Foodtopia: Local, fresh food in Chicago is more complex than it sounds

I. Aperitif
Somewhere between the hamachi crudo appetizer, a dish of raw fish topped with small, crunchy bricks of pork belly and thinly sliced caper berries, and the side dish of green beans in fish sauce, I started to reconsider my previously held belief that I was a good cook. Though I’d long ago graduated from microwaved, canned green beans to sautéed fresh ones in garlic and butter, these string beans were as distinct from the ones I made as mine were from the soggy, canned version. Slightly smoky, tart and salty, covered in mildly biting strands of shallot, and the fish sauce so far from pungent that it hardly merited its name. By the end of the meal, I was convinced that something was going very wrong in my kitchen, because my food never tasted like this.

This, I suppose, was the result of eating at Girl & the Goat, where the chef is a celebrity, and getting a reservation usually requires planning several weeks or months in advance. But even with some of the most skilled chefs at work in the open kitchen, one has to wonder whether the food would be quite so good if it weren’t so fresh. At the bottom of the menu, featured almost as prominently as the dishes, are the producers who work with the restaurant: “We would like to thank all our farmer friends. Nichols — Spence — Seedling — Kilgus — Slagel — Three Sisters — Klug.” The vegetables, dairy, and meat these local companies provide are at the heart of the restaurant’s operations.

“Flavor-wise, it’s a lot of what we do,” said sous chef Cody Ginther of the locally sourced produce. Ginther, who’s been at Girl & the Goat for two-and-a-half years and previously cooked upscale Italian, had not worked with this quality of ingredients before. “There’s a huge difference in flavor. The cauliflower we use—it’s just so different.”

Maybe it’s the crispy, charred Brussels sprouts or the juicy chicken, but I’m inclined to think Ginther might be right. Not to say that the chefs themselves don’t deserve all the accolades they’ve already received, but I didn’t visit the restaurant to evaluate how they transformed ingredients like dirty fingerling potatoes into slightly sour, piquant flavor-bombs (though it was admittedly a nice perk); I came to Girl & the Goat to unravel the opaque web our food follows to get from the farm—or the ocean—to a dinner table.

Locavorism, the movement that espouses eating food from farms near you, has surged in popularity in the past few years. In 2011, a poll by the National Grocers Association found that eighty-five percent of customers chose their grocery store in part based on the availability of regional foods. In the same year, fifty-four of fifty-five U.S. states and territories requested U.S. Department of Agriculture funding for local food projects. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack listed strengthening local food systems as one of the USDA’s four pillars to revitalize rural communities’ economies, and in October, announced $34.3 million in new funding to support local food infrastructure. If it seems like the market is suddenly saturated with restaurants and grocery stores offering “local” or “fresh” foods, that’s because it is. The USDA reported that one thousand five hundred chefs nationally ranked local foods as the industry’s top trend.

But in spite of its popularity, in 2012, only 7.8 percent of U.S. farms were marketing their wares locally, and while the local food movement has seen explosive growth (one example is the number of farmers markets in Cook County, which increased sixty-one percent between 2009 and 2013), it is in no way poised to overtake the market currently controlled by large producers. The vast majority of American consumers do their primary grocery shopping at supercenters like Target and Wal-Mart or at supermarkets, neither of which stock their shelves exclusively with fresh and local produce—though they might feature “farm-to-table” goods more prominently now that it’s clear there’s a market for them. California alone accounts for about half of all U.S.-grown fruits, nuts, and vegetables, and much more of other specific products (ninety percent of all broccoli, ninety-five percent of all garlic, ninety-nine percent of artichokes). Even though Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota, and Iowa are among the top ten agricultural producing states in the country, the majority of food being brought into the city comes from far beyond our backyards.

