It wasn't so long ago that Illinois was made up of a majority of farms; and thanks to a new foodie movement, we might be soon getting back to those roots.
The trend is called hyperlocal sourcing. It’s a lot like farm-to-table but with restaurants obtaining food even closer to home (like within a 50-mile range)—or, in many cases, growing their own. The payoff for planners? Better tasting fare that makes an even bigger impact on guests.
At Uncommon Ground in Chicago’s Edgewater neighborhood, that “wow” factor can come from eating a ripe, sun-warmed tomato just plucked from the restaurant’s roof, which happens to be the country’s first certified organic rooftop farm. Not only is the tomato “super fresh,” like all the peppers, eggplant, beans and greens grown on-site, but it also has better flavor and texture than one that has traveled a long distance, explains owner Helen Cameron.
People have now come to expect the “extra experience” that local, artisanal foods deliver, adds Paul Virant, chef and owner of Vie in Western Springs, Perennial Virant in Chicago and Vistro in Hinsdale. He likes to pickle regional foods and use them in jams and krauts so they can be enjoyed year-round; preservation is “one of the driving forces of the creativity” behind his menus, he says, and is the focus of his book, The Preservation Kitchen: The Craft of Making and Cooking with Pickles, Preserves, and Aigre-doux. Virant even prepares his own charcuterie and salumi with meats from animals raised by local farmers at Vie and Perennial Virant.
You Are What You Eat
Food that’s hyperlocal not only tastes better; some say it is better for you since it uses fewer (if any) chemicals, isn’t genetically modified and is grown in an environmentally friendly way. “More people are realizing that what you eat does have health implications,” notes Cameron.
And “it’s not just cooking well, it’s sourcing well,” says Sean Patrick Curry, executive chef of Hilton Chicago/Oak Brook Hills Resort & Conference Center in the western suburbs. Sourcing is where it starts for Curry, who buys from 250 Midwest farmers and tends a 900-square-foot kitchen garden on the resort property. Having access to local, seasonal food lets him educate people “on making better, healthier choices,” such as imparting the benefits of using resort-grown acorn squash in December instead of, say, importing asparagus. It also “stirs creativity” and lets him customize menus easier, he says.
While growing food on-site isn’t a new idea—chef Rick Bayless has supplied his Frontera Grill, Topolobampo and XOCO restaurants with produce grown in his backyard and rooftop gardens for more than a decade— it certainly is starting to catch on.
According to the National Restaurant Association, hyperlocal sourcing is the fourth top food trend for 2016. And Chicagoland, it seems, is all in. The city alone has an estimated 14 rooftops and 18 urban farms producing food, says Peter Strazzabosco, deputy commissioner of the Chicago Department of Planning and Development.
Paramount Events, in fact, gets its baby greens from hydroponic farm Garfield Produce on Chicago’s west side. MightyVine is another vendor that supplies restaurants with vine-ripe, locally grown tomatoes—even in the dead of winter—from its 7-acre hydroponic greenhouse in west suburban Rochelle.
There’s also moto, the Michelin-star restaurant in Chicago’s Fulton Market District, which has its own hydroponics growing room where it raises delicate sorrel, mizuna, cabbage, kale and kohlrabi for a range of artfully plated dishes.
While venues cannot raise all the food they need due to space limitations and other hurdles, like not being able to grow citrus, coffee and chocolate in Illinois, cultivating at least some of what is needed supports the bigger, greener picture. For instance, moto greatly reduced its carbon footprint by no longer shipping in large quantities of microgreens packed in plastic clamshells, says General Manager Bobby Gilbert.
The 20,000-square-foot rooftop garden at McCormick Place—the largest in the Midwest—also reduces the building’s heat island effect while supplying 6,000–8,000 pounds of veggies each year for its restaurant and catering operations. The popular conference center has undetermined plans to extend its growing season year-round, perhaps with indoor urban cultivators (glass-fronted kitchen coolers) or vertical growing aeroponics systems, says Kevin Jezewski, assistant food and beverage director at SAVOR…Chicago, McCormick’s food and beverage provider.
Likewise, the urban garden at O’Hare International Airport—the first-ever aeroponics garden in an airport—is a small part of a much larger sustainability initiative. Still, the 25 towers of greens, herbs and peppers managed by food and beverage supplier HMSHost Corporation are a tasty addition for O’Hare’s on-site restaurants like Tortas Frontera, Wicker Park Sushi and Wolfgang Puck.
Concern for the decline in honeybee populations, which pollinate one-third of the food we eat, has also spurred Curry and other chef/ gardeners to take up beekeeping. For Curry, whose bees pollinate the Hilton’s garden and produce honey that flavors dishes and desserts, it’s all about sustaining resources for future generations. “Taking care of bees allows them to take care of us,” he explains.
