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The first time I visited the future site of Local Foods just off Elston on Willow, it was a vast hall full of rubble. The second time, it was a construction site with the walls of its future facilities visible, but not much more. Yesterday, as I walked around it with Rob Levitt of the Butcher & Larder (the formerly independent, now in-house at Local Foods butcher), it was a modern food market with about half the goods it hopes to ultimately carry on the floor, and less than that back in its coolers, but enough to open today and continue to fill its larders over the coming weeks with local produce from every midwest farm you have ever heard of.
The first time I visited, my worry was what Local Foods would do to the Butcher & Larder, one of my favorite local (in multiple senses of the term) businesses. As Rob showed me around, the answer was clear: it would make him a partner and his business part of an entire ecosystem dedicated to bringing regionally grown food to restaurants and home cooks in the Chicago area.
We start in the vegetable section, which overlooks the place some of those vegetables will go—Stock, the cafe. We stop by an assortment of garlic scapes, next to a cooler full of salad greens and a few related products like sauerkraut and kimchi. "One of the cool things about this place is how excited the staff is to shop here," Rob says. "It was always great to be able to come home with some steak or sausages, but to be able to bring a whole meal home—or even just to be able to get simple things like onions."
Ryan Kimura, another partner, points me to a small section of petite carrots with tops that have clearly been battered by the constant rains this spring. "These are the first baby carrots from City Farm," he says.
We move on to metal shelves with rows of locally made, jarred, and bagged products with names you've seen around—Baker Miller flour and grits, Bushel & Peck's pickled vegetables, Blis syrup and more. Pointing to some slickly artisanal packaging, Rob says, "There's things like this that are kind of like specialty ingredients and things that people have heard of, but there are also things that are a little more homespun, handmade stuff that's all really good. It's nice to have good stuff around, that's all made by really cool people."
We double back to one of the freezer cases and he shows me some midwestern caviar (also by Blis), and then points to some frozen chickens, stacked hard as rocks on the bottom shelf. "These are cool, these Bane Family Farms chickens from down around Champaign," he says. "They have this breed called Freedom Rangers that are based on the French poulet rouge. He only raises them spring through the fall, because that's when they do the best. They're like a true free-range bird that's supposed to walk around."
"It's interesting to taste the different varieties of chickens, because you never think there is a difference,” he says.
"Not in America anymore," I say.
"We're trying to bring it back," he says as we walk away from the produce section.
We get to the Butcher & Larder, which looks substantially snazzier than it did in the old shop, with gleaming steel-and-glass cases. "Our cheese counter has substantially expanded from the old shop," Rob says. Considering that I barely remember them having cheese, this is undoubtedly true. At the end of that case he has cured meats from Smoking Goose in Indianapolis and other well-liked charcuterie makers. "Until we get our curing program set up we’re bringing in things. We do have some of our mortadella, our country ham, and summer sausage."
Rob had just posted a picture of some country hams on social media, but they have a ways to go before they’re ready for sale. "Once the [USDA] license comes through and we can actually put things on salt here, we'll get a bunch more going." Meanwhile, he's also waiting on the city to certify him for Cryovac packaging; then they’ll be able to prepackage popular things like pound packages of sliced bacon, and to offer premade foods ready for heating and serving—"Being able to do just more interesting things, marinated things, like cooking a portion of short ribs and sealing them with the juice—stuff like that will be a lot of fun," Rob, who was a chef before he was a butcher, says.
I walked through the future cutting and curing rooms a few months back, but seeing them in operation is a new experience. In one room, longtime employee Erin Stanley consults with Rob over a hog carcass that isn’t quite pretty enough to make whole cuts in the front case. (Sausage!) In another, a new employee named Anthony is piling bones in a giant stock pot to make into stock overnight. Rob shows me their new smoker, which not only automates smoking meats like bacon but records everything about how the items were prepared, for HAACP compliance. (He’s planning to go through a lot of bacon.) A third room, overlooking the cafe, is nearly empty except for the previously Instagrammed country hams, soon to be joined by many more hams and sausages and other cuts, curing.
