TRENDS| City of Big Shoulders shows signs of becoming a national player in food movement

Chicago Sun Times
By Kevin Nance, Critic-at-Large

Chicago may be the City of Big Shoulders, but it’s also the City of the Cast-Iron Stomach.

The stockyards are gone, but their legacy lingers as a key part of the city’s identity. We’re a steak-lover’s mecca and the birthplace of deep-dish pizza. We eat anything, and lots of it.

And we usually aren’t fussy about food. Chicago has an international reputation for its sophisticated restaurants, but the most enduring image of its culinary culture is probably more closely related to those “Saturday Night Live” skits featuring Chris Farley hawking up sausages from his windpipe.

It’s something of a surprise, then, that Chicago shows signs of becoming a national player in the organic food movement.

With the nation’s only USDA-certified organic retail bakery and one of the few organic pizza restaurants — not to mention the recent rise of caterers and meal-delivery businesses offering meat, dairy and produce free of pesticides and antibiotics — the Windy City is increasingly going against the grain of its own historic relationship to food.

And although the demand for organics is now outstripping supply, the cultural shift hasn’t been easy for some of Chicago’s organic-food pioneers.

“We’re a cow town,” says caterer Greg Christian, who started the first organic lunch program in Chicago Public Schools, only to withdraw in August after accusing CPS officials of being insufficiently supportive. “We’re tough, we do what we’ve always done, and we’re proud of it. But that pride gets in our way. When you threaten people by suggesting that what they’ve been doing isn’t the best for their family — that they should look at the possibility that organic food could be more positive — they freak out in this town.”

Many lower-level employees at the corporations for whom Christian caters events don’t get it, he says.

“They just look at me and go, ‘Why would I buy something locally grown, or organic anything?’ ” he says.

Chef Joshua Grabowsky, founder of Busypeople Inc. — which operates an organic meal-delivery service and organic lunch and enrichment programs for several local private schools — sees his company’s current rapid growth as a kind of delayed reaction to traditional attitudes about food.

“The meatlocker, the ironclad belly — all that stuff is definitely true,” Grabowsky says. “One of our goals is to bring organic food to the masses, but to do that we have to give it a different name. If you ask a lot of people here what ‘organic’ means, three out of five would say vegetarian food when, of course, that’s not the case. To me it’s pretty simple. All those chemicals and pesticides — do you really want that on your food?”

‘An ongoing battle’
Increasingly, the answer is no, even though organic foods typically cost significantly more than their conventionally produced counterparts.

Within the next 12 months, Grabowsky expects to substantially expand his business, which he operates with another chef, Jonas Falk. Their meal-delivery service, OrganicLife, is projected to mushroom from serving about 100 homes a week to about 1,000 in that period, while Max’s Organic Planet, their school program now serving four area schools, will likely triple in size.

There are now dozens of Chicago restaurants that regularly incorporate organic and/or locally grown items into their menus. Two establishments within a few blocks of each other — Bleeding Heart Bakery, 2018 W. Chicago, and Crust, 2056 W. Division — are all-organic, and have been enthusiastically welcomed in the past two years.

“Education is still the biggest problem, and every day it’s an ongoing battle,” says Valentine “Vinny” Garcia, a native Chicagoan who owns and operates Bleeding Heart with his wife, Michelle, who recently received the American Culinary Federation 2007 Pastry Chef of the Year award for the Midwest region. “But it’s been great for us here.”

In fact, he says, the Garcias initially thought about opening their bakery in some other city, “but we both felt we had the best chance for success here in Chicago. We wouldn’t stand a chance trying to do this in Sheboygan [Wisconsin] or somewhere in Iowa.”

For one thing, Garcia says, it’s a simple question of Chicago’s larger population, which translates to a greater number of people who understand the benefits of organics.

“There were always stubborn people here, still are and always will be,” he says. “On the other hand, one in three people have diabetes, one in five have foodborne allergies and they’re beginning to understand that a lot of the really bad stuff — preservatives, hydrogenated oils — are in baked goods. More and more people are aware, and they’re searching for our product.”

‘Consciousness rising’
They’re finding it, more and more. Business is so boffo, in fact, that Bleeding Heart plans to expand late next month. It will move its baking facility to 1955 W. Belmont, while transforming its current location on Chicago into a cafe — all-organic, naturally.

Overall, the change in attitudes about organic food is slow but sure. Christian sees a cumulative effect of factors such as the increasing popularity of farmers markets and Gov. Blagojevich’s plan, signed off in August, to convene a task force to foster a locally produced organic food system in the state.

“I think there’s some consciousness rising in Chicago,” Christian says. “There are Whole Foods popping up everywhere, a local food system is coming. Things are starting to shift. We’re stubborn, but we’re human, and there’s a warmth to the place. It’ll come around.”

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