Going Back To the Farm
Nowhere is concern for the earth’s systems and hyperlocal sourcing more apparent than on farms like Prairie Fruits Farm & Creamery in Champaign, where planners can arrange for private dinners. All ingredients (except, salt, pepper, sugar, olive oil and some flour) are seasonal and raised within 100 yards of the dinner table, says Leslie Cooperbrand, one of the owners. Dinners highlight the farm’s award-winning goat cheese, organic fruits and goat milk gelato.
The folks at Epiphany Farms in Bloomington have also taken local sourcing to the next level: The hospitality group is committed to blending its two restaurants and working farm, which raises fruits, vegetables, pork, chicken and eggs into one self-sustaining food system.
Co-owner and Chefarmer Ken Myszka was formerly working in Las Vegas, preparing influential cuisine that was “extremely globalized and not very connected to its roots.” That’s when he realized: “I could use food to change the world and inspire and encourage my guests to do the same.”
Today, his Illinois restaurants intake 20 percent of food items from the farm, located just 10 minutes away, and another 20 percent from other local purveyors. The farm’s surplus items are sold to Chicago restaurants, like those in the Eataly market. “I don’t think the goal is to raise everything,” says Myszka. “It’s to raise awareness.” Which is why some gardens, farms and growing rooms welcome tours and cocktail hours in addition to private dining options.
At The Plant Chicago in the Back of the Yards neighborhood—a four-story, former meatpacking plant that is now an urban farm incubator and home to start-up hydroponics, aquaponics and mushroom-growing operations— visitors learn about local circular economics of food production through its yearround farmers market, energy conservation and materials reuse. “People come in and leave inspired,” says Jonathan Pereira, executive director of Plant Chicago.
The growing awareness is also meant to grow the ranks of local farmers, who in turn supply area venues. Bayless’ nonprofit Frontera Farmer Foundation, for example, does this by providing grants to small, sustainable farms serving the Chicago area.
The industry is taking note. “It is a completely different culinary landscape than it was 10 years ago,” says Myszka, and that is a very good thing for everyone at the table.
‘Local’ Tops Restaurant Menu Trends for 2016
What trends will be rocking the culinary world in 2016? According to a National Restaurant Association survey of nearly 1,600 professional chefs, expect to see these top 20 food trends on restaurant menus:
1. Locally sourced meats and seafood
2. Chef-driven fast-casual concepts
3. Locally grown produce
4. Hyperlocal sourcing
5. Natural ingredients/minimally processed food
6. Environmental sustainability
7. Healthy kids’ meals
8. New cuts of meat
9. Sustainable seafood
10. House-made/artisan ice cream
11. Ethnic condiments/spices
12. Authentic ethnic cuisine
13. Farm/estate branded items
14. Artisan butchery
15. Ancient grains
16. Ethnic-inspired breakfast items
17. Fresh/house-made sausage
18. House-made/artisan pickles
19. Food waste reduction/management
20. Street food/food trucks
For the complete survey results, visit restaurant.org/foodtrends.
More Places to Get Your Local Fix
Planners have lots of choices when it comes to dining venues that advocate local sourcing. Here are more you may want to consider:
Firefly Grill, Effingham
This modern roadhouse on the shores of Kristie Lake grows many ingredients in its own garden and hand-selects the rest from local artisan farmers, foragers and fisherman.
Big Grove Tavern, Champaign
The first farm-to-table restaurant in Champaign-Urbana, the tavern uses naturally raised and organic ingredients sourced directly from local farms and farmers markets.
Ludwig Farmstead Creamery, Fithian
Put the ‘farm’ in farm-to-table by touring this fifth-generation family farm and creamery. See Holstein cows, how cheese is made and enjoy tasty samples.
One Eleven Main, Galena
Inspired by seasonal ingredients from local and regional farmers, artisans and food purveyors, the restaurant showcases its rich, fresh flavors of the Heartland.
The Duck Inn, Chicago
Showcasing local, sustainable family farms, The Duck Inn also uses produce from gardens in its backyard, where guests can dine alfresco, as well as down the block in Bridgeport.
LYFE Kitchen, Chicago and Evanston
For a quick lunch meeting with colleagues, consider the multiple locations of this fast-casual restaurant where live herb walls take center stage.
Farming is Big (Event) Business
One of the biggest events for Illinois tourism is the Farm Progress Show, held every other year in Decatur (and odd years in Iowa). In 2015, the three-day event generated 15,000 room nights and had an economic impact of nearly $4 million, according to the Illinois Office of Tourism.
It’s one of the biggest trade shows in the country with 3.6 million square feet of exhibit space, 150 acres of parking and 350 acres of live field demonstrations of agricultural equipment, says Matt Jungmann, national event manager for show producer Penton Agriculture. An estimated 168,000 people from the U.S. and 50 foreign counties come to see the “latest and greatest in row crop production agriculture,” he says.
Despite this year’s economic downturn in agriculture, the show’s exhibit space grew by 400,000 square feet. When it returns to Decatur in 2017, Jungmann expects it to be “bigger and better than ever.”