Chef Trotter Wonders If You Might Have Time For Lunch?

There are things in life that are assumed. If a famous chef invites me for a meal, then obviously the only questions are when and where. And when the chef doing the inviting is one who literally put Chicago’s culinary scene on the map, it’s actually hard to remember  that you actually need to say “yes!” when asked.

Thank goodness I had the presence of mind to answer out loud. I still remember my friend Les looking at me in disbelief, eyes wide, grinning. Few invitations in life are quite so exciting.

Adriana disappeared only to return a few minutes later, sparkling wine in hand. Was this really happening? From the expressions on Les and the filmmakers’ faces, we were clearly all wondering the same thing. Adriana knew what was going on, and kindly ushered us into the kitchen. We were to eat at Chef Trotter’s kitchen table–meaning the table in his set or studio kitchen, not the restaurant.

Let’s talk about the lunch guests for a moment. We had Lester and myself from The Peterson Garden Project, and then the film crew from Crosstown Productions. We were joined by close friends of Rochelle Trotter who were at the restaurant for a photo shoot for Today’s Chicago Woman, her stylist and hairdresser.  So we were not only treated to lunch at Trotter’s, we were treated to lunch at Trotter’s with family friends. It was a very big deal.

We sat around the kitchen table–the one you’ve seen in The Kitchen Sessions–and were presented with stories. Food, stories, restaurants and great meals are intertwined in my mind, for many reasons. While eating, I’m immersed in the flavors. In retrospect, the great meals of my life are those that I remember for many reasons. For great food and chefs (the first meal my husband cooked for me, Le Tour d’Argent, Alinea, a tiny unnamed restaurant in Venice) and also for great moments and great company. Chef Trotter didn’t know it when he invited me to this incredible lunch, but he was the chef for two of my life’s great moments. The birthday dinner for my Father, Aunt and I (the 30/50/6o dinner, one of the last when my Dad and Aunt spoke to one another) and also my engagement dinner, in which my husband and our dear friends Anthony, Michelle, my stepmum Katerina and Aunt Jan dined at the kitchen table at Trotter’s. That’s the meal where I first smelled Gewurztraminer. Moments like that you remember.

The food was delicious, spectacular even. But the things I remember most are the conversations with friends, stories from the chefs, ideas behind the meals. With lunch at Trotter’s, I remember the hospitality of Chef Trotter and Rochelle, and their stories. Rochelle spoke of growing up on a farm, and not understanding what pickles were the first time she tasted the industrial version. She had only ever tasted her grandmother’s pickles, and they just didn’t seem the same food as those that came from cans in a supermarket. I also remember Chef Trotter’s pride as his sous chefs presented their dishes, one after another, all of which highlighted another locally grown ingredient–each offering their favorite. And throughout the meal, our sommelier was omnipresent, offering pairing advice. He never steered us wrong.

And so now, a year later–what do I remember? Chef Trotter and Rochelle, Mattias and Adriana, and the absolutely unforgettable moment: “Chef Trotter wonders if you have time for lunch?” Don’t you hope to hear that question one day?

Victory: A Documentary about Food, Gardening, and History

I love food. And that’s fundamentally why I began to garden. Since beginning, I’ve discovered that I actually love to garden, too–and that gardening leads to making friends when you become a member of a community garden. The Peterson Garden Project is a community vegetable garden on the north side of Chicago. The whole reason it came to be is that LaManda Joy, who founded the garden, decided that she wanted to teach people to grow their own food. Today, the garden includes 157 plots devoted to growing veggies, so that mission is accomplished. It’s a great achievement, but now the volunteers with the garden want more. We want to convince lots of people–everyone, really–to create community gardens. So we are working on a documentary.

We were lucky to forge a partnership with Crosstown Productions and The Tribeca Flashpoint Media Academy, and now we’re working on our film. The idea is to create a movie that tells the story of Victory Gardens in Chicago–historic and contemporary–to convince people that they’re well worth the effort. To do it, we’re doing a series of interviews with well-known gardeners, civic leaders & chefs. Since I’m a professed foodie, I’d like to begin by talking about the chefs.

When I first started brainstorming with one of the film’s creators, Peter Hawley, our list of dream-chef-interviews was short, and easy to craft. If you want to talk to chefs in Chicago, you start with Charlie Trotter. And you jump to our local champions of the farm-to-table movement, Rick Bayless and Paul Kahan. I’m delighted to say that all three have agreed to be filmed for the documentary.

We began with Chef Trotter. It’s safe to say that we were all extremely nervous to enter his restaurant. It was our first interview, and he is a renowned perfectionist. We felt the pressure. Chef Trotter’s assistant, Adriana, was grace personified. She did her best to put us at ease–but we were a little too excited to take this event lightly. Our film crew prepped camera angles, lighting, sound… and when we were just about set, discovered that something or another broke. I’m not even sure what it was. Suffice it to say that there was a frantic e-mail sent to someone back at their studio, who dutifully bolted to the restaurant with the replacement component. We were ready, and Chef Trotter was eager to talk.

