In autumn, our chefs get the pick of the crop. That’s especially true in the heart of the Midwest, where foliage blazes orange, red and yellow; comfort foods find their way from the farm to the table; and even the big city of Chicago rustles with a sweet, countrified spirit.
Checking out the harvest one recent breezy day was Roger Waysok, the new executive chef at South Water Kitchen. Roger wasn’t at a farm, but somewhere pretty similar to one: Green City Market, Chicago’s most buzzed-about outdoor market for local and sustainably grown food. On any given Wednesday or Saturday morning through the end of October, some 50 vendors roll out a cornucopia of fruits, veggies, herbs, meats, homemade canned goods and more.
“I try to go as much as I can, especially this time of year. When I see the shift to fall foods it gets my mind racing,” said Roger as he peered over crates filled with squashes of all colors, shapes and sizes.
South Water Kitchen has a regional American focus, with particular attention going to Midwest flavors – sweet corn, hearty grains like barley and wild rice, and fresh lake fish, for example. Roger’s robust, to-the-point fare falls right in line with the hearty, locally grown foods the chef discovers at Green City Market. So it’s with a special eagerness that Roger dipped in and out of the market’s tents clustered on a grassy stretch of Lincoln Park near the Lincoln Park Zoo and Chicago History Museum.
“I love classic dishes, but I also think you can do creative things with everyday ingredients,” said Roger. He then admitted having a soft spot for celebrated fall flavors like butternut squash, pears, nuts, dried fruits, cinnamon, nutmeg and “the sheer variety of apples out there.”
His passion is shared by many of Chicago’s top chefs who make a pilgrimage to the market part of their weekly routine. Some come to chat with vendors they’ve had relationships with for years. Roger, for example, looked forward to saying hello to the meat purveyors from Slagel Family Farm, who supply South Water Kitchen with pork and sausage.
Roger also turned a watchful eye toward pumpkins, which on that late September day were splayed everywhere around the market. “I’d like to do baby pumpkins stuffed with quinoa and veggies,” he enthused.
It wasn’t long before Roger migrated toward a wooden bin of potatoes. “My family is Irish and we did a lot of boiled red potatoes with corned beef. Now here with all of these different kinds – Adirondack blue, fingerling, Yukon gold – you can’t help but imagine creative ways to cook with them. They can be roasted, fried, sautéed, or made into cakes or chips.”
Roger’s mind was obviously spinning as he wandered on, picking up a bundle of spinach before moving on to fresh, blush-colored turnips. As he shopped, he dished this tip: “Sometimes, you just have to get the ingredients in your hands to see and feel what you could do with them.”
Looks like somebody really knows the meaning of market value.
Pull up a seat at chef Roger Waysok’s table at South Water Kitchen, 225 N. Wabash Ave. (312-236-9300 or southwaterkitchen.com).