On this cold winter day, futures trader and self-professed food freak Langdon Van Ingen has a burning question for the chef he's just watched make a lobster risotto with Meyer lemons and yellowfoot chanterelle mushrooms. "How do you keep a lobster stock from being too salty?" asks Van Ingen.
"You don't put salt in it," quips Greg Lutes of Courtright's, a well-reviewed Willow Springs restaurant.
Then the two launch into a spirited discussion in which Van Ingen discloses his use of celery, onions, maybe some parsley. "Try this," advises Lutes: "Rinse your shells before you make your stock."
It's taste and talk time at the Green City Market's Winter Pantry, held the third Sunday of the month from November through May at the Cooking and Hospitality Institute of Chicago. Founded three years ago by Tribune food columnist Abby Mandel, this enterprise is run by a galaxy of local chefs--members of the Chefs Collaborative Chicago, Les Dames d'Escoffier, and the American Institute of Wine and Food.
Market organizers bring small local farmers into contact with buyers both vocational and recreational. Their focus is on sustainable products--that is, foodstuffs raised or prepared in a way that doesn't damage or significantly deplete the land. "The buzzword now is sustainability," says Lutes. Sarah Stegner, executive chef at the Dining Room at the Ritz Carlton and one of the market's organizers, defines it as "people making a commitment to take care of the environment."
The market also provides farmers with winter income, and "it really highlights what the midwest has to offer," says Stegner. "Everybody thinks, 'Oh it's winter, what's available?' but we actually have quite a good array of product."
At February's market, there are more than a dozen purveyors. Manning one of the stainless steel tables lining CHIC's first-floor commercial teaching kitchen, Sandy Hall of Talking Oak Farm tells a potential buyer about a chili contest she was in recently. "The other [entries] were swimming in grease," she says. "Then there was our venison chili--not one little speck." She and her family raise European red deer in Prairie Farm, Wisconsin. "I can stand at my kitchen window and watch the deer frolicking in the snow."
Various cuts of rabbit, venison, elk, and buffalo fill another table, presided over by Steve Loppnow and his father-in-law, Kent Phillips. They bought Venison America last year and now represent 150 farmers, selling mostly to upscale restaurants like North Pond Cafe, Va Pensiero, Harvest on Huron, and Blackbird. Venison America is expanding its assortment of meats to encourage "one-stop shopping" by restaurants that buy game, explains Phillips. "If you're looking for elephant trunk, we can probably get that for you too--although the lead time might be a little longer."
Toward the end of the afternoon Phillips finds himself engaged in an intense discussion with a tall gentleman in leather and bold silver hoop earrings. It is the sort of conversation that has a language all its own, known only to food professionals. "Is it local?" asks Ted Cizma, the chef at Grace. "Upper meadow," replies Phillips. "Any grazing at all?" Cizma asks. They talk about grazing and processing. "We'll do something definitely with fallow elk," says Cizma later. "We do a lot of game, and so I'm always looking for different sources."
Lloyd Nichols, of Nichols Farm and Orchard in Marengo, has been part of the market since it started. He's got two tables full of produce, mostly potatoes. "These are the firm, buttery blues," he says, pointing to a box of small, dark Peruvians. "I broke these out special for today." Boxes of different varieties feature his instructions for preparing their exotic contents: "Ozette--flaky, nutty flavor/cook whole/roast, steam." He's also selling mushrooms, garlic, and shallots. Mason jars full of dried "honey" and "hen in woods" mushrooms are $25 apiece.
Across the kitchen, Giles Schnierle, president of Chicago's Great American Cheese Collection, is cutting samples. "We represent over 30 family or cooperatively owned cheese makers, and they're artisan." His company distributes to restaurants like Grace, the Dining Room, Printer's Row, and Bin 36. He likes having this venue so he can reach the public, but he says buyers are "very Eurocentric." Even though top chefs serve American cheeses right beside their more famous French brethren, prejudice against them lingers.
A few tables away, a woman in a bright orange fake fur is peering at the display from Sweet Meadow Farms of Zumbrota, Minnesota. A sign proclaims, "Damn Good Lamb." She asks, "Is it spicy?" Mary Ann Thoma-Cox replies, "No. It's surprisingly mild." The woman tastes a piece and says, noncommittally, "Interesting," before walking off. "It's worth the exposure," says the undefeated Thoma-Cox.
Ina Pinkney, a member of Les Dames d'Escoffier and owner of the newly opened Ina's, says the market got its start because chefs got tired of "the junk that came in the back door....Those of us who have played with food for years realized how poor the quality became--that all of a sudden tomatoes were pink instead of red. So when we discovered there were red tomatoes, how could we not buy them?" She is gratified by the response. "When I saw people coming week after week and going home with bundles, I knew we had hit on something."
"It's become fashionable to buy this stuff, which is great for the growers," says North Pond Cafe executive chef Bruce Sherman. "And if it needs to become trendy and fashionable to get more publicized and available, well, that's great."
But most of the chefs involved see the Green City Market as a necessity and a duty. "Ultimately it's about mindfulness," Pinkney explains. "Somebody plants the seed, somebody tends the plant, somebody nurtures it every day, and somebody picks it and gets it to us. How much more loving could our process be?"
The next Winter Pantry is Sunday, March 18, from 9:30 to 2:30 at the Cooking and Hospitality Institute of Chicago, 361 W. Chestnut; 312-944-0882.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.