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Shop With A Chef - Green City Market with Bruce Sherman

By Anthony Todd in Food on Aug 1, 2011 3:00PM

"Every week, I find something I didn't realize was in season or I didn't realize was possible to grow here," explained Bruce Sherman, of North Pond Restaurant, as he picked over the produce on a recent Wednesday at Green City Market. Diners have gotten used to seeing producers and market names all over menus, and during the summer, Chicago restaurants are inundated with farm-to-table dishes. Sherman, and many other Chicago chefs, go a step further, and visit the market every week, talking to farmers (many of whom are now old friends) and picking up their orders themselves. We followed Chef Sherman through the market to learn how a chef shops for produce.

The first lesson: chefs get to order in advance. If you get to the market a bit late, your favorite farmer might be out of cherries or shallots, but restaurants can't run that way. So, despite the fuzzy language that always seems to inundate stories about chefs at markets, most of the work is done before the chef starts to squeeze the fruit. This doesn't mean that Sherman doesn't actually shop - on the contrary, during our visit some particularly leafy celery caught his eye and he went after it just like any other market shopper. But, if you happen to wander behind the tents, you'll find a different story.

If you want to see chefs and restaurants doing their thing, head to the market on Wednesday, when it's less crowded. If you go behind the tents, you will find stacks of boxes with the names of some of your favorite restaurants - their pre-orders, stacked up and ready to go. However, even making pre-orders involves knowing the farmers and paying attention. One box, upon examination, didn't contain any of the requested cippolini onions - after some banter between Chef and Farmer (with a hard undercurrent of professional bartering), Sherman moved on. "You always have to adjust on the fly. The fact that the market changes every day adds excitement - but it also means more work."

Relationships with farmers also lead to a particular kind of honesty. "Is the corn any good this week?" Sherman asked one stall tender, after revealing that the samples he had last week weren't very tasty. After a slightly sheepish look, the employee told him that, no, it wasn't. But, the next week they would be harvesting a different field. "I only buy from 6-7 producers, most of whom I've been buying from for years. It's not that I don't buy from anyone new, but I don't try to 'spread the love.'" For a chef, those long-standing relationships are valuable - they get the best product and total honesty.

Sherman doesn't use market products for everything; it's just too expensive. While we were there, he bought 10 dozen fresh farm eggs. When asked how long those would last in the the restaurant, he told us that if they were using them for everything, they'd last about 5 hours. "But I only use them for dishes where the egg is the focus." Using products in that way helps him create a story around each dish. Another example - North Pond famously uses wild-caught Squab, and waiters have to warn the customers that they may find buckshot on their plates. "Customers love it - it makes them feel like what they are getting is special."

After an hour of working the market in the sun, Chef Sherman headed to his car. The usual loading and unloading spot was taken up by a huge, glossy Mercedes ("Probably some rich woman who wanted to pop in and grab an onion," grumbled Sherman) and after some manuvering and creative parking, we managed to get up to the curb. Boxes filled the trunk and backseat of Sherman's station wagon. After the short drive to North Pond, chefs from the kitchen helped unload the produce, prep it and get it into the restaurants refrigerator. The very next day, at the Green City Market BBQ, some of that produce would make its way back down south, as grilled house-made bologna with apricot jam that had begun its life as whole fruit in a box the day before.