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Chi Lives: Peggy Ascherman and her serious salad bar



The air-conditioning in her restaurant is not working full tilt, but in her dappled green sundress, Peggy Ascherman looks fresh as a crisp tossed salad, her long brown hair twisted off her back into a cool French braid. A party of three walks in and halts a moment, testing the air.

"We'll come back," one of them tells her, and they do an about-face.

"That's OK. I don't blame you," says a cordial but matter-of-fact Ascherman.

Minutes later, the trio is back, in once more from the 100-degree heat.

"We decided to stay," one of them laughs.

Ascherman shrugs. That's OK, too.

La Salade has just turned six years old, safely past the crisis point for small, family-operated restaurants; people even drive in from Chicago to try this Skokie salad bar.

Ascherman wants to know what has brought me to her doorstep. So I tell her about my peripatetic friend, Jim, who lunches there every day--when he's in the country--and calls La Salade his favorite restaurant in the world. I don't tell her that he's a third-world traveler. I just tell her that I had lunch with Jim recently at his favorite restaurant in the world and was duly impressed.

She shrugs and starts telling her story.

La Salade was a defunct ice cream stand when Ascherman and her partner found it seven years ago. They redid the whole place to accommodate a small sit-down crowd, adding stylish Formica tables, arty photos of fruits and vegetables, and a big self-service island filled with a large variety of the real thing. A second buffet against a wall holds a taco bar, soup, hot entree, vegetable of the day, brown rice, and dessert--usually Ascherman's "what's not to love?" apple cobbler.

"The salad concept came about because I'm always dieting. I tend to be heavy," says Ascherman, who is currently thin. "But I don't do any artificial stuff--like sweeteners. I mean, why? It's a healthy food restaurant, not a health food place; I have to appeal to everyone, though I hate even having soda. But I never had smoking."

The all-you-can-eat spread costs $5.25 ($6.50 at dinner) and holds about two dozen items, including pasta-shell salad, mushroom/red cabbage/zucchini salad, brown rice and raisin salad, cauliflower and broccoli salad, carrot and yellow squash salad, potatoes-with-the-skins-on salad, fresh fruit salad, and Waldorf salad. And of course there are the de rigueur bowls of fresh greens with oodles of trimmings, including La Salade's homemade bagel croutons.

What makes La Salade a giant among salad bars is that everything is freshly prepared with fresh ingredients. Or, as one local food critic wrote, "The produce looks like it comes from the earth and not a test tube."

"I don't believe in anything that's been in the freezer," says Ascherman. "I never make anything the night before--maybe a couple of sauces--but that's it. And we dont save anything for the next day. Nothing we serve is too expensive to throw out."

Ascherman always loved cooking, but she never had formal training or any experience in the restaurant business. "I never worked in a restaurant before." She adds matter-of-factly, with only a trace of a smile, "My mother wouldn't let me. It wasn't what she wanted me to do. A regular store, a department store, that was OK."

Ascherman grew up on Long Island and moved to the midwest with her first husband, then a graduate student at the University of Illinois in Champaign. Before long she bad a son, a divorce, and a job in a Champaign boutique making "impossible wages." She moved to Chicago because a woman told her she could make $200 a week at Handmoor.

The discount women's clothing store was famous at one time for its aggressive salesladies. "It wasn't me," she says of the work environment. But the money was good, and she stayed five years. "I think they kept me on because I was so nice to the customers."

From Handmoor, she moved to men's retail. But she was still hating her job and wishing she had a restaurant instead. So she found a partner, a man who also wanted a restaurant and had the money to start one but knew nothing about food.

"I figured I'd do it and keep my job, but after the restaurant was open two days, I quit it. Within 20 days, I got rid of everyone we'd hired, and then I don't remember anything. It's like I was blinded for a year. I do remember sleeping in my car in the parking lot because I was working both shifts and I was exhausted."

Things got better. Two years ago she bought out her partner. And despite the endless hours Ascherman put in at La Salade in its early years, she doesn't remember a time when she wasn't fulfilled. "Looking back, I might say I don't know how I did it, but obviously I enjoyed it," she says.

These days, she says, the big thrill is catering, which she began several years ago when customers started asking for it. "I never advertised," she says. "It's been all word of mouth. So I don't have to do any selling. Which I can't stand."

The restaurant and the catering are going so well that Ascherman is in the process of buying the building that houses La Salade. "So in a sense"--a rare look of self-satisfaction crosses her face--"in a sense, I'm buying my own job.

"I probably shouldn't say anything, because it isn't final yet, but think positive, right? Anyway, my astrologer says everything will be OK."

Another thing Ascherman doesn't advertise is that she's into astrology, and all kinds of other new-age notions like meditation, positive thinking, and reincarnation.

Although she's "not fanatical about any of it," it just so happens that Kriyananda, the psychic astrologer over at the Temple of Kriya Yoga, has told Ascherman that in another life she was a general and a purveyor of food in the army. "It could have been," she says, looking up with a deadpan expression. "I'm open-minded. I've been to enough psychics and astrologers to know what they say has some validity."

She doesn't say whether or not anyone predicted it, but about six months ago she got married again, to a man she met in the restaurant. "He came in about 50, 60 times for takeouts before he got the nerve to ask me out."

The relationship has required a bit of a juggling act, but as with everything else in her life, she's managing. "He's busy, I'm busy. We don't have extended periods of time to spend together, but how much tame do you need with someone? Today I'll work 11, 12 hours. I'll go home, cook a stir-fry, we'll watch a little television." Soon, she adds, they are going to start meditating together.

Ascherman's due in the kitchen to put the finishing touches on a catering order that's to be picked up soon. She isn't involved with the prep work as much as she used to be, but she doesn't let catering jobs go out the door without her final touch. "I do very pretty presentations. I use fresh flowers and leaves. Everything I serve looks a little different.

"This one is a dinner--cold poached salmon, pasta Primavera, tossed salad with our bagel croutons, apple cobbler. It's the same menu I made for a brunch four days ago. One of the guests came up to me afterwards and said [she keeps her usual straight face], 'Dolly, sweetie, I'm having six people in from London, could you make me the same thing?'" On her way to the kitchen Ascherman passes the buffet, where a customer is puzzling over the soup. What, the customer asks her, is the soup of the day? "It's black bean soup," Ascherman says, stopping. "It's high in iron." The customer moves on, without even a second glance at the soup tureen. Aschermnan gives it a quick stir with a ladle, eyes it a moment, and shrugs. "Who cares?" she says to herself, then turns and disappears into the kitchen. La Salade is located at 3938 W. Dempster in Skokie. Phone 679-6190 for information and reservations.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.

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