And the interview was simply fantastic. It was clear that he’d carefully thought about the questions we offered in advance. He quickly told stories of how he gardened growing up, and what that meant to him as a person, before he knew he’d become a chef. He further recanted a history of trends in fine dining, from the 1980’s to the present. He noted that in the ’80s, chefs sought exotic ingredients. It was the beginning of globalization when it came to food, and getting exotic ingredients–regardless of their quality–was the trend. Today, that’s changed. Chefs are far more concerned with serving local foods, perfectly ripened, ready to eat. Ingredients are where it’s at, and that’s where gardening helps everyday people prepare the most delicious meals for their families. Honestly, if we’d prepped a script for Chef Trotter, it couldn’t have been as perfectly suited to our mission than what his words actually were. When we wrapped, we were elated. What could make a better day?

Well, we were about to discover just that.

Chef Trotter thanked the full team, then asked Adriana to follow him into his kitchen. She emerged a few moments later with a single question: “Chef Trotter wonders if you might have time to stay for lunch?”

Take a moment to imagine what is running through our heads at this point. And just imagine what it must have been to be Adriana, watching our faces as we digested this question. Then think about the employee of the production company whose only role was to bring the infamous broken component to the restaurant. Talk about a lucky guy!

We had time for lunch. Oh yes we did. And that’s the story I’ll tell on my next blog post.

Who says edibles aren’t beautiful?

Borage in bloom

 

I decided it was high time to post photos of my progress in my own back yard. This is my first year doing raised bed gardens, and just two months into the growing season, I’m continuously eyeballing my yard, deterining where I’ll build more next year. 

I’ve had some interesting discoveries. 

First, I think the vegetable gardens are gorgeous. I balked at planting vegetables in my back yard when we first bought our house, because I didn’t think they would be pretty. It’s incredibly ironic in retrospect. My back yard has never looked as good as it does now. 

We have a very small yard, typical of a Chicago Bungalow. My husband built two raised beds, one along our house, and one along our garage. There’s no doubt that the vegetables there are growing more quickly than those in the yard. They’re thriving. The only down side so far is the illustrious dog vomit slime mold (yes, that’s its real name) that the mulch around one of the beds created. But really, the beds shouldn’t be blamed for the mulch, should they? 

In the ground, I still love perennials.  I’m working on ways to weave in both edibles, like the borage in the top photo above, with monarda, coneflower, artichokes,  terragon (I have a monster-sized plant), chives and thyme. Next year, I’ll toss leeks and garlic in , too. I’m learning that when I add a few strategic zinnia, the whole bed lights up. I don’t have it perfected yet, but it is starting to look good. I can’ t wait until next year, when the monarda is tall, the iris I transplanted bloom again, and I have one full year of experimenting in that bed under my belt. I know it’s going to be gorgeous. 

The concrete patio we inherited from the previous owners still demands that I have lots of terra cotta pots to camoflauge the concrete. I used some of the large, two-foot-tall pots to plant full-sized carrots. That’s been a great success, and I really wish I’d planted more. I also have mint, rosemary, thyme and lemon verbena in pots. My logic is that they make the seating area smell great when we’re sitting out at night, and that’s absolutely proven true. I’ve also discovered that I love munching on the chocolate mint any time I’m within arm’s reach of the plant! Having spent hours considering where to add more pots, it finally occurred to me that I can plant a new raised bed on top of the patio itself. That’s the beauty of raised beds: you can put them on top of just about everything. They cover a multitude of landscaping sins–like gratuitous amounts of concrete! 

With this success comes an unquenched desire for more. I still want to find a way to make the conduit trellis more aesthetically pleasing. Of course it looks great once covered in beans, cucumbers and tomatillos, but when it’s exposed? It’s just ugly. 

Raised bed along my house

I’m also searching for more ways to plant vertically. I’m scoping out some iron terra cotta plant holders, so that I can have potted herbs hanging outside my back door. I’d also like to add window boxes for more herbs and lettuces. My logic is that it will keep them away from any potential rabbits, and they’d be easy to grab from the windows outside my kitchen. 

Gardening is an addiction. Once you’re in, you can never get enough. 

  

My oh-so-pruned tomatoes. They're flamingo-esque.

 

My sweet millions... so close!

 

Chocolate mint, spearmint, coleus

 

Carrots undercover

 

It’s not a garden. It’s a revolution.

Big picture, little plant

 

I was sitting at The Peterson Garden Project one day with my friend, Xan. We were tired, understandably. It was June 6th, a month ago. We were thick in the midst of dealing with logistic challenges to getting the garden going–compost for our beds was repeatedly delayed. The fence was repeatedly broken, then repaired, then broken, then repaired. We weren’t sure how long it would take to build the 140 raised beds that we needed to create gardens for our initial gardeners.     

