Greg Biggers holding a core sample in his cheese cave at the Sofitel Hotel
Almost a year ago I was wandering around the halls of the Sofitel Hotel with executive chef Greg Biggers as he took me through Illinois' first certified aged-cheesemaking restaurant for this Reader story.
The gist of it was that Biggers had pushed the hotel to start making its own cheeses, cured meats, jams, and pickles under the name Chestnut Provisions, which required a wide range of city and state certifications—including the only cheese-making certification given to a restaurant in the state, the same kind of certification normally given to giant dairy plants cranking out the American cheese slices and mozzarella sticks. It was an experiment not without its setbacks—the tale of the first attempt at raw milk cheese ended after three days with, "Get it out of the cave and into the garbage!" But on the whole, it was pretty successful, the guests were happy with it, and Biggers had plans for growing it—more kinds of cheese, more meats, and aspirations to sell the products, retail and wholesale, to individuals and other restaurants.
I checked in with him a few months later
, but now I was curious how it was going given one major change in his operation: longtime pastry chef Leigh Omilinsky left a few months back to go to Nico Osteria. Omilinsky had been his collaborator on the cheese side of the program, so I asked him if that had been a setback. "Fortunately, I was smart enough to start really training my sous chefs—we now have five or six people who know how to do cheese," he told me. "So it was an easy transition, my guys know how to do it. Anna Young, my assistant pastry chef, keeps up with the four cheeses we started with—tomme, cheddar, Taleggio and chevre—while I play around with smaller batches of double and triple cream, Saint Andre style. I'm trying to make things with more butterfat and a bloomy rind, shorter-length aged cheeses."
As for the charcuterie program, having reached a point of being pretty happy with his initial choices of salumi, he's now trying flavor variations on them, such as a Korean-style finocchiona with gochujang
hot pepper paste worked into it, or a Japanese one made with togarashi
(chile peppers) and sake. Meanwhile, they have a range of house-made pickles and jams that they continue to make as well.
So what's he doing with all of these things? "We have them everywhere," he said. "In the dining room [Cafe des Architectes], we do what we call a Chestnut Provisions tasting—you get three cheeses and three meats with our house-made pickles, house-made jam, mustard, and brioche. There's also a cheese menu for the dining room, which includes some of our cheeses and some I bring in from France. We have cheese plates for room service and we use it in banquets."
Assembling a Chestnut Provisions cheese tray at the Sofitel
One of Biggers's goals was to collaborate with other restaurants—other chefs had helped him develop the program by helping educate his staff, and his goal was to be able to supply some of them with what they made. As it happens, when I called his cell phone he was at Balena; he had brought some of his Taleggio to Balena and now Chris Pandel wanted to use it on a Taleggio and mushroom pizza he's adding to the menu. It's also close to being ready for Biggers's most ambitious goal: creating enough of everything to be able to sell it at retail. "I'm starting to roll out a retail Chestnut Provisions basket—something that can be used as a concierge basket or as a gift bag for friends and family by guests of the hotel. Eventually you'll be able to order by the pound from the website," which he says is about two weeks away from being ready to go live.
All this activity suggests that Biggers is happy with the quality of what they're doing. "When I tasted the second full run of everything, it was so much better that I threw out what was left of our past efforts. It's just better than when we started—the process, the yield, we're doing all of it better and it shows in the product."