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The ambitious, possibly slightly insane charcuterie and cheese-making program that Cafe Des Architectes chef Greg Biggers started at the Sofitel Hotel—the first restaurant cheese-making program to be licensed by the state of Illinois—was the subject of this piece in the Reader's Food Issue last November. When I ran into Cafe des Architectes pastry chef Leigh Omilinsky (who's in charge of the cheese part) at the voting for the Jean Banchet awards, she told me a little about how the program had changed even in the few months since she and Biggers had shown me around last fall. It's now six months since they first started serving their handiwork to guests under the name Chestnut Provisions, so it seemed a good time to catch up with Biggers and find out what they've learned—and how guests are reacting.
Michael Gebert: How's making all your own stuff going, six months in?
Greg Biggers: We've figured out what works and what doesn't work. A lot of the things that we're realizing are, we use a probably six foot by eight foot walk-in cooler for our charcuterie and our cheese. And we had to find a sweet spot—because humidity and temperature are different for cheese and charcuterie—where they could both live in there and age properly. What we found out was that brie has to have such a high humidity, and we were trying and trying and trying, but we found that we just couldn't have that high humidity with our other cheeses and meats.
What we found was that when we stopped worrying about that and focused more on hard cheeses that are aged in our cave, they're phenomenal now. The other day I took out our third round of tomme, it was the best cheese we'd ever made. I was like, "Are you sure this is ours?" We started focusing on what works in our environment, rather than what we want to have, just because we want to have it.
The other thing that we're doing, too, is Taleggio [an Italian soft cheese]. We're on our fifth round and Leigh and I finally found our sweet spot for that. Our first rounds, they were OK, but they were superstinky, riding that line between stinky cheese and rotten. We upped the salt in our Taleggio by about 22 percent, and for some reason in our environment that was the magical fix, and what we're pulling out of our cave now is really good Taleggio.
The reason we focused on Taleggio is because we can store it at 38 degrees; it thrives at 38 degrees, so it's just in a regular cooler. So we have three different places that our cheeses are ripening.
The charcuterie is . . . amazing. It's all slow foods, it's the epitome of slow foods. So waiting to see [the results of] our changes, our adjustments—it takes a long time. We do this, that, and the other, we have to wait three to six months to see if it worked or not.
Now that time has gone by and we've made the changes, we've found that our cheese cave is perfect. We're not having any green mold and everything's beautiful white [in cheese and charcuterie making, white mold is good, other colors bad—ed.]. The stuff in our cave now is a lot better than I ever thought we'd pull off, to be honest with you. We're all extremely happy with it.
So how are you serving these things now?
They're everywhere, we do a cheese/charcuterie board, everything that's on that plate is Chestnut Provisions—we do three different kinds of meat, three different cheeses, pickles, jams, house-made brioche. We've started making our own mustards, too, so we have a sarsaparilla mustard, we've started working with Dijon, really fermenting these mustard seeds and adding different things to them.
We also started a Chestnut Provisions tasting menu, a three-course menu for $39, you have a choice of appetizer, entree, and dessert, and everything that's on the menu is made in house. We rolled that out about four weeks ago, and people are really digging that, we've gotten a good response to that. We've gotten to the point where all our cheese and all our charcuterie for banquets and room service and the bar and everything is made in house.
We're also working on doing a Chestnut Provisions pop-up brunch. We have a private dining room, it's a beautiful room but we've always struggled with what to do with it—we have wine dinners and things like that. What we're working on now is doing a brunch Saturday and Sunday. Everything would be what's made under our Chestnut Provisions name—so cheese, charcuterie, pickles, jams, all made in house. It would be a slim menu—just champagne and crepes. We'd do some real fun stuff, have some farmer partners we'd focus on, one farmer for that weekend. That's the next step for us.
Do you feel like it's helped give you a higher profile as a restaurant and a chef?
Yeah, I do. I've had a lot of response from some of my colleagues in town, like Chris Pandel at Balena—because they go through a lot of Taleggio. So we might work something where we make some for them, and do some other things for places like Smoking Goose in Indianapolis, they're friends of mine. For me, I have to decide if we want to do that, if we want to start breaking out or just do it for ourselves in house.
But it's kind of taken off. We've gotten a lot of word of mouth from the media attention, and people come in asking about it. In the early days people were kind of shocked when we would tell them about it at the table, but now they ask for it—"Aren't you the place that does your own cheese and stuff?" It's kind of turned from us telling them about it to them asking us about it, which is nice.