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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?

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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

 

Oh, Katsu. How I love you.

Dinner last night at Katsu reminded me how wonderful the restaurant is. We sat at the sushi bar, and had a lovely chat with Katsu. He’s run the restaurant on Peterson for 22 years now. That’s quite a run for a Chicago sushi restaurant. Here’s a peek inside the best sushi place in town.

Chef Katsu at work

Last night, Chef Katsu was garnishing all the nigiri with daikon leaves. I didn’t realize they were so minty. My son loved it, and immediately asked if we can grow daikon in our garden. That’s my research project for the day. Here’s a closer look at that sushi platter, which Chef Katsu garnished with flecks of gold.

Sushi platter at Katsu

The Dirt

Box Number One, at the back of my house. Square foot garden #2, along my garage, on top of the sidewalk.

 

At long last, after many weeks of toil, construction, dirt-mixing and planting, here are my raised bed gardens. It’s official: I am an urban farmer. 

The second square foot garden, along my garage, on top of a sidewalk.

 

I’ve faced a few surprises. First, mixing a bunch of dirt is hard, in terms of the physical effort. Don’t let the books fool you. And then, the agonizing part: waiting for seeds to sprout. In my case, the subject of much staring, worrying, and even blaming wonton, seed-eating birds has been the situation with my peas. I planted eight. I have two sprouts. 

When do I give up and plant a few more? What’s the right timeframe? How do I fend off the marauding robins and squirrels who are the likely culprits of my struggling pea crop? I’ll be thinking about all of this for a few more days. 

Two peas sprouting in a square. Where are the other two?

 

The lettuce, on the other hand, is marching on. Don’t know what’s going on with the head lettuce, but the leaf lettuce is a great source of hope for me. 

Lettuce sprouting!

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