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Foodie Rave - Local Retailers and Producers Making a Difference

By Anthony Todd in Food on Jan 26, 2011 5:40PM

buy-fresh-buy-local-label.jpeg Restaurants seem to get all the attention sometimes. Celebrity chefs, page-long restaurant reviews, interviews and special dinners occupy the attention of the food media, which latches on to each new spot in turn, alternately gushes or rants, and then moves onto the next. I don't mean to imply that I am outside of this cycle, as I also rush to new restaurants, only occasionally to return. But a little bit under the radar, a movement keeps growing which promises to change the way we eat permanently. Not a trend, but a wholesale change in the way we consume food. When I first moved to this city seven years ago, Chicago had one of the most amazing restaurant cultures in the world. Now, we have one of the most amazing producer cultures in the world, and that is making all the difference.

I have had the good fortune to meet and learn from dedicated individuals in all corners of the food world, from truffle makers to butchers, spice retailers to craft distillers. These are people who pour their heart and soul, not to mention their entire savings, into businesses that may never show a profit, and they do it for the love of making things for you to eat. As we all know, chefs are dedicated, creative and hard working. But unless you are a chef-owner, your life isn't on the line when you cook a meal. Chefs take home a paycheck at the end of the week, and more often than not, if the restaurant a chef works in fails, he or she can find another job. Restaurants can make a huge impact by purchasing and using local products, and many do. But someone still has to make them.

When you speak to producers and independent retailers, the love for their product comes through in everything they do. They work nights and weekends, often while holding down other jobs. Every few weeks, another product pops up in the market, filling a need that I didn't even consciously realize could be taken care of locally. Instead of buying groceries from Jewel or Whole Foods, stores like City Provisions, Green Grocer and Chicago's Downtown Farmstand allow consumers to purchase everything they need locally. Their close relationships with farmers and producers are symbiotic and friendly. At City Provisions, all scraps are collected and shipped back to farmers, to be fed to pigs that will be served at City Provisions. At Jo Snow Syrups, local syrups are being sold in independently owned coffeeshops and, soon, will be mixed with locally-distilled spirits in craft cocktails. The web becomes tighter, self-reinforcing and more and more sustainable. Some of these producers speak of it as a "movement" with the same tone often reserved for politics.

These products aren't snobby, "crunchy," expensive or boutique. You can buy meat from the local butcher, produce from the farmer's market or the farm share, chocolates and honey and butter and bread from local producers. Tens of thousands of people buy food from farmers markets, with the number growing every year. And with each new product, the world of Chicago food becomes richer. The recent flurry over the opening of the Butcher and Larder is indicative of the change - a few short years ago, that kind of enthusiasm was reserved for four-star restaurants.

It's remarkable how every producer I speak to tells me how supportive, not competitive, the community of producers is. That is because the closer we get to a complete selection of local foods, the better it is for everyone. The fact that consumers want to see how their food is made, want to read about the way gin is distilled and ketchup is produced, shows that things are changing. And it's our job in the food media to keep our eyes on what is important - not just the world of celebrity drama, $200 meals and expensive flatware, but the hard working men and women who are doing their best to change the way all of us eat and live.