Behind the meat coolers are other rooms for produce and dairy. Invisible from the retail entrance, these have their own VIP door—for chefs who need something in a hurry. "The idea is, all chefs have been in the position where they run out of stuff. So what are your options, Whole Foods? Restaurant Depot? We're trying to be the best option. If it’s somebody who can just call us and tell us what they need, we can get it together for them and they can just pull up in the alley and we’ll get it to them."
We go back inside and he tells me other ways they’re aiming to make buying from them easy for chefs. "If you have some time and you're looking to change your menu, you can go walking through the meat cooler and the produce cooler and get ideas, and load up the truck and go, we'll write you an invoice, you don’t have to have cash with you.”
We walk into the produce cooler and Rob stops at a stack of boxes of River Valley mushrooms. He picks up a standard white mushroom and twiddles it between his fingers. "You don’t think of mushrooms as having any difference in flavor. People think that these are just filler, but they actually taste like something!" he says. "We tell people, try a slice of it raw and you'll be surprised how much flavor it has."
A section of the room is taken up by 50-pound bags of naturally grown grains from Baker Miller. It's astonishing to see how quickly that’s grown as an operation that, not much over a year ago, started grinding flour in house on a scale hardly bigger than you grind coffee beans in the morning. The last I'd heard they were adding machines and milling capacity in a second space, but these pallets of 50-pound bags seem well beyond that.
"We were buying stuff from them anyway, but they partnered up with a really good mill, and we worked it out so we distribute it for them" in much larger quantities, Rob explains. "Dave and Megan [Miller] found somebody that they trust to give them the product they trust and then we’re distributing it for them." Which is, Rob doesn’t have to tell me, the kind of cooperative partnership that’s exactly what Local Foods was created to foster and make practical.
We turn the corner to the dairy side of this cooler. A bit surprisingly, it’s full of plastic jugs of milk in what looks like very standard supermarket packaging, complete with vintage 1950s-60s logos. "This stuff is from a single family farm, and the branding is kind of terrible," Rob says. "For us, when you see how bad the branding is, that's a sign that it's a really great product, because it means that they’re focused on the product and didn’t really care about the rest of it. It's kind of up to us to tell people, this stuff is fantastic, it’s that cream-line milk where you have to shake it up."
Rob leads me back out of the cold and drops me off at Stock, the cafe run by Abra Berens, who has long been a cook at restaurants in Chicago while, at the same time, being one of the owners of Bare Knuckle Farm in Michigan. (Devoted Key Ingredient viewers will remember her episode from 2011.) I ask her what it's like being one of the receiving ends of all the other activity in the complex—as well as serving as a marketing and educational tool for the rest.
"The whole idea behind Stock is to be a sort of showcase for what the warehouse is bringing in from our farmers, and also what the butcher team is producing," she explains. "So that's how we've been designing the menu—I'll just go through the warehouse and buy a bunch of it, and design the menu based on that. It’s really more ingredient driven, rather than conceptual-dish driven. And the other thing is going through some of the things we have that might not be as familiar to people and educating them on how to use it" by serving it to them as lunch. "That's something that happened a lot with the farm dinners at Bare Knuckle Farm, so that's bringing that mentality here as well."
I can smell that process at work, so I ask her what's cooking today. "Right now I've got an asparagus soup on, and the blue plate special is a three meatball dish, so that’s veal, pork, and beef. And then that's going with polenta from Baker Miller, with their fine corn meal, and then instead of a marinara sauce on top, we'll make it springy with a parsley oil—that's parsley from Meyer Farms—and an herb salad with microgreens from the Plant.”
That's probably the most attribution of farms I've ever heard for a single dish, and it's easy to make fun of that kind of local fetishism when you encounter it in a downtown restaurant ("Your steer tonight is from Golden Acres, and his name is Fred"). But it just seems natural here under the roof of Local Foods when you see the loading dock where the farmer unloaded it, the coolers where it was broken down, the back door where it's loaded up for the chefs who buy it—and the kitchen where it's cooked for you. Everything here really does have a name and a home and a story; the sometimes nebulous notion of the local-food chain will become flesh (and steel and concrete and lunch) as Local Foods opens today.
Local Foods, 1427 W. Willow, 312-432-6575.