So we sat, tired, under a beat-up tent that had been partially destroyed by the latest compost delivery. LaManda, the garden’s founder, had been teaching classes on planting earlier in the day. Because it was raining, she’d used a pan, some dirt, and miscellaneous seeds and seedlings to demonstrate basic planting techniques to a dozen or so new gardeners–we like to call them “grewbies”–underneath the dilapidated tent.  

So Xan and I sat, talking, about what we were doing with the garden, and in a flash, she said the words that encapsulated all our efforts, intentions, and wishes. She said, “It’s not a garden. It’s a revolution.” And in true Xan style, she followed that up with, “We’ve got to find a pen and write that down! That’s it, but my memory is crap. I’ll forget it. Where’s a pen?”     

I found a pen. She wrote it down. And we may as well have chiseled it in stone: The Peterson Garden Project IS a revolution. It’s a revolution in gardening, in community, in food and hopefully soon, in eating, too.     

140 boxes awaiting compost

 

Two months in, we are well on our way. We’ve broken ground, built the garden, built 140 raised beds. Then, we built 17 more because we had room and there was demand. We’ve held a fabulous Re-Dedication Party; I’ll write about that soon. It’s all been part of making a community garden, which is simple enough. But I do think we’re part of a much larger movement, and I couldn’t be happier to be a part of it.     

I’ve always been looking for a great revolution. Finally, I’ve found it. 

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Before the Planting Begins

    

The Peterson Garden Project has rapidly come to  life. The interesting thing is: we haven’t even planted yet. So what’s going on?        

I joined the project for a few reasons. I love fresh food, and want to learn to grow my own. Plus the benefits of growing food locally have a significant impact on a city’s sustainable development, and that’s important to me. I also love gardening—it’s swiftly becoming my favorite hobby.        

What I didn’t see coming was the incredible community impact of the garden.     
While helping to plan and promote the project, I’ve met an amazing group of people, all drawn to the community garden project for different reasons. From LaManda, the project’s founder, I’ve learned about Chicago’s Victory Garden legacy. But more importantly: I’ve seen the catalytic affect her inspiration and leadership have on a project. This isn’t just a garden for LaManda: it’s a life mission. And she’s looking for accomplices.        

From there, the cast of gardeners grows. From the young dancer who has a passion for baking pastries, to the ice-skating grant-writer looking to share her incredible knowledge of growing and cooking food, this garden is bringing people together.        

Entrepreneurs. Artists. People looking for a new career path—they’re all here. And: they’re mainly my neighbors. I had the pleasure of meeting John and Eileen, who have lived in my neighborhood—Arcadia Terrace, for the record—for 50 years. They’ve never grown vegetables before, but when they got the flyer for the Peterson Garden Project, they figured: why not?     
It’s never too late to learn to grow your own vegetables. And it’s not too late to plant them this year, either. Come on over and join in on the fun; volunteers are always welcome at The Peterson Garden Project.  

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The Peterson Garden Project

Alderman O'Connor surveys the site

I’m delighted to say that these images of The Peterson Garden Project are already outdated. I took these last Friday, at groundbreaking. They’re now a visual record of just how much our band of volunteers has accomplished in a very short time. 

The site, primed for transformation

My goal for Memorial Day this year? To plant heirloom seeds in a reborn Victory Garden. 

Neighbors gather, in anticipation of planting

We begin!

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Victory Garden Revival

In the 1940’s, Chicago was home to one of the most vibrant Victory Garden cultures in the country. With post-war families growing rapidly and food in short supply, Chicagoans took to community gardens to grow vegetables and put dinner on their tables.

Today, community gardening is once again gaining momentum, but for different reasons. Personally, I became interested in urban gardening for two reasons. First, because I like the flavor of fresh, organic vegetables. And second, because I am looking for ways to contribute to a more sustainable future for my city. Turns out, there are lots of people doing the very same thing… in my own neighborhood.

This weekend, I was introduced to the Peterson Garden Project. It’s a local effort led by one of my neighbors, a blogger who writes at The Yarden. She began doing research on Chicago Victory Gardens, and decided it was high time to revive the tradition. So: she found a site, talked to Alderman O’Connor, rallied her troops, and… voila! A reborn Victory Garden breaks ground this Friday, May 21 at 11 a.m.

My plan for my plot at the Peterson Community Garden

Naturally: I had to be a part of it. So here’s my plan for what will be my first foray into community gardening. Now that my own square foot garden is firmly in place in my own back yard, I’ll use the community garden space for a few things. First, to meet my neighbors. Second, to learn about gardening from people who know a heck of a lot more about it than I do. And finally, to grow some unusual veggies to share with my friends. If you’re hungry & willing to help me weed a little now and again, come on out to the garden and dig in!

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