Rick Bayless knew what he wanted after doing book research in Mexico around 30 years ago: Start a restaurant that served authentic Mexican food. So the Chicago chef opened Frontera Grill, which earned a James Beard Foundation award as Outstanding Restaurant in 2007.
His biggest challenge wasn’t finding the perfect music, art or menu ideas. It was finding excellent ingredients. “Wherever there is great food, there is great local agriculture,” he noticed, while in Mexico. Not so in Chicago.
The best strawberries, for example, were “too small and fragile” for food purveyors to transport, “so nobody carried them.” He and wife Deann would buy berries from two farmstands in southwest Michigan, “but I felt like we were doing window dressing” because most restaurant ingredients were commodity products.
When he met Bill Warner and Judy Hageman of Snug Haven Farm, near Belleville in southern Wisconsin, he fell for the farm’s spinach. It grew year-round, thanks to a hoop house.
“More,” the chef pleaded, but the farmers were operating at capacity. To expand the harvest, they’d need another hoop house. The investment, around $10,000, was their stumbling block but Frontera’s opportunity.
Rick gave the farm the money and was paid back in spinach, a win-win deal that continues today with other Midwest farmers. Frontera Farmer Foundation since 2003 has raised and distributed about $2 million to small, family-owned farms in the Midwest. This year’s recipients include four Wisconsin farmers. Each received $12,000 or less. Here is what they are doing with the money.
Dorothy’s Grange, Blanchardville, is restoring a hog barn, “which will help the piglet survival rate and expand the availability of endangered breeds of pigs.
Gravel Road Farm, Waupaca, is constructing a new packing shed for its produce to be cleaned, packed and stored.
Olden Produce, Ripon, is building a new shed for cold storage, loading and processing. Two greenhouses will be retrofitted with solar heat storage.
Turnip Rock, Clear Lake, is explanding its barn, to increase the number of cows, the animals’ comfort and cleanliness.
“The grant we received gave us the assistance and encouragement to proceed with new opportunities on our family farm,” says Rink DaVee of Shooting Star Farm, Mineral Point, which grows organic vegetables sold at farmers’ markets. The foundation helped him in 2004.
“By helping, we keep them on the farm and enhance the quality of life for everyone,” Rick says.
Frontera Farmer Foundation raises its money during the “Dinner Like No Other” annual event, a six-course meal and silent auction at Frontera Grill, 445 N. Clark St., Chicago. Past auction items have included hotel-restaurant packages and a trip for two to accompany Frontera staff on their annual trip to Mexico.
A date for the 2017 fundraiser has not been set yet. rickbayless.com/foundation, 312-661-1434
Rick Bayless recently accepted the 2016 Julia Child Award from the legendary cook’s Foundation for Gastronomy and the Culinary