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Linda Novick O'Keefe

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A Love Letter to Chicago Chefs

Posted: 06/19/2012 10:58 am

So I am moving to Austin, Texas. I joked to my friend and colleague Mary Ann that I finally get my shot at being a southern belle and have an excuse to buy a really kickin' pair of cowboy boots. I think cowboy boots have been on my list since I was 18.

This move is an exciting one for our family -- it is the beginning of a new adventure, a promise of "exemplary public schools" for my kids, a more laid-back way of life (and I could use a little bit ... ok ... a lot of that) and the chance to really advance Common Threads' (commonthreads.org) transition to a national scope.

I've moved around a lot since childhood. I lived in Connecticut, Maryland, Virginia, Arizona and the longest (13 years) in Chicago. And if I think about my own treasure chest of memories that I have acquired in the Windy City, why it became home for me, my mind goes to the chefs that embraced me, fed me, rallied for me and my organization, and never asked for anything in return.

The following is my account of some of the chefs that make me want to sing, that make me feel so lucky that I don't have any food allergies and the ones I know will take care of my mom when she is in Chi-town, who has every food allergy. (If I included everyone, this blog would never end!)

There is no better place to go on a Wednesday or Saturday morning (7:45-8:15 a.m., so you can get the morels and the sun gold tomatoes) than Green City Market (http://www.greencitymarket.org/index.asp). As you walk between tented booths, sampling cheeses, artisan crackers, picking up peaches and berries, fresh arugula (I get mine from the same vendor Sam Kass did when he was cooking for the Obamas), you rack your brain thinking about what fresh creation you can make. Should I combine the sweet peppers with the eggplant in garlic or should I bake up some kale chips? The best part is that as you are filling your market basket (my friend Lorin has the coolest one I have ever seen) you feel like you are in chef Hollywood. Carrie Nahabedian, Paul Kahan, Paul Virant, Chris Nugent, Stephanie Izard, Tara Lane -- they are all there too, placing orders, grabbing goodies, sharing a story, a recipe, some tips on what has been "take your breath" away good. The food, the sweet musicians that play for the kids reminding us to slow down, the chef collaboration to bring the best talent to share recipes with the masses: That place is a special spot and spirit. Its founder was a beautiful woman who has since passed on, but the chef community, especially, Carrie keeps it beating. My kids grew up at that market; that market is special and if you haven't been, you have to go.

I like to eat at places where I love the chefs -- not just their food, but who they are. Over the years they have given me friendship, food and a ton of their time and energy.

Two boys that are both die-hard Chicago sports fanatics, always make me laugh over coffee: Todd Stein (Go Hawks!) and Giuseppe Tentori (DA BEARS!). Todd, who makes one of my favorite meals of all time -- black ink spaghetti with crab, mint, chili and bread crumbs (for crunch) -- is a teddy bear and beyond gentle with the Common Threads kids in the kitchen. Giuseppe Tentori (http://gtoyster.com/), who taught our students to make carrot spaghetti and beet risotto, has that special way with the kiddos, the constant kidder, makes a killer macaroni and cheese with edamame and does a lobster roll at GT Oyster & Fish Bar that tastes like you are in Kennebunkport, Maine.

Avec (http://avecrestaurant.com/) is the place where Nick and I over the last 12 years have always bellied up to the bar and ate and ate and ate. Every time I eat a chorizo stuffed date, I feel at home. When I ruined a brisket for Rosh Hashanah, Executive Chef Koren Grieveson, helped me pull together a last minute chicken dinner. And while we worked to figure out the plan, Paul Kahan entertained Zack by throwing him up in the air making baby noises.

Of course, I will never forget the day that Koren came to teach the kids at Common Threads to cook. Early in the program before we had recipe guidelines, we asked chefs to pick a country based on a bread, rice or noodle. That session we were doing noodles, so Koren taught the kids to make sausage and spaetzle. I remember this little spitfire of a girl, Fatimah, saying over and over, "I never knew pigs intestines could taste so good!" Koren makes some mean sausages! Due to Koren's insistence, we have stopped using tobasco in our family's chili recipe.

Speaking of chili, Kevin Hickey of Allium (http://www.alliumchicago.com/) at the Four Seasons makes the best damn chili I have ever eaten. Family get-togethers with him hit the spot for adults and kids alike. He and his gorgeous wife take Halloween very seriously. With his and hers costumes and that chili, I just think of nonstop smiles. Kevin, like my husband, is a baseball fanatic and started Common Threads' annual Crosstown Culinary Classic, getting new chefs to participate and support our organization in a Chicago throw down (Sox vs. Cubs) of baseball fare fanicified. Go Sox!

