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City Provisions Scratches Its Farm Itch

By Chuck Sudo in Food on Jul 13, 2009 7:20PM

Some chefs thrive on the rush of a packed house, expediting orders, turning over covers, the heat of the kitchen giving them the equivalent of a runner's high. Then there are those who choose the equally demanding but different pace of catering, where the number of meals is already known and the challenges are adaptation and transportation. This is the path of City Provisions chef/owner Cleetus Friedman.

"I took a catering job when I first moved to Chicago because I thought it would be a great way to learn about the city," the Baltimore native said. We were on a biodiesel bus headed to River Valley Mushroom Ranch in Burlington, WI for City Provisions' Saturday farm dinner. That catering job led Friedman to Heaven on Seven, where he was in charge of catering operations for Jimmy Bannos's empire. The obstacles Friedman faced on a daily basis — disposing of trash, trying to find locally sourced fresh food for his bookings, commitment to sustainability and a green outlook — eventually led Friedman to found City Provisions last year.

"We don't promote the green and sustainable aspect of the business as much as my PR rep would like, because I think it's only one aspect of what we do," Friedman said. "So many companies have latched on to those two terms as a marketing tool that there's a level of cynicism about them to an educated consumer." Friedman's business is on the rise. His supper club space at 1816 W. Wilson is being transformed to a sustainable deli scheduled to open in October. "We want to have this be a space where we can sell products from vendors we support, while also educating our neighbors as to our mission," Friedman told us. City Provisions' proximity to Metra also means that it's ideally located for Ravinia-goers looking for a last-minute picnic setup.

On this day, however, Friedman's focus was on the farm dinner. In its second year, City Provisions' farm dinner series has become a successful enterprise that also serves as an alluring marketing opportunity for Friedman's catering and future retail concerns. The dinner at River Valley marked the first time Friedman held a dinner at a farm with no livestock. Another obstacle he faced in the weeks leading up to the dinner was the time of season. Asparagus is nearly done and the mild climate has retarded the ripening of tomatoes, peppers and squashes. "The only seasonal ingredients I have available to me at this time of year are garlic scapes and mushrooms," Friedman said and laughed.

There was certainly no shortage of edible fungi at River Valley. Owner Eric Rose is a second generation mushroom farmer whose father started River Valley 30 years ago because he wasn't satisfied with the quality of mushrooms he found as a restaurateur. "When River Valley started, there were over 800 mushroom farms in the United States," Rose said. "The most recent count listed 106." In addition to mushrooms, Rose and his staff grow heirloom tomatoes, asparagus, zucchini, pepper and corn for their canning, retail and farmers market operations. River Valley's pasta sauces, spreads, brats and condiments have become ubiquitous and popular market staples.

"I love the quality of Eric's mushrooms and wanted to have a dinner here to showcase what he's doing as a small farmer," Friedman said. The River Valley dinner posed another challenge for Friedman. Since all of the other dinners have been at livestock farms, the City Provisions staff made dinner in those farms' respective kitchens, largely due to the fragrance of said farms. "I wanted to prepare as much of the food as possible for this dinner in the middle of the field, in front of the guests," Friedman said.

The third participant in this dinner was Half Acre Beer Company. Owner Gabriel Magliaro was on hand to give guests an overview of the company. Since Half Acre only brews three beers, Friedman was challenged with pairing multiple courses with one beer, while also incorporating the beers in the actual cooking.