Chicago chefs say they educate customers one plate at a time

Produced by David Hammond

April 18, 2011

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(Courtesy of David Hammond)
Randy Zweiban is the chef of Province in Chicago.

If you’ve dined out in the past five years, chances are you’ve ordered from menus annotated with references to where the food came from: short ribs from Dietzler Farms in Elkhorn, Wisconsin; lettuce from Farmer Vicki of Genesis Growers in St. Anne, Illinois; and so on. Serving food sourced locally has become almost an entrance requirement for opening a restaurant in Chicago.

For some years, Bruce Sherman has been serving up dishes that make heavy use of local ingredients. At North Pond, his Lincoln Park restaurant, his carefully composed plates have no doubt educated many Chicagoans about what it means to “eat local.”

“As chefs, we have this opportunity to be sort of profound educators,” Sherman said. “Whether it’s front-of-the-house with diners, in terms of educating them indirectly as to how we or what we source; whether it’s back-of-the-house in terms of what we do with our waste; whether it’s the tail of the animal or the box the animal came in. If we do our job right, as chefs, and we cook something delicious and creative, then those customers are going to ask us about the product. It’s a great entrée into educating them about where it came from and what it is.”

At Province in the Loop, chef Randy Zweiban has found when people go out to eat, chefs may be able to leverage a “teachable moment,” an opportunity to help diners learn, for example, just how good local food can be.

“If I were to take a carrot, for example, from Green Acres farm, an heirloom carrot and put it next to a commodity carrot, you wouldn’t even think the two were the same vegetable—even with your eyes closed,” Zweiban said. “When you get the ability to have really, really great local products, I think that you get to really understand the flavors of food.”

With restaurants like Topolobampo and Frontera Grill, Rick Bayless taught Chicago that Mexican cuisine is so much more than just tacos and refried beans. He’s also the author of a number of books that join academic rigor with a fundamental love of tastes and flavors.

Said Bayless: “I always see my role as an educator. What we want to do is sort of seduce people with really great food. That just opens the door for us to be able to start a conversation. Any server at our restaurant will tell you it does open that door. Talking about the history of the dish or where it comes from in Mexico certainly helps people understand our local landscape because there are a lot of people from Mexico here. It helps us get to know that side of our own culture.”

Increasingly, restaurants are becoming models for sustainable living.  For instance, Zweiban recycles paper in ways that demonstrate to customers that there are many small things that can be done to go greener.

“We buy recycled paper to print our menu on,” Zweiban said. “After we use both sides of the paper that we print our menu on, we then take that paper and cut it up and use it for a variety of things. We cut it up and use little squares for notes in the restaurants, like allergy alerts. That menu paper that starts on recycled paper goes through about three or four more processes before it’s ever done, and then it goes in the garbage can that gets recycled.”

To cut down on waste, Bayless has rethought how he packages food to go.

“In our new place Xoco that has some takeout things, we’ve been very, very forward in letting people know how we’ve chosen the packaging,” Bayless said. “We explain everything down to the metal spoons used for caldo, our big meal-in-a-bowl soup, because I didn’t want to create any more trash. To tell you the truth, I could buy an inexpensive metal spoon that could be reused many, many times for almost the same price as a compostable spoon.”

Although it may cost a little more in the short term, many chefs feel that being a model for green business makes economic sense. Take California’s legendary chef Thomas Keller. At restaurants like French Laundry, Keller has pioneered the combination of innovative green technology and business smarts.

“In 2004, we installed a geothermal loop system in our restaurant, the first one in California,” explained Keller. “Now, did I do it strictly for green purposes? No I didn’t. I did it for creature comfort, but at the end of the day, it significantly affected our energy use, and it’s reduced our energy costs. At the same time, it was an enormously expensive piece of equipment to put in.”

Perhaps the best reason for a restaurant to go green is that customers expect it. And as Rick Bayless points out, they’re often the ones doing the teaching: “I love hearing from our guests if they’re concerned about things that maybe aren’t on my radar screen yet.  And even though I think of us as a very green restaurant, if you will, I think that there’s a lot of stuff that we still have to learn. And I love it when the guests push me in that direction.”

David Hammond is a regular food contributor to Eight Forty-Eightand Worldview.  Every Wednesday, you can read his Food Detectivecolumn in the Chicago Sun-Times.