Considering the national context, Girl & the Goat is an exception, no longer quite so rare as it once was, but still not the norm. Take, for example, McDonald’s, which serves around sixty-nine million people around the world every single day and gets its chicken—at least in the U.S.—from three large-scale suppliers: Tyson, Dorada Foods, and Keystone Foods. Girl & the Goat’s decision to buy from small farms instead of enormous suppliers is reflected in the quality of the restaurant’s food, and it meant my job of sorting out where the ingredients of my meal came from and how they were produced was a straightforward task. But I opted to take the scenic route, variously considering the origins of the same ingredients if I bought them from a local grocery store and whether Chicagoland residents could survive if we only ate locally grown produce (the short answer: tentatively yes, as long as food production increased to meet demand, and consumers were willing to live on canned goods and lots of root vegetables throughout the long winter—and permanently forego bananas, mangos, tuna, and a host of other long-distance products). My journey brought a renewed sense of appreciation for how much work goes into the salad mix in my refrigerator. It forced me to reconsider the products I take for granted.
Walking into a restaurant or a grocery feels like entering a magical food utopia, where uniformly well-formed vegetables and manageable cuts of meat spontaneously appear and are eaten or whisked away to be prepared later. That illusion of simplicity couldn’t be further from the truth. Food belongs to a complex mechanical, biological network that stretches across the entire planet, involving millions of people and machines in the process.

II. Breaking Bread
A basket of rolls, side of breadsticks, loaf of bread that exhales steam when cut open: Nothing seems quite as welcoming as a warm starch to start the meal. At Girl & the Goat, I sampled the bread appetizer with ranch dressing and tomato jelly to get my taste buds revved up, a perfectly delicious precursor to the meal.

The bread and other baked goods served at Girl & the Goat are prepared at their sister restaurant, Little Goat Bakery. As with most of its ingredients, the wheat and rye flour for the dough is locally sourced from Spence Farm, a family farm in Livingston County. Head baker Gina Mangiameli said getting their flours from Spence makes all the difference in the quality of the bread.

The breads for Girl & the Goat are prepared daily by Gina Mangiameli and her staff at sister restaurant Little Goat Diner, which uses grains from Spence Farm in Fairbury, Illinois.

The breads for Girl & the Goat are prepared daily by Gina Mangiameli and her staff at sister restaurant Little Goat Diner, which uses grains from Spence Farm in Fairbury, Illinois.

“We look for high minerality counts because it makes more lively dough, and the commodity flour [the type found at a supermarket] is practically unusable,” Mangiameli said. “Marty [one of the farmers at Spence] will cover up a crop or something if the soil needs it. They pay a lot of attention to everything; they just kind of understand what the grains need, and they get everything milled real locally near them.”

Going the extra mile for a flavorful loaf of bread makes all the difference when consumers have palates that are accustomed to bland starches filled with preservatives and sugars. In America, the grain consumption is about two hundred twenty pounds per person per year, coming in the form of pasta, bread, breakfast cereal, and other products.

Carbohydrates make up around fifty percent of our diets, and despite the popularity of low-carb diets, like the “Paleo,” far more Americans go out of their way to avoid fat than they do to avoid carbohydrates, found a 2014 Gallup poll. We like our sandwiches, our cereals, our pizza, and  our pasta dishes too much to give them up. If they are made with more flavorful, locally grown wheat and rye, so much the better.

That comes at a price, of course. Relying on the best ingredients from small farms often makes the process harder for restaurants. “We worry about a lot of stuff with them,” Mangiameli said. “Once their crop comes up, if it rains too hard, they drown and turn poisonous. So they have to, once they dry, get them sent off and tested for a couple kinds of chemicals.”

Sous chef Ginther agreed that the quick coming and going of seasons in the Midwest can be a challenge, especially in the winter. “We ran a grape bread, and usually, we run breads for a month or so,” Ginther said. “For this one, only one grape would work, and its season was a week-and-a-half. So we had to cut off that bread after a week-and-a-half.”

When critics make arguments about the feasibility of moving away from large-scale industrial farming to more local producers, these are the problems to which they often refer. One outspoken opponent of the local food movement is economist Steven Sexton. “Because ideal growing conditions and crop sensitivity to deviations from optimal conditions vary by crop, different regions enjoy comparative advantage in different crops,” Sexton wrote in a 2009 paper for the Giannini Foundation of Agricultural Economics. “It is unlikely the benefits of locavorism are as substantial as has been asserted, and it is possible they are dwarfed by the costs of less efficient production and reduced access to nutritious foods.”

