What Goes Into A Meal?

If you caught our special edition newsletter that went out today - you already know that we're crushin' hard on the folk's at Uncommon Ground. As we approach our 5th annual Vegetarian Harvest Feast with Uncommon Ground, we thought it would be interesting to interview their Farm Director, Allison Glovak, their Chef, Evan Rondeau, and their Master Brewer, Martin Coad about everything that goes into planning and constructing the dinner. Slow Food Chicago board member Carrie Schloss got the scoop from the UC crew - their discussion is below. We hope that you enjoy the interview and also hope you’ll be joining us for a really special evening next Wednesday (8/26). You can purchase tickets here. (Wink wink.) 

 A collage of images from Uncommon Ground Devon's rooftop farm.

A collage of images from Uncommon Ground Devon's rooftop farm.

Slow Food Chicago: Can you discuss how the dinner evolved?

Co-owner, Helen Cameron: Many years ago, when I first became aware of the Slow Food Movement, I was immediately engaged as this simple idea of good, clean and fair food meshed perfectly with the way I grew up—and the way my husband and I operate our restaurants.  Once we opened Uncommon Ground on Devon and we decided to build a certified organic farm on our roof, we took the ideals of Slow Food to another level—one story up-- to produce a good measure of veggies, greens, herbs, fruit, hops & honey for use in our restaurants.  We have hosted this Slow Food event for many years now-it is the highlight of our summer- and I am extremely proud of the fact that the grand majority of ingredients in the menu that our guests share come from something we have started from seed and nurtured to maturity, with great care and effort to produce something extraordinary.  With the addition of Greenstar Brewing, the first certified organic brewery in the State of Illinois in 2014, we brought organic beer to the table as well.  We brew our beer with local grain, hops and yeast, and occasionally with ingredients from our own farm.  I don’t think you can get much Slower than that! 

Slow Food Chicago:  Could you give a little synopsis of how you plan the garden and decide what you are going to plant and how much of it?  Is it just the farmer who decides what to plant or does the chef also have input?

Farm Director Allison Glovak: Many factors go into the planning of our farm. We keep very detailed records of all our crops year to year. Through analyzing this data we can determine which crops produce the best for us in our unique growing environment, and plant them again the following year. We focus on items that have high yields, quick turnover, high value for our kitchen, and crops that cannot be sourced through our distributors. We also focus on biodiversity as part of our organic farm plan and this year we are growing 56 crops using 120 different varieties of produce!  A few among them are Slow Food Ark of Taste selections.   Beyond that, we also sit down with our chefs in early February and delve into our seed catalogs. The chefs get a lot of say into what we'll be growing, and often ask for specific crops or varieties. One of the wonderful things about having our own farm is the diverse produce we can grow ourselves that our chefs wouldn't be able to get anywhere else. 

Chef Evan Rondeau:  It all starts with the farm. Our plan starts early in the New Year. All of us gather, seed catalogs in hand, giddy with possibilities. Keeping in mind the farm’s space, crop yield and building from knowledge of the years before us, we collaboratively make a plan for the coming season. There are certain no-brainer crops, herbs, tomatoes, radishes, peppers, as well as some experimentation. As the chef, I might hope to see if, say, Piquillo peppers are worth growing. I concede to our Farm Director’s best judgement. If we have space and it seems like a good crop we will go for it. The Tokyo Turnip is probably a great example of this. Our farmer Jen was unfamiliar with them last year and the baby turnips took to our space perfectly, becoming one of our better producers.  It became a new favorite early crop for us.

Slow Food Chicago: Could you discuss how you decide what to highlight for the Harvest Feast? 

Farm Director Allison Glovak: We decide which items we will highlight for the harvest feast through collaboration with the farmer, chef, and the farm itself. The date of the feast has a lot to do with which crops will be at peak production and flavor. But, we actually put a lot of work into planning for this harvest feast before we even put the first seed into the ground. The produce for the dinner is integrated right into the farm plan from the get-go, but the actual dishes are the chef's creation!

Chef Evan Rondeau: I think the key to this question is season. As I said, certain ingredients are no brainers. Shishito Peppers, for example, are so simple to prepare, so delicious and abundant at the end of August, they have been on the harvest menu every year. Tomatoes are our main crop, and the reason that our Harvest Dinner is in late August is they are at the peak of their flavor and harvest so we can purposefully highlight how special they are in the menu. Other things are of the moment as we are developing a menu, adjusting to the reality of the harvest. The Ground Cherries went crazy this year, whereas say the long beans weren't producing much. So we keep that in mind when we develop the harvest menu.  We really try to use as many of our homegrown ingredients as we possibly can in the menu.

 Slow Food Chicago: Could you discuss how you construct the dishes - how to prepare the main ingredient, flavor profiles, etc?  Do you consciously try to highlight a number of different cooking techniques?  Or is it only about highlighting the main ingredient?

Chef Evan Rondeau:  Going into my third slow food dinner I have learned a few things in regards to developing the menu. How do we plan for a large plated meal? How can we highlight a variety of flavors? In any menu plan a mix of textures, temperatures, and tastes is the key. When we plan for over 100 guests, efficient execution of dishes becomes a factor in our choices. The cooking techniques aren't quite as important as creating a delicious finished product. All in all, we want to show respect for the ingredients and highlight the bounty of yet another beautiful growing season.

Slow Food Chicago:  Can you discuss how and when the brewer is brought into the process in terms of pairings?  Can you also discuss how the brewer utilizes the rooftop garden ingredients for the dinner?

Master Brewer, Martin Coad:  We see our organic beer as a culinary item, just as much as anything else on the menu.  When thinking about the menu for our very special Slow Food Harvest Dinner, each item is paired with the beer by considering the beer as an ingredient in the overall flavor profile.  Each beer pairing is in collaboration with Chef Evan Rondeau and me, through discussions of the particular subtle flavor profiles of our beer and ensuring they fit well with every aspect of our well-crafted food.  

When we decided to open an organic brewery, the knowledge that beer is a mostly agricultural product gave us an obvious desire to include ingredients from our own certified organic farm.  Not to mention the necessity of using organic ingredients in organic beer!  Making farm collaborative beers is something that we will always do and will be a fluid development only limited by our combined creativity.   We've designed several farm-based recipes, utilizing our own organic Cascade Hops as well as Green Coriander Seed that are seasonally used in our flagship beers.  Included in this year's Slow Food menu, we are happy to provide one of our most popular beers since our opening, our Black Currant Kölsch.  This delicious beer uses a German Kölsch as its base, which starts by providing a subtle sweetness and creaminess from the malt, and the naturally clean refreshing finish that you would expect from this German style of beer.  To this we added fresh organic black currants, grown at our Devon restaurant, to provide a wonderful combination of sweet and tart strawberry, vanilla, and currant flavors.  Pröst!

The Slow Food Chicago 5th Annual Vegetarian Harvest Dinner at Uncommon Ground will be held on Wednesday, August 26th. There will be a cocktail reception on the rooftop from 530-7pm after which guests will descend into the dining room for a 4 course vegetarian meal featuring seasonal rooftop produce paired with Greenstar Brewing beer and specialty drinks. Join us!