My favorite two places for family meals are the wonderful Carol Watson's Milk & Honey (http://www.milkandhoneycafe.com/) for early Saturday morning breakfasts (I am sure we could count how many Saturdays we missed over the year) and Bill Kim's Belly Shack (http://bellyshack.com/). Bill's marinades and flavor profiles have been in his family for years, the heat, spice, and use of lean proteins makes for a yummy dinner that won't break the caloric meter or the bank. There is nothing more delicious than seeing my son Zachary assume his soft-serve position, (Bill makes his ice cream with coconut water) resting his head in one hand, using the other to shovel bit-sized spoonfuls with caramel into his little mouth, rarely looking up, rarely talking, while my daughter Julia, gleefully exclaims "mmmm" -- she gets that from me!

Bill has kindly made one of his goals to make me a sustainable cook. For example, he has come over helped me roast three chickens, make stock and create a menu plan for a few days at a time. I am definitely a work in progress but it is amazing what I have learned from him. Watch for the book.

Chris Nugent, Chef and Owner of Goosefoot (http://www.goosefoot.net/), is one of the kindest men I know. With his focus and creativity, he makes a really beautiful plate. The meals he has cooked for Nick and me have blown us away and allowed me to embrace foods that I never thought I would have ever eaten. I was a vegetarian for eight years during my teens. He and his wife Nina are truly salt of the earth people. My strata recipe has greatly improved after he noted I should really take the time to cut off the crusts.

Jimmy Bannos Jr., Executive Chef of The Purple Pig (http://thepurplepigchicago.com/), is one serious sweetie just like his Dad, Jimmy Sr., and their restaurant is one of my favorite places to eat, of all things, vegetables. I love going with girlfriends and noshing on beets and lima beans with tuna, while that cutie cooks his heart out. It's no surprise he is an absolute sweetheart because his parents are two of the coolest, kindest, family-focused people, who have regular Sunday dinners together -- I am still waiting for my invite. Jimmy Sr. is the guy who always asks how you are -- and really wants to know.

Stephanie Izard and I have a lot of common threads. Her boyfriend in high school was my boyfriend of two days at sleep-away camp (I was 10), which meant we danced to the slow songs at the dance. We were also in Arizona during the same time, before she opened Scylla. Stephanie is always half-full, always real, always working her butt off, always pushing herself to grow. That girl hasn't stopped as long as I have known her, but she has always made time for Common Threads and so many other worthwhile organizations, regardless of how in the weeds she may be. Plus, she makes the most delicious cauliflower and olive mixture in the whole wide world.

Eating Jaime Laurita's food in his house, yes, the one who just got married on Real Housewives of NJ, is one of my favorite things to do in life. His husband Rich makes a mix to be in sync with the meal. It's amazing how Jaime knows my palate, how well he knows Nick. There is something really special about how loved you can feel when someone like him cooks for you. He came into Common Threads' summer camp last year and talked to 100 of our campers about how you can let the day, let everything, go in the kitchen and how important it is to put good energy and love into your food. The kids and staff were mesmerized. It is a good lesson for all of us.

Sarah Levy from Sarah's Candies (http://www.sarahscandies.com/) is as sweet as the confections she makes. She always comes in to teach the kids, always there to support our work, and her confections remind me how important it is to make things pretty and to celebrate. When our family doesn't make our own cakes, we turn to Sarah, on the last day of school, we invade Sarah's adorable store and each pick a special treat.

And last, but certainly not least, let me not forget Art Smith. I know a really special side of Art and feel lucky for that. Art is a giver and has built his life around giving to others. The man doesn't stop. The charity dinners, the auction items are all in the name of building community. My favorite times with Art are in his own kitchen in the morning over bottomless cappuccinos or on a run. One time Art and I ran an hour in the pouring down rain in New York City strategizing about our national expansion. We couldn't see and we were beyond soaked but we kept on dreaming, planning and laughing. Even Gayle King, who saw us running, sent Art an email saying something to the extent that we were rock stars for running in that weather -- it is just so symbolic of Art's whole MO. Once he gets an idea in his head, he just goes for it regardless of what others say or what obstacles might come up! I have eaten in mom and pop hole-in- the-walls on the Southside with Art and at some of the best restaurants, like Trotters and A Voce, and regardless of where we are, Art always treats everyone the same and that is what I love about him most. Art (who makes a lemon pound cake like no other) and Jesus (who makes a truly mean spaghetti sauce and whose mother's Arepas make me a very happy woman every Xmas) are sticklers when it comes to program oversight and quality. They want every child to walk away from Common Threads knowing how take control in the kitchen and their health. Their dream was always to do their part to help people see each other as human, nothing more, nothing less.

These chefs and so many others bust their butts in the kitchen daily. It is a really hard job and yet they find time to give and give and give. Common Threads has grown, and the lives of thousands of children, have changed forever because of their kindness, the nurturing and their love.

 

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