The conclusion that Sexton and other academics have come to is that local producers are a key part of the market, but they’re not the foundation on which it stands. As long as there is a market for those goods, there will be producers. But don’t expect all your grocery store purchases to be labeled “grown in Illinois” soon—especially not if you like strawberry smoothies in December or banana bread at any time of the year.

Freshly trimmed tuna rests on a prep-room shelf at Fortune Fish & Gourmet, which, out of Bensenville, processes much of the Midwest’s seafood. (Photo by Joe Coughlin)

Freshly trimmed tuna rests on a prep-room shelf at Fortune Fish & Gourmet, which, out of Bensenville, processes much of the Midwest’s seafood. (Photo by Joe Coughlin)

III. Fruits of the Sea
The raw, thinly sliced hamachi (the Japanese name for Pacific yellowtail) topped with microgreens and pork belly was about as different from the seared scallop with Brussels sprouts as two seafood dishes could get. One cold, raw, light, perfectly reminiscent of summer on the beach; the other warm, rich, earthy, the epitome of a fall meal. At the center of both dishes were pieces of protein that were once part of organisms that lived in the ocean, far from the city of Chicago.
If there’s any obvious exception to Girl & the Goat’s locavore leanings, it’s their seafood offerings. Lake Michigan is a mere two miles from the restaurant and teems with walleye, lake whitefish, lake trout, and other edible species, yet in sous chef Ginther’s memory, the menu has never featured products from the lake while he’s been at the restaurant. “[Executive chef] Stephanie Izard uses a lot of international flavors—Latin, Asian, Indian, Moroccan. Maybe she just doesn’t want the flavors from the fish here,” Ginther suggested.

Instead of coordinating with local fishers, Girl & the Goat gets its mollusks, bivalves, cephalopods, and gilled vertebrates from distributor Fortune Fish & Gourmet. Located in Bensenville near O’Hare Airport, Fortune is the largest seafood distributor in the area. Around four hundred fifty thousand pounds of seafood pass through its facility every week, not to mention all the specialty and gourmet products it distributes. Its catalogue includes everything from Spanish blood sausage to Acacia honey with black summer truffles.

As a distribution company, Fortune is the middleman between fisheries and chefs or grocers. Though Fortune employees don’t catch the seafood, they do clean, cut, and package it, which means their warehouse is compartmented, featuring a room for unloading and weighing incoming products; a room for storing the pre-processed fish until they’re ready to be cut and packaged; a room for descaling, deboning, and cutting the fish; a room to store bags of oysters, mussels, and clams, plus a tank that can hold up to three thousand pounds of live lobster; and a freezer that holds frozen fish and specialty meats. All rooms are kept at specific temperatures and humidity levels to ensure the products stay fresh and sanitary.

The entire operation runs twenty-four hours a day, six days a week, with trucks departing as early (or late, depending on how you look at it) as one a.m. with shipments of seafood for restaurants and stores. Fortune supplies all the Whole Foods Markets in the Midwest and many more restaurants and specialty grocery stores. In addition to their truck transportation routes (which extend to St. Louis, Indianapolis, Green Bay, Detroit, and soon, Kansas City), Fortune has a flying fish program that transports seafood to locations across the country and as far away as the California coast. Since eighty percent of the products it ships are fresh, the seafood generally moves through the facility in a matter of days, followed along the way by a tag system that lets buyers know when and where the product was caught or harvested. Whatever waste is left from slicing up the fish goes to a pet food company.

It sounds counterintuitive, but many think Midwest living is ideal for seafood consumption. “What’s great about living in the Midwest is we’re in the middle of everything,” said Stacy Schultz, the marketing manager and sustainability coordinator at Fortune. “We get not only the stuff that’s from the Great Lakes, but we get East and West coasts, so it’s kind of like the seafood mecca that no one realizes.”

As the size and scale of Fortune’s operation suggest, moving seafood from sea to land is a large production—and one with a high consumer demand. The U.S. is the world’s third largest consumer of fish and shellfish, behind only China and Japan, and much of what we eat is imported. Aquaculture, or farmed fish, accounts for more than fifty percent of all seafood produced for human consumption, yet American aquaculture (fresh and marine) meets only five to seven percent of the country’s demand. Fortune, which imports fifty percent of its seafood and splits the other half about evenly between four regions (East Coast, Gulf of Mexico, Great Lakes, and West Coast), sells sixty percent more farmed seafood than wild caught, though that number varies by season.

