Grocery shopping with Chicago's top chefs
An insider's look at the hidden gems in the city for top-notch spices, meats and more -- fresh from the chef's table to yours.
Picture: John Manion, chef and owner La Sirena Clandestina (February 24, 2013)
For savvy shoppers like Erick Williams--the executive chef at the award-winning River North restaurant MK (868 N. Franklin St.)--the scene presents a challenge considering he must create dinner menus seven days a week. He quickly scours the room, samples product from a vendor and purchases a crate of potatoes from the Marengo, Ill.-based Nichols Farm & Orchard. Williams’ relationship is so tight with Nichols that they even have a steaming cup of coffee awaiting his arrival.
“They cater to us,” Williams says between sips. “They grow stuff really, really well. They are committed to it.
“Once you build relationships with some of these guys they just start talking candidly with us. You never know what the crop is going to be like. For example, right now he’s got so much butternut squash that it’s going to turn to compost if he doesn’t use it. When something is growing fast and really well, he’ll give me a heads up when he has too much of something and we’ll help them move product.
“That way, we help them out and at the restaurant we can plan our menu around it. I will start working it into the menu to help them move through the product. It helps us with pricing and the customers are happy about it because they’re getting quality ingredients and it shows up in the flavor when the crop is having a good year.”
While the chef/farmer relationship ranks high for Williams when planning MK’s menus, he also takes advantage of it when cooking for home. He typically knows what he’s going to make for Sunday dinner, and factors that into the shopping excursion. He also makes frequent trips to Whole Foods, which he considers an “easy option” because the stores have a good variety.
Whole Foods, however, appears to be a point of contention for John Manion, the chef/owner of La Sirena Clandestina (954 W. Fulton Market) in the Warehouse District. He receives the majority of products directly to the restaurant, but when he does venture out, he sticks to ethnic and local shops.
“I look at the meats at Whole Foods and then at Butcher & Larder, but there’s no comparison,” he says. “Once you get that mentality in a restaurant, it’s hard to come back from. You look at tomatoes in the grocery store and you don’t want to even eat them. I like to know who makes what.” Because his restaurant specializes in Latin American fare, Manion frequents the ethnic shops in his neighborhood of Wicker Park/Ukrainian Village. Carnicerias Guanajuato (1436 N. Ashland Ave.) gets a lot of his business for many items that would be more expensive at more mainstream stores.
’In terms of Mexican cooking, they have everything I want such as limes, cilantro, tortillas,” he says. “It’s also very inexpensive. I’ve been going there for 17 years; I feel like I’m somewhere else.”
Another frequent shopper in ethnic markets is Thai Dang, who serves as executive chef/partner at hot new West Loop eatery Embeya (564 W. Randolph St.). The restaurant focuses on progressive Asian cuisine, and Dang travels to the Far North Side to get the ingredients he needs.
His favorite store for spices and fresh vegetables is Tai Nam Market, a Vietnamese supermarket in Uptown. He also travels to H Mart, a Korean store in Niles offering herbs, produce, spices and “anything that is Asian focused.” Dang insists that “if you cannot find it there, you won’t find it anywhere else.”
Dang says that he rarely shops at major markets, and prefers to spend his time at Asian stores to stock for his home as well. He finds the atmospheres inspiring.
“Once in a while I love to drive up there, and I get inspiration when I stay in the store for an hour or so,” he says. “Sometimes I am inspired to make dishes by being in the store around all the ingredients. In Asia, people are selling (the same products) in stalls outside of their homes and no one does that here.
“I love the markets, but in the winter you lose the motivation when it’s too cold outside. You want to be able to connect with that product, touch it, smell it, feel it, and that’s where the creatively comes out when you are surrounded by the product. Once we touch that product, it truly inspires us.”
Even though chefs are fierce competitors with one another, they generously share tricks of the trade. Dang, for example, offers tips to colleagues like Jared Van Camp on where to snap up great Asian-focused spices and herbs in town.
“In my chef circles, we tend to shop like this. In fact, most of the places I shop I was introduced to by one chef or another at some point,” Van Camp admits.
The executive chef/partner of Nellcôte and Old Town Social frequents Joongboo Market for spices as well as ingredients that are diverse and inexpensive.
He also offers sound advice for those shopping for spices: “Buying whole spices is better than ground spices. If you’re buying pre-ground spices it doesn’t matter where you buy them because their true flavor is already going to dissipate. There are a couple of Indian grocery stores on Devon Avenue that sell spices in bulk, which is much cheaper.”
Van Camp takes the local concept one step further by making all grains in-house, which are used to make flour for biscuits, bread, crusts, pastas, etc. Consumers can buy Nellcôte’s signature flour and, pastas retail at the restaurant as well as at J.P. Graziano’s and Publican Quality Meats.
Chefs like MK’s Erick Williams light up at mention of spring’s arrival right around the corner. This is when he believes his creativity comes through in full force.
“It’s much easier to plan a menu (in the spring/summer) in Chicago because you’re inspired in a different way,” he says.
“By February and March most of us are so tired of looking at those drab colors of turnips, sunchokes, carrots and beets--which happen to be the only vibrant colors. When they say chefs are excited about ramps in spring, it’s because they’re green and they’re delicious. It’s the first green thing to come out of the ground and we are really excited that spring is finally here, and the real Green City Market is back!”