Chicago's Most Anticipated Restaurant Takes Farm-to-Table to the Next Level
Nowadays it’s impossible to fling an organic vegetable without hitting a restaurant that bills itself in one way or another as farm-to-table. What’s unique, though, is when a chef goes the extra mile—or rather, several miles—by partnering with a farm and forging a special connection unseen almost anywhere in the country. Husband-wife duo John Shields and Karen Urie Shields are those chefs, and they’ve aligned with The Farm in Bourbonnais, Illinois, to curate a specific grow list for their upcoming dual concept West Loop restaurants, Smyth + The Loyalist.
“It definitely stemmed from our time at Town House,” proclaims John Shields of the impetus behind the farm partnership. Town House was the restaurant he and his wife ran in Chilhowie, Virginia, where proximity to farms was paramount. “One of the biggest points of that journey was to be closer to the food, away from the city, connected with the land,” Shields says. “It sort of grew bigger than we ever imagined.” The chefs became entrenched in the life cycle of the seasons and the plants, to the point where Shields says it changed their philosophy and their lives in general.
After closing Town House for their next chapter, they didn’t want to leave that farm-centric aspect behind. “When we came back here, we really wanted to bring that with us,” Shields adds. How they did so was sheer social media coincidence, as the chef says one day he tweeted asking about fresh black walnuts near Chicago, only to receive a response from a farm in Bourbonnais. The tweet actually came from Elliott Papineau, son of master gardener Rebecca and her husband Alan. The couple has been farming for more than 40 years on their 20-acre property an hour outside Chicago, and along with black walnuts, they’ve got an abundance of berries, asparagus, tomatoes, herbs, fruits, sprouting broccoli, salsify, edible flowers, maple trees tapped for syrup, chickens, eggs, honey and loads more. The Farm, as it’s modestly dubbed, went from being a quiet family operation to an exclusive collaboration with Smyth + The Loyalist.
“It’s more than a tagline or something we can use in the press, it’s more about the work that’s gone into it and our relationship with them,” explains Shields about their unique rapport with the Papineaus, who simply love farming in their retirement. The excitement and mutual passion on both sides made the partnership a mutually beneficial endeavor. Shields elaborates on the added inspiration inherent in collaborating with a farm, saying, “Watching a plant of watching a chicken run around a farm and how it acts throughout the season helps us be creative in a lot of ways; it inspires things.”
In culling a custom grow list for Smyth +The Loyalist, the chefs would sit down with the family and put together ideas for plants, flowers, fruits and vegetables. Spending time out on the farm also helped with ideas. While walking around on the farm with Rebecca, Shields says he saw black locust trees, which blossom into flowers that are members of the pea family. “I used them at Town House, and now I’m working on a dish with peas and locust flowers.”
Smyth + The Loyalist is due this summer. The two-story space in the West Loop contains a more casual lounge on the ground floor (The Loyalist) and a tasting menu concept upstairs (Smyth).
- Matt Kirouac