“I definitely think we are going to be seeing a lot more farm-raised fish,” Schultz said. “There’s gonna be a big boom in the middle class in China, and they use a lot of seafood. The population is gonna get larger to begin with, so we’re gonna have that need for farmed seafood even more than we do now.”

Schultz, who has a background in marine biology and previously worked at the Shedd Aquarium, has no trouble squaring her early affinity for sea creatures with the fact that her company is now selling them to be eaten. “I talk to the buyers about our purchasing and sustainably sourcing, and I work with our NGO partners on messaging, and if we don’t have a product to sell to someone, they don’t buy it,” Schultz said. “If we have only good, sustainable products and we’re buying from great sources, that’s what everybody is buying from us. So really, the best way to make a difference in the industry is in the distribution.”

Of course, they might have to carry fish that are less sustainably sourced because a customer requests it, Schultz added, but they try to find suppliers who are doing a good job for the product.
At the end of the day, Schultz wants to see people eating more fish that has been sustainably produced and doesn’t have a negative impact on the environment because it’s healthy for people and for the world. “If you look at the farming footprint for a cow or even a chicken, the food conversion ratio of what you put in to what you get out is way more than seafood. This is going to be a valuable resource,” Schultz said. She happily eats seafood three or four times per week.

IV. Broccoli, Beans, and Other Green Things
In addition to the vegetable dishes I had at Girl & the Goat, which featured broccoli and green beans, the meat and seafood also came accompanied with their share of produce: Brussels sprouts, tomatoes, microgreens, and fingerling potatoes. The restaurant works with Klug Farm, Seedling Fruit, Three Sisters, Spence Farm, and Nichols Farm and Orchard to supply it with many of the fresh fruits and vegetables that play a prominent role in the menu. Delivery trucks drop by on a daily basis, battling traffic and bad weather so they can unload crates of fruits and vegetables.

Todd Nichols, whose parents started Nichols Farm and Orchard in Marengo, Illinois, as a hobby, has grown up with the local food movement. He helped his small family farm expand beyond the farmers markets that originally accounted for ninety-five percent of its sales. Some of the customers Todd’s parents had when he was just a kid are still buying fruits and vegetables from the farm. Though it remains true to its original mission of providing seasonal, fresh ingredients, the farm’s business has exploded since it first began as a backyard hobby spread over ten acres. Today, the farm covers three hundred acres, filled with one thousand different fruits and vegetables, including more than two hundred varieties of apples.
“You drive around our farm and it’s like a victory garden of everything you can grow,” Nichols said. “To grow everything is kind of like the backbone of our business model.”

The model—growing a vast variety of crops and experimenting each year—is a stark contrast to farmers who grow hundreds of acres of one product, like almonds, broccoli, or corn. “The guys who really grow a lot of product out west or down south, that grow eight hundred acres of watermelon or one hundred or two hundred acres of pepper, that’s a phenomenal amount,” Nichols said. His family’s operation offers both risks and reward. Every year, there are some failures, some successes, and a lot of diversity, which means they’re constantly learning about how to be better horticulturists.

Despite what popular media might have you believe about the rise of big-business farming, farms around the size of Nichols account for far and away the majority of farms in the United States. Farms earning less than one million dollars a year accounted for 95.8 percent of all farming operations in the country; those earning less than fifty thousand dollars made up seventy-five percent of that number. The problem isn’t that we’re losing small family farms; it’s that the value of agricultural products is concentrated at the very top four percent of farms. Those highest earners account for sixty-six percent of market sales, according to a 2012 USDA Census of Agriculture.

There’s no good way for Nichols Farm to compete with enormous growers, at least not if it’s trying to play the same game. Such large producers sell their products in bulk to grocery stores, which expect produce to look uniform and be priced at a certain level. For Nichols, that wouldn’t be cost-effective. Though they have sold to Whole Foods in the past, most of their sales come from selling to farmers markets and restaurants like Girl & the Goat, where customers are willing to pay more because they appreciate the quality and the human connection to their food. “Things that we do great are things that are harder to get, like squash blossoms and baby squash,” Nichols said. They’ve also grown fava beans, globe artichokes, edible gourds, and Korean melons.

