Most restaurants would love to be able to say not only that they use farm-to-table ingredients, but that they themselves are farmers' market vendors in partnership with one of the most famous natural pork producers in the country. The owners of Edgewater's Cookies & Carnitas, Brad Newman and Mikey Taormina, make a special point of leaving all that information off their menu.
"We use a lot of the farms, because we're at the Green City Market every week," Newman, a wiry, intense chef with experience at places like Charlie Trotter's and Tru, explains. "But we don't put any farms' names down on the menus, because it's not the point. We're trying to sell this product to the neighborhood. We're afraid that if we get too fou-fou with the farm names, people are going to associate it with [a high] price, and we really don't want that."
If you've seen Cookies & Carnitas at the Green City Market, you know that they've been selling things like tacos and porchetta sandwiches made with Becker Lane pork from Iowa artisanal farmer Jude Becker for the last couple of years. At the market the point is to get people to try Becker's superior pork in an accessible form. But in their shop, which opened two weeks ago at 5757 N. Broadway, the point is simply to make food well, and using the farmers from the market is because that's what the chefs believe in, not because it would help justify a price point.
Newman and Taormina, a bigger, bald-headed chef and baker with a more laconic demeanor, met a few years ago through mutual friends in the industry, and first launched an experimental baking program at the Latin School and Francis W. Parker School together. Newman was then the executive chef of the Quadrangle Club at the U. of C., and when I ask why he gave that up to start what's essentially a taco and sandwich stand, he's blunt enough to give the honest answer that lots of chefs with start-ups could give (but don't): "I don't play well with others."
After many years in the industry, Newman wanted a business that reflected his beliefs about food: that ordinary people should be able to have high quality, ethically raised, and normal food like tacos, sandwiches, salads, even a hot dog—what they call their Proprietary Dog, a massive frankfurter made just for them by a meat supplier he's known for many years. (He wishes he could make one for me to photograph, but the first month's supply sold out in their first two weeks and he's waiting for a new, bigger batch.) It weighs a full pound, and as Taormina says, "There hasn't been one single time that we dropped it at the table and people didn't laugh."
They tried to get into the Green City Market on their own, "but it's exorbitantly hard to get in," Newman says. David Yourd, who then owned JDY Meats (now Fortune Gourmet), suggested that they partner with Jude Becker, who'd been one of the original suppliers at the market, to offer things using his pork. "And we said, Ooh, Jude Becker? What cook wouldn't want to do that?"
As Newman dishes up some tacos to photograph, he says of them, "That didn't take any skill, it's just quality product. Genesis Farms cabbage, real crema, end-of-the-season roasted heirloom tomatoes in the salsa. There's no secrets, no cheffy BS. Just simply made." A moment later he starts to explain further. "We try not to do anything unethnic. We do it like an old grandma would do it."
Taormina starts making a pizza—calling my attention to the unusual way they scallop the edges of the crust, like a pie. Newman points out that the pepperoni is made for them especially by Meats by Linz, a specialty-meat purveyor in Calumet City, and the dough uses a more expensive flour than is typical. He acknowledges that because of their insistence on specific, high-grade products, their food costs are above restaurant industry norms (which typically keep food costs to below one-third of total expenses). They hope to even it out with the modestness of the operation in other areas, but Newman recognizes that they'll be fighting compromises for a long time. The kitchen is certainly a start toward keeping expenses down—they laboriously cleaned and renovated it themselves, and there's only one oven, an ancient Faulds pizza oven kept running with jerry-rigged spare parts.
By moving into Edgewater, they've committed themselves to serving a community with a lot of people of fairly modest incomes food of a level associated with trendier, wealthier parts of town. So far, they seem at least to be getting the volume that gamble requires. "Ninety percent of our clientele live within one mile," says Newman, waving his hand toward his immediate neighbors. "The haircut guys—they eat here every day of the week. The alderman's office—they eat every day, they get the burger or a pizza. This building—probably every tenant in there. The old folks' home, they share things, they're on a fixed income, so we kind of steer them in the direction of how to get the most for the money."
They also see evidence that they're serving the community by making better food possible for people who rarely have access to it. "A lot of homeless people eat here—because the portions are ample," Newman says. "You know, some people, they're not homeless all the time, they have schizophrenia or whatever, but they have taste, they don't want to eat McDonald's all the time. This has become their option, and it's great. It's cash only, they come here with cash. They're very respectful."
Besides the main dining room, next week they'll open the other side of their storefront—a coffee bar serving coffee from a local roaster, Sparrow. They'll be the first coffee shop offering it (it's only in restaurants now). They'll also step up their baking operation (the Cookies part of the name) to offer baked goods on that side, as well as selling the quality ingredients they use at retail.
"It's just elevated fast-food, that's all it is," Newman says.
"It's barely even elevated," Taormina says.
"Not cheapened, that's what it is," Newman decides. "It's a slow process. Everything's a slow process."
Cookies & Carnitas, 5759-59 N. Broadway, 773-769-2900