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Marriott Chicago Kitchen Keeps Things Local

By Chuck Sudo in Food on Aug 20, 2010 4:00PM

"I know it's pretty unbearable outside, but would you like to put on the beekeeper suit before we hit the roof?" Myk Banas, Executive Chef of the Marriott Chicago asked as we wound our way trough the service staircases.

I arranged a meeting with Banas last week to check out the five beehives he keeps on the hotel's rooftop. Home to nearly a half-million Italian five-striped honeybees (Banas said they're a docile breed), they produce the honey Banas and his kitchen staff use for the hotel's restaurants and room service operations. "We all know Mayor Daley loves his downtown flower boxes," Banas said, "so these bees don't have far to collect pollen. I'd estimate most of them are collecting within a two block radius of the hotel."

The bees were donated by Wild Blossom Meadery's Greg Fischer, who also helps Banas tend to the hives. Beekeeping is only part of a commitment to local foodstuffs that Banas and his staff have taken at the Marriott. They have a dedicated plot for vegetables at Heritage Prairie Farm; a smaller garden on the Marriott rooftop near the beehives; brew beer with Half Acre Beer Company; roast coffee for the hotel with Bridgeport Coffee Company; make their own cherry cola with Filbert's Soda Company in Bridgeport (using Michigan cherries); bottle wine for the Marriott's Harvest Grill with Fischer at Wild Blossom; do their own butchering and even started growing hops for beer.

Banas estimates 95 percent of the food coming into the Marriott is sourced locally and prepared from scratch. It's an impressive percentage for a major hotel, especially one that Banas estimates has over a million visitors a year.

"Most of our visitors are from out of town and they're in a part of the city that caters to tourists," Banas said. "We want to provide them with some unique things that they can only get, often within a one-block radius."

Of course, the definition of "local" is a bit more broad for Banas than it is for, say, Green City Market. " When we say we 'buy local,' we mean that we purchase most of our food from the eight states that make up the Midwest," Banas explained. "Also, given that we serve a lot of out-of-towners, we have to make some concessions. I know a tomato tastes better now than it does when it's being trucked up from Florida or Texas in winter, but if a guest here wants a BLT, they're getting a BLT."

The Marriott Chicago's local food sourcing actually predates Banas's tenure. "My predecessor was doing some things already by the time I came to the hotel," Banas said. "I just built on the foundation that was already here." Banas's enthusiasm creates a trickle down effect to the rest of the staff. "We have a volunteer culture here. Whomever volunteers to garden does so."

One of the few things Banas and his staff don't is baking. "We have our bread prepared by Labriola and Alpha Baking Company, with crackers from Nicole's Crackers," he explained. We worked our way downstairs to the lobby bar, where Banas's two beers, a honey wheat ale brewed with Half Acre and a honey kolsch brewed with Fischer, are on tap. The former, with its lacing of honey, is comparable to any lager on draft at the hotel.

"This is the only place in Chicago you'll find this beer," Banas said. "I'm very proud of that."