Of course, sometimes even shoppers at farmers markets aren’t interested in the more unusual produce. That’s when Nichols Farm relies on its CSA members. Community-sponsored agriculture is like an insurance program for farmers. Interested consumers sign up and pay for produce at the beginning of the farming season. They then receive a weekly or biweekly share of goods over the next several months. There’s no knowing what exactly will be in the produce delivery every week. There might be something as recognizable as heirloom tomatoes and as exotic-looking as kohlrabi. Nichols says he would like to expand the CSA program, because it’s an opportunity to introduce buyers to unusual produce that might not otherwise find a home.

In the end, though, people don’t want to be limited to produce that’s seasonal, and there aren’t enough greenhouses in Chicago to keep us supplied with strawberries and tomatoes year-round. That’s where distributors like Testa Produce come into play.

The problem isn’t that we’re losing small family farms; it’s that the value of agricultural products is concentrated at the very top four percent of farms.

The mid-range distributor works in much the same way that Fortune Fish & Gourmet do, except that its focus is produce (though it also sells a number of other products, including packaged goods, decorative items like fall leaves and wheat stalks, and turkey sausage). Testa buys goods from producers, be they small, local farmers, or larger companies like Del Monte, brings them to its warehouse on the South Side of Chicago, stores the goods until an order is placed by a buyer, then delivers the product to the buyer. Every week anywhere from ten to twenty-five trucks packed with goods arrive at the facility, some carrying goods from as far away as Mexico, others with products from Michigan and Illinois. The company stocks about thirty percent of products locally in the summertime; though that number falls to ten percent over the winter. California, Mexico, and Florida are the big suppliers throughout the year.

“The local interest in where your food comes from has definitely got much better,” CEO Peter Testa said. “It’s gotten to the point where people are asking questions—where does my food come from, and how are they bringing it?”
Testa believes these questions are essential if consumers want high-quality products that won’t make them sick. He cited the recent case of Stewart Parnell, a former CEO of the Peanut Corporation of America who knowingly shipped out peanuts tainted with salmonella in 2008. It led to the deaths of nine people and the illness of seven hundred fourteen others.

“That mentality has got to stop,” Testa said. “When you know something is wrong, you’ve got to say it’s wrong. Certain companies will do shortcuts because nobody is watching,”

Food safety is a major concern for Testa, and it’s something he worries about even with smaller farmers. They need to be held to the same standards, he argued, and consumers should be cognizant of those issues even if they are buying locally. Another concern is the rise of AmazonFresh and grocery delivery companies.

“How are they going to transfer meat or fish or something that’s frozen?” Testa said. “Are you just going to leave it on their stoop? It wouldn’t be surprising to see more people get sick if that were to happen.”

V. The Meat of the Matter
At the center of my meal at Girl & the Goat was a chicken dish, served drenched in a fermented tofu sauce and surrounded by potatoes. It was the best chicken I’d tasted in ages—juicy and tender, its natural flavor mixing well with the smoky, tangy sauce. The item, Grilled Walter’s Chicken, is only one of a number of meat options on the menu, probably less well-known than the restaurant’s roasted pig face or the whole leg of goat you can order in advance. Before opening the restaurant, executive chef Stephanie Izard developed a relationship with the meat producers at Kilgus so she’d always have high-quality goat meat, and started working with Slagel, which sell cows, chickens, sheep, goats, and turkeys. Between the two family operations, the restaurant is kept well-supplied.

Despite both farms’ reputations for quality and the number of stores and restaurants their products appear in (Eataly, Green Grocer, The Purple Pig, XOCO, Intelligentsia Coffee, Publican), neither is any match for the large-scale operations that can hold more than thirty-two thousand cattle in one feedlot and account for forty percent of fed cattle in the country. Kilgus has only one hundred fifty dairy cows, plus a number of other animals raised for meat.
“We weren’t really interested in milking five hundred or a thousand cows, and we felt to remain a viable family farm, we had to look at other means of growing our income,” said Matt Kilgus, who works on the dairy operation at Kilgus. That’s why the family expanded into Jersey beef, Berkshire pork, and Boer goat meat on top of the sixty-five hundred gallons of milk produced at its farm each week.

Neither Kilgus nor Slagel are going to overhaul the market dominated by producers like Cargill, Tyson, JBS, and National Beef, which together in 2011 controlled eighty percent of all the cattle slaughtered for beef. Instead, customers like Girl & the Goat come to the two farms for superior meat and for animals that have been sustainably and humanely raised. It’s the latter of those criteria that usually earns the most discussion. For all that Homo sapiens have in much higher capacities of cognition, it’s impossible to avoid that cows, pigs, goats, and even chickens experience stress, suffering, and pain.
According to the North American Meat Institute, the U.S. meat industry is the largest part of the agricultural sector. In 2013, it processed (“processed” being the euphemism for butchered) 8.6 billion chickens, 239.4 million turkeys, one hundred twelve million hogs, and 33.2 million cattle, producing a total of 93.2 billion pounds of meat. To put that number in perspective, the weight of the Great Pyramid of Giza is around eight billion pounds. Had the ancient Egyptians been using one year’s worth of American meat instead of granite stones to construct the pyramid, they could’ve made eleven full-sized meat pyramids.

It’s an admittedly gruesome image, but if closely observed, the meat industry often induces a certain amount of repugnance. Animals are often caged in close confines, at times standing in their own excrement, overdosed with antibiotics, and fed growth hormones so they can be slaughtered sooner. The toxic gases and dusts produced by industrial farm animal production facilities have been linked to upper respiratory diseases in workers and can cause health problems for nearby communities. Runoff from the facilities carries pesticides, antibiotics, and heavy metals. The ration of fossil energy to meat products can be as high as thirty-five to one. Trading the convenience of cheap meat produced in industrial facilities for the higher cost of local, sustainably raised meat is something more and more people are willing to do.
If you have the time to consider meat origins and the luxury to afford this-animal-was-probably-happy-during-its-lifetime products, knowing your hamburger was made from a well-treated cow can go a long way toward assuaging your conscience. Better flavor with less guilt make for a fine dining experience.

VI. Digestif
When I finished my meal at Girl & the Goat, my stomach was full to bursting. When I finished my voyage through the largely invisible network of Chicago’s food infrastructure, my brain was full to bursting. Food is a massive industry in the city, generating an almost incalculable amount of money each day (distributor Peter Testa guesses all the food coming into the city is worth five to seven billion dollars).

Food products play a unique role in the marketplace, as both valuable commodity and essential source of survival. Its value is apparent no matter how you measure it: Ten percent of the total U.S. energy budget goes toward producing and shipping food. Fifty percent of U.S. land and eighty percent of freshwater consumed in the country are used for it. We see commercials for food on our assortment of screens, we discuss diets with friends and coworkers, we sit down for daily meals with our families. Food is, perhaps more than any other pillar of society, the organizing principle of our lives. And while local food is not going to solve all the problems linked to industrial farming, the movement has started a conversation that’s important and even necessary.

“I think what I’m starting to see now is we’re on the cusp of having consumers start to understand the value of paying for quality,” said Jill Moorhead, who’s worked in restaurants, as a marketing director of a small chain of grocery stores, and for a distribution company. “The market does what consumers want. If people are demanding quality, then I think that’s good for people who care about the food system.”

Quality, as Girl & the Goat proves, is an important part of the local discussion—but so, too, is quantity. The population is growing, and the world will have more people to feed than ever. Since the U.S. is one of the world’s biggest producers of agricultural commodities, any decrease in the amount of food we produce would have consequences for the rest of the world.

There are no definitive answers to issues of water and energy usage, food safety, and the ethics of eating meat. It can be hard to have a rational discussion because of all the money involved. But despite the complexity of the current food system, the havoc it sometimes wreaks on the natural landscape, and the policy problems it poses, every person I spoke to—no matter the size of their business or their role in the system—was optimistic for the future.
“To feed the world takes bigger farms to accomplish,” Matt Kilgus said. But, he added, “There’s a nice place for people like us.”

About the author

The Ohio native is a new Chicagoan, arriving with a master’s in journalism from Columbia University to go with a bachelor’s in creative writing from Miami University. Her narrative nonfiction book, “The Last Voyageurs,” was published in early 2016.

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