The New Marion Street Cheese Market

September 14, 2008 at 8:15 am

David Hammond

On the eve of the “soft opening” of the expanded and more elegant Marion Street Cheese Market in Oak Park, I walk into a tempest of activity: shelves being stocked, sales reps on the hunt, curious neighbors nosing around. Chatting with owner Erik Larson, I cut straight to the chow:

What kind of food do you plan to serve in your new café?

LARSON: Our chef, Mike Pivoney, has a mantra: “don’t fuss with the food.” We let high-quality ingredients do most of the work; our job is to enhance and highlight the inherent deliciousness of local food. We’re very excited, for instance, about offering cheese platters featuring any of our almost 100 artisanal cheeses with house-made chutneys and jellies and flights of wine or regional draft beers.

Deliciousness is primary, but do customers care about where food comes from?

LARSON: People right now do care a lot about where their food comes from, and not just for reasons of taste or health; people want a connection. We work very hard to build relationships with local producers. We connect consumer and farmer. We create a community where good food and information can be shared.

Do you feel that part of your role as cheese monger, and now restaurateur, is to “educate” the consumer?

LARSON: Oh, absolutely, and customers crave education. They want to know more about their food. That’s why we’ve set up a stage, screen and podium in our café – we’ll bring in farmers, vintners, and of course cheese makers, to talk about their craft, so that people can learn more and eat better.

A view of the cheese case at Marion Street

A view of the cheese case at Marion Street

By bringing together producers and consumers, you’re actually shortening the food chain, but ironically now you’ve become the only middle man standing between producers and consumers. So couldn’t customers simply go around you and create a one-to-one relationship with those who grow their food?

LARSON: It’s very hard for producers to sell directly to consumers, and my feeling is that the more people who get excited about fresh food from local farms, the more they’ll value what we’re doing. We’re all part of the same community, and we’re after the same thing: good-tasting regional food.

Who are your food philosophers?

LARSON: Well, one person who’s influenced me a lot is Carlo Petrini, and in keeping with Slow Food principles, I’m serving vegetables and herbs I grow in my own garden –you can’t get more local than that! Later this year, Leslie Cooperband of Prairie Fruits Farm will be doing a few classes on container gardening and urban agriculture. Now, you might think that if people grow their own food, then that also cuts into my business, but I don’t agree. If people are growing their food, and developing relationships with the land, then we’re all part of a shared community of interests. We all want good food.

One of Slow Food’s central tenets is that food should be buono, pulito e giusto: good, clean and fair. How do cleanliness and fairness play into your buying decisions?

LARSON: If producers treat their people poorly, they cannot be relied upon to treat their products well. If farm hands are treated like dirt, it’s likely you’ll get a dirty product. We want our producers to treat their staff well, so we visit farms, we see how they’re run, and if people and animals are treated unfairly, we walk. A producer’s ethics extend throughout theirbusiness. We want to be fair too, and a lot of bigger operations would say we’re crazy, but we never ask for volume discounts: producers tell us what they need to run a sustainable operation, and we try to make it work because we’re in this together.

How else do you pull through the green theme?

LARSON: We doing as much as we can. For instance, we give employees a discount at Green Home Experts (an eco-conscious store in Oak Park) so they can bring good, clean and just practices home with them in the form of environmentally friendly cleaning products and other household goods. Most of our furniture here is made of sustainable or recycled raw materials; our kitchen appliances carry Energy Star ratings, and we’re working with local grade schools on a composting program to help us achieve a zero-waste kitchen.

Would you say your restaurant is a model for green living?

LARSON: I hope it is. Customers have asked us where they can source local and sustainable products for their homes. I’d like to think that, as a part of this community, we’re setting a good example. We believe in what we’re doing, and we’re hoping that others share that belief.

Not to sound pretentious and preposterous, but how will the Marion Street Cheese Market change the world?

LARSON (laughing):
We want to provide a forum for people who enjoy getting together to share ideas and food, and that could be a lecture or an organized discussion, or maybe it’s just a casual conversation over wine and one of Chef Mike’s pizzas. In our humble way, we’re building community – a community of people who love good food – with every customer we talk to and every cheese we slice.

Marion Street Cheese Market
100 S. Marion
Oak Park, IL
Phone 708.725.7200
Hours: M-Th 6:30a-10:30a
Fri 6:30a – 11:30
Sat 8a-11:30p
Sun 9a-9p