Chicago’s Chefs: Green Olympians?

Everyone knows that on St. Patty’s Day we dye the river green in Chicago, but a more profound and lasting greening has also taken place over the past decade. Led by a growing number of chefs and foodies, the greening of our city’s restaurants seems as likely to become as pervasive as dandelions, if not much tastier. It’s a forgone conclusion that the city boasts perhaps the most winning team of eco-minded chefs in the country, if not the world.

A Glimmer of Green

Not that long ago it seemed that organic or sustainably-produced food conjured up images of eating gnarled produce, worm-bitten greens, and grains that you’d hesitate to feed your pet pony. So how did we get to a point where restaurants and chefs that emphasize local, green and sustainable appear to be as popular as Oprah when she arrived in town a few dozen years ago?

While the movement toward locally produced, green and sustainable likely started with Alice Waters in California, it didn’t take long for Chicago chefs to take up the torch in the Midwest. With a more abundant water supply and richer soils, it seems only natural that the region would return its attention toward its rich agricultural heritage.

One of the earliest was Rick Bayless who turned his back on mass-produced foods, opting instead to seek out unusual ingredients, recipes and preparations.

Like Bayless, many Chicago chefs began supporting the Green City Market, which features local farmers and food artisans. And while it could be debated which came first, the market or chefs establishing relationships with nearby farmers, the result was clear: Chicago chefs began working with local farms and food artisans, many participating in the Green City Market or other farmer’s markets, to source their salad greens, fruits, vegetables, eggs, and cheeses.

The Local Advantage

So what was—and remain—the advantages of sourcing foods locally and in a sustainable fashion? When it comes to fresh, the closer you can source the food item the better. When basil is in season in the Midwest, for example, you can bet it tastes fresher, lasts longer, and has a more complex and intense taste and aroma than the same herb that’s shipped here from California.

As water shortages become more common, as evidenced recently in California’s Central Valley, the fact that the Midwest can sustainably produce food will only become more relevant.

While some might complain about our winters, it’s our climate—and a few thousand years of prairie buildup—that make our region so ideal for growing food. Many parts of the country wouldn’t be able to support a viable agriculture industry without vast amounts of water that arrive through irrigation. And transporting water often involves expending energy, not to mention disruption of ecosystems that might like to hold onto the water.

In the Midwest, droughts are rare if not nonexistent. Our raucous summer thunderstorms and rainy springs do the work of massive irrigation structures, dams, and sprinkler systems in drier climates. Water comes naturally to the Midwest, and that’s an advantage that’s difficult to beat.

In addition, shipping food great distances oftentimes leaves a considerable carbon footprint. Finally, by not supporting local farmers and purveyors, we rob ourselves of a critical aspect of any society—the ability to feed ourselves and to support the presence and evolution of food and cuisine as a part of our culture.

The March of the Green Olympians

But let’s get back to talking about other green leaders in Chicago, and how their green approaches translate into better eating.

One of the first and most fervently committed to operating a green restaurant is North Pond’s Bruce Sherman who has run the kitchen at the Lincoln Park restaurant since 1999. Whether locally-sourced corn-on-the-cob for soup or quail with fennel, Sherman takes pains to support local farmers and producers. To the chef, finding producers and artisans that take special care with their craft results in superior and exceptional products, many of them recently harvested or produced.

As with many other green chefs, Sherman is constantly adjusting his menu to react to the seasonal availability of products and produce. Every farmer and producer with whom the Chicago native works receives credit—on the restaurant’s menu and on its website.

In addition to seeking out sustainable seafood from the far corners of the earth, Sherman steps just outside the restaurant kitchen’s door for fresh herbs from a large garden or just beyond to the Green City Market, one of the largest organic and sustainable farmer’s markets in the country.

In Logan Square, Lula Café owners Amalea Tshilds and Jason Hammel have been actively working with and promoting local farms and their fare since at least 2004. In the spring of that year, the forward-thinking restaurant began hosting its now-popular farm dinners on Monday nights. Featuring often more adventurous specials and a bargain prix fixe menu, the painstakingly created dinners rely heavily on seasonal ingredients from local farms. For info on past and upcoming farm dinners, check out

Even more elevated restaurants such as Trump Tower’s Sixteen have caught onto the trend. Chef Frank Brunacci sources eggs, pork and lamb from Slagel Farms, just south of the city. Eye-popping sunrise views in the restaurant’s lofty dining room come with eggs that are literally farm fresh.

According to Brunacci, “Buying local makes sense. Not only does it minimize shipping costs, but more importantly, supports quality products and our neighbors who take such great pains to provide them.”

A more recent arrival, The Bristol in Bucktown, emphasizes an Old World or yesteryear approach of using nearly every part of the animals it features on its menu. Resulting in less waste and fresher and better-tasting dishes, the approach is being picked up by other restaurants such as the Publican.

"Like any chef worth his or her salt in Chicago today, we're serving organic and locally-grown food as much as humanly possible," says chef/owner Chris Pandel.

For Evanston’s Michael Altenberg, one green restaurant isn’t enough. After turning Bistro Campagne in Lincoln Square into a virtually organic restaurant, the chef opened a second restaurant in Wicker Park. CRUST, the first third party certified organic restaurant in the city, prides itself on its thin pizzas that are easy on the environment, good for organic producers and tasty for those lucky enough to savor them.