Chef at the Market: Taste and See
The Signature Room at the 95th is a local restaurant – we are regionally specific, owned and operated by local people, we buy local items for our menu, and we give back to local charities in our monthly dining program. While purchasing local produce has become a marketing objective for restaurants in recent months, the years prior defined high quality ingredients in fine dining establishments as “dry aged steaks” and “kobe beef.” It was not that restaurants didn’t want to use great produce, but more that the guest at the table didn’t care to know where the food was coming from. In my opinion, a good chef is always seeking out the best ingredients with which to cook, but talking about those ingredients on menus and in press releases is a completely different story. For me, embracing our local food movement five years ago seemed like the next logical step up the quality ladder. It made sense that this local restaurant run for sixteen years by local people would invest in the micro-economy of the farming communities in Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin and Iowa.
This is a crazy and exciting time in the kitchen. We have started the pickling process for our summer menu with the first round of rhubarb, green tomatoes and ramps, and a ton of strawberries came in so that we can make jam for Sunday brunch service. Plus we continue to juggle ten different farm orders with deliveries six days a week. I don’t know how weird this would be for you local shoppers, but seeing me carry a 150-pound pig down Chestnut Street draws some pretty crazy stares from the Streeterville residents. I am excited because now we have to look through the bags of ingredients we get from the market each week and create delicious menu items to serve our diners. And we get to employ the taste and see method of plucking produce out of a cooler; is this sorrel or mustard greens? Taste and see.
One of the greatest treasures of all this local produce is the diversity on the farm stand. Right now you will find six different kinds of radishes, five colors of beets and a countless number of greens of every texture and flavor. We love greens like spigarello, tat soi, Chinese broccoli, mustards, collards, cabbages and more. All of the cooks are on their toes with cleaning and trimming and cooking, and each is approached differently to highlight the personality of the vegetable. For example, we braise cabbage in vegetable stock and butter to soften the flavors, but tat soi, a much more sensitive green, is cooked quickly in a hot pan to preserve its delicate texture. The increased diversity in vegetable selection has been one of the greatest teaching tools for us, and in turn has helped educate our guests. Explaining the sweet nuances of Korean zucchini, the heartiness of Goldbar squash and why wintered carrots are so sweet, has built the relationship between farm to table in many ways. When you are at the market (or a table at This Signature Room) this week, I encourage you to ask questions about the types of produce in front of you. Don’t be afraid to ask what each item is, about its characteristics and flavors, and even the best way to eat it. Both your farmer and your chef should be able to steer you in the right direction.
Currently on the menu: green tomatoes, cucumbers, dill, sugar snap peas, peas, pea shoots, long beans, beets, cabbage, zucchini, baby squash, strawberries, rhubarb, blueberries.