all vegetarian, all different, and it's gotten so that I've refined, really refined, these recipes now. We were selling a lot of them." He'd like to contract out to a "copacker," a business that produces and packages food formulas. "Having somebody make the soups, and make them shelf stable--putting them in jars--that's what we really want to do," he says.

From time to time, Manesky has tried to get Chef Earl's products into Jewel and Dominick's, by far the largest supermarket chains in the area. Freshness has always been his selling point, but the corporate buyers and store managers have so far been unreceptive. Several years ago, Manesky says, he offered Dominick's "an exclusive in their market." But then their stores started selling Cedar's and other brands. Manesky wasn't fazed. A Dominick's recently opened a few blocks away, and in June he dropped off samples of his salsa and hummus. He's encouraged.

"I'm looking to get into some of their upper-scale stores," he says. "Our stuff's not expensive, but it's not cheap. Sixteen to 20 stores would be enough. There'd be no problem producing it. But I'd probably have to get somebody to distribute it for us. You pay them a certain percentage, and they merchandise it and do everything. All they do is pick it up when we tell them. That would be perfect."

Now Manesky and Donlon are mulling over what has become their ultimate question: should they use vacuum sealing? "I want to increase my shelf life," Manesky emphasizes. "It would give us a step up and make us more competitive." But they both have mixed feelings. Would the salsas and the pasta sauces and the hummus still taste just as fresh, just as natural and homemade, after sitting in a store cooler for six weeks? And would loyal customers still buy their products if the food was no longer handmade and hand packed?

Donlon suggests "keeping the fresh stuff" but experimenting with vacuum sealing on some products to see if they hold up. "If they still tasted as fresh, maybe we'd do it. But if they don't taste as good, then we won't."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Nathan Mandell.

Add a comment