Pilot Light: Chefs get schooled in lunch

August 26, 2011

For the past year some of Chicago's best chefs have been quietly cooking exclusive dishes and serving them up for free, by themselves, on their own time and on their own dimes, because of a friend in the White House. They're Pilot Light, a brand new band of chefs trying to help teach Chicago Public School kids through food, with classroom demos and school lunch.

I attended a planning meeting at the Publican this week where I was told there'd be beer and pizza. Instead of the usual do-gooder cheap eats, one of the dishes we had was what you see above: La Quercia Americano Prosciutto, cured in Norwalk, Iowa from the "threatened" Tamworth breed. The ham's on the menu, served with goat butter and peasant bread.

It's clear things are different when successful chefs get involved.

A few years ago I walked into avec to trail for the day - that is, try out for a cook's job. Chef de Cuisine Koren Grieveson had just been named one of the year's Best New Chefs by Food & Wine magazine and was looking for a new line cook to replace Brian Huston. He was leaving to open The Publican.

When I walked in that morning, no chefs were in sight. A guy sitting at their bar told me they were downstairs and should be back up soon. We chatted while I waited and he told me he'd worked there before but had gone on to cook as a personal chef for then presidential candidate Barack Obama and family. That guy was Sam Kass who's now at the White House with the official title Senior Policy Adviser For Healthy Food Initiatives under Michelle Obama.

So it's no wonder that Paul Kahan - Executive Chef/Partner at The Publican, avec, and Blackbird - has taken the First Lady's Let's Move initiative so personally. Paul and Matthias Merges, former longtime Chef de Cuisine at Charlie Trotters, founded Pilot Light together.

What's not normally on the Publican menu is pizza, but for the meeting we had a sourdough pizza with poached albacore tuna, Juliet tomatoes, Ni├žoise olives, and haricots verts.

They hope the group is just another positive, collaborative addition to an already thriving community that includes Greg Christian, Purple Asparagus, and Seven Generations Ahead, just to name a few.

At the meeting we also had another off-the-menu pizza, with steamer clams, chorizo, Idiazabal cheese, and treviso.

"The kids are so disconnected from the things they're eating they might as well be eating things," said Lauren Golanty, Pilot Light's administrator.

Lauren explained that during the last school year, chefs have been visiting Disney II Elementary Magnet School - Matthias has two kids there. First they talked to the principal and teachers about what was being taught, then went in as teams of two, demo'd a dish that tied in specifically with what the kids would be learning that day, then served that dish as one of the dishes at lunch.

The Tribune's Monica Eng reported last December the challenges Pilot Light faced.

Dave Beran, Chef de Cuisine at Next, and Paul chatted over Two Brothers Domaine DuPage from Warrenville, Illinois, platters of housemade charcuterie, jars of pickled vegetables, and the Publican's famous paper cones of spicy pork rinds.

But so far so good. There'll be another meeting in about two weeks. Check out Pilot Light's new website for photos of the chefs in action with the kids at Disney.

"At this point, we're not worried about having too many cooks," said Lauren.