A Perfect Summer Evening with the Green City Market
By Elizabeth Dunlop Richter
Imagine a perfect summer dinner. How about creamy chilled corn soup with fresh crab, organic beet salad, roasted pulled boar, sparkling wine, vanilla ice cream over apple compote covered in caramel sauce, followed by a sip of Kenya-grown locally roasted coffee? What if you knew that most of the ingredients were all grown and/or produced within 150 miles of Chicago? And grown by farmers dedicated to sustainable, regenerative agriculture? This menu was just one variation on a dinner you might have assembled yourself on a recent September evening at the Chef BBQ, benefitting the Green City Market.
Former Chicagoan Derry Henderson and her host former Green City Market Board Member Virginia Gerst are smiling for good reason! They just had dinner at the 19th annual Chefs BBQ in Lincoln Park.
Rick Bayless was there, offering a taste of Frontera Grill, as he has for 19 years. 2021 is the 20th anniversary of the Green City Market and September 10 was the 19th Chef BBQ, its annual benefit celebrating local restaurants and sustainable food purveyors. Bayless didn’t miss a beat despite shoulder surgery that left him sporting a sling supporting his right arm.
Rick Bayless briefs his staff during set-up at the Chef’s BBQ
“I’ve been here at every single one, through rain, shine, incredible heat… today is like the perfect day…Believe me I will tell you the truth, there is no event this good anywhere. It is just the best event ever!” he enthused.
Nationally known chef, restaurateur, author, and TV host, Bayless was one of the founding members, along with Sarah Stegner, chef/owner of Prairie Grass Cafe, of what many call Chicago’s best farmers market. They partnered with cookbook author Abby Mandel to open the first Green City Market with just a handful of farmers in a downtown alley next to the Chicago Theater. Today the market, which features locally grown, sustainable food, has over 50 vendors in two locations, Lincoln Park (the site of the Chef BBQ) at 1817 N. Clark and the West Loop at 115 S. Sangamon. Chefs at the Chef BBQ buy their ingredients from market vendors whenever possible.
Sarah Stegner (right) with her team from Prairie Grass Café in Northbrook, IL
Vi Daley (former 43rd Ward Alderman and former Green City Market Board Chair, center) with Vince Daley and Board Member Claire Leaman
Following last year’s cancellation due to COVID, the market team decided to move the event into September and lucked into perfect weather. Over 70 restaurants and other vendors participated, attracting nearly 1000 attendees, lower than in previous years, but considering the changing COVID environment, a strong turnout.
Attendees had over 70 vendors to sample.
Board Chair Jenn Lejano was delighted with the results. “As the signature fundraising event for our nonprofit organization, we’re pleased to have raised nearly $130,000 to support our mission of supporting local farmers, increasing food access across the city and educating children and adults alike on where good food comes from.” The market provides matching funds for the SNAP program (food stamps) and partners with the Lakeview Pantry to donate unsold food. Produce from the Edible Garden in the Lincoln Park Farm-in-the Zoo was donated to area pantries and mutual aid groups during COVID lockdowns.
(L to R) Green City Market Board Member Lauren Golanty, Elsie Lejano, Board Chair Jenn Lejano, and Chris Percy get their first round of small plates.
In addition to Bayless’ Frontera Grill, many old favorites were back, including Eli’s Cheesecake, Goose Island Brewery, Prairie Grass Café and Carnivale.
The evening also delivered on its reputation of featuring new restaurants as well.
José André’s ThinkFoodGroup will open Bizarre Meats this winter.
Jason Karlen, ThinkFoodGroup, thinly slices aged Mulefoot pork from Missouri.
Internationally known Chef José Andrés, known for his philanthropic World Central Kitchen, is bringing his restaurant concepts to Chicago. Jaleo opened in July in River North, serving paella and tacos. Dan Bufford, the executive sous chef for Bizarre Meats, a new high-end steak house opening in December, said this is not the only promised venue.“ We’ll [also] be opening Bar Mar, a high-energy seafood bar. It will be fantastic to bring his (Andrés’) Spanish cuisine here.”
Although their main ingredient, coffee beans, comes from Kenya, newcomers Martha Itulya-Omollo and her husband Leecox Omollo roast their Kikwetu beans in Chicago. “My husband and I were both born and raised in Kenya,” She explained. “We work with small scale farmers in Kenya and buy directly from them and allow them to set the best price for them. We created this company as a way to create a connection between Kenya and Chicago. We bring [the beans] here every week and roast them so it’s super fresh.” Martha tapped market vendors Mackinac Bluffs Maple Farms, Green-Eyed Lady Farm, and Smits Farm for maple syrup, lavender, and honey to flavor her coffee.
Martha Itulya-Omollo sells locally roasted Kenyan coffee beans.
Former Green City Market Board Member Virginia Gerst and her husband Gary make their selections.
Breweries, winemakers, and distilleries were also well represented. Creative cocktails were popular including delicious cinnamon vodka mixed with apple cider. Known for its hard liquor in the 19th century, Chicago is again becoming known for its craft distilleries and Koval is one of the “recent” pioneers, founded by third-generation Austrian distiller Dr. Robert Bernicker and his Chicago-born wife Dr. Sonat Bernicker-Hart in 2008. Midwest Regional Manager Mitch Conti says the Chef BBQ is one of his favorite events. ”We are 100% organic and kosher and independently owned and are proud to support other independent farmers from the farmers market…this is one of those events I always look forward to. People take pride in showcasing what they are all about. I’ve got to live up to everyone else.”
For fans of Champagne, Illinois Sparkling Company utilizes the Traditional Champagne Method used in France for authentic French Champagne. With grapes grown along the Illinois River, Mark and Teri Wenzel have been making bubbly since 2011. Using different grapes from those traditionally grown in France, they offer nine varieties including Brut, Sec, and Demi-Sec Rosé.
Bubbly on tap from Illinois Sparkling Company
Cooking on-site can be challenging for the restaurants, but creative solutions enable kebobs, paella, and grilled meats to be prepared and served quickly.
An assembly line works for Venteux Brasserie, Café, and Oyster Bar.
David Murphy, the chef at Mercat a la Planxa, simmers authentic paella.
Market volunteers Mia Saini and Alexander Duchnowski stand by to troubleshoot any problems.
Executive Chef Larry Feldmeier at The Bristol serves pulled boar raised on Mint Creek Farm.
For attendees, there always seem to be too many choices! Trays were in evidence, whether brought from home or supplied in the VIP seating area; clearly the best way to gather a course…or three or four!
Andy Block, like many, ran out of room on his tray.
Jerry Adelmann brings former Green City Market Board Member Shaun Block some choice plates.
Jonathan Boyer and Judith Stockdale relish the good weather.
For Jonathan Boyer and Judith Stockdale, who endured pouring rain at a previous Chef BBQ, this year’s perfect weather was a wonderful reprieve. For them as well as the farmers, restaurant teams, donors, chefs, and lovers of fresh, delicious, locally raised food, the evening was also a reminder of the agricultural blessings of the Midwest and the importance of protecting its farming heritage.