Sunday, January 9, 2011

We’re Local in Chicago

While traveling recently, I had brunch with my niece who is a Chicago caterer. Being kindred spirits, our conversation turned to food. She and her husband own FIG (For Intimate Gatherings) Catering. I recently interviewed her and Cleetus Friedman from City Provisions, another Chicago caterer, about how they use local food in their businesses.

FIG caters to small groups: from two to 150 people. They specialize in flexibility. They can provide food that is organic, exotic, vegetarian, ethnic, and/or LOCAL. They are a boutique caterer, and the owners are personally concerned with the environment. So their practices tend to be more “green” than the average caterer. Along with a full complement of catering choices, they do weddings and home cooking classes.

City Provisions can do just about anything with notice of just 48 hours. Along with catering, they have a delicatessen and Farm Dinners. LOCAL and sustainable foods are their mission. The Farm Dinners are designed to drive their mission of connecting community to food. Guests take a biodiesel bus to the farm. On the way guests enjoy food and beer from a local brewery. When they arrive, there is a farm tour and then a five-course dinner paired with local beer. Afterward, a bonfire.

How do you define local?
FIG: Illinois and the States that border it: Michigan, Indiana, Iowa, and Wisconsin.

City Provisions: We have thought about this a lot and spoken to other chefs such as Rick Bayless here in Chicago. He defines it as any farmer who can get to the restaurant and back in one day. For City Provisions, I define it as a 250 mile radius. We use a lot of Michigan beers, fruit (mostly apples), and Zingerman’s products.

How do you source local food?
FIG: We worked with a local distributor to set-up a local food buying co-op which allows us to split up cases of local produce between the members. There are about 25-30 restaurants, caterers, and hotels in the Co-op and this has allowed us, a small purchaser, to get local food delivered right to our door. We also take advantage of Chicago’s numerous Farmers Markets, especially in the summer.

City Provisions: We spent a lot of time vetting farms, and it is still ongoing. We talk to farmers at markets and visit the farms to see how the animals are raised and the crops produced. Our farmers must “walk the talk” to work with us. Our Deli shelf has all local, sustainable, and organic foods.

How do you create local food menus?
FIG: We plan menus up to one year in advance. We ask customers if substitutions based on local food availability are okay with them. We have learned to think out of season, because we might be planning a summer wedding menu in the middle of winter. Since our corporate menu changes quarterly we can plan around the seasons. It is easier to source local meats and cheeses. We use a lot of local poultry and are working on a source for beef and pork. In the spring we start out using asparagus.

City Provisions: I go to the market and look for inspiration. Then I buy produce and play with it in the kitchen. It’s a creative challenge to cook seasonally. In the winter our menu features root vegetables, grains, and proteins. We educate our customers; our guests are used to not getting asparagus year-round.

Do you preserve food while in season for later use?
FIG: Yes, but we have limited space. Mostly we freeze fresh berries.

City Provisions: Not very often. We have limited freezer space and there are certifications needed to sell preserved food in a Deli.

About what percentage of your customers are interested in local food?
FIG: About 25% of our customers ask for or mention an interest in local, seasonal, or sustainable food. This is probably larger than many other catering companies.

City Provisions: Ninety percent! And, we work to educate the other 10%. A few people don’t understand what we are doing.

Photography Credits:
1. FIG Catering, Jamie Lynn Davis
2. City Provisions, Christina Noel Photography
3. FIG Catering, Brian Kinyon
4. FIG Catering, Callie Lipkin Photography
5. City Provisions, Christina Noel Photography
6. City Provisions, Christina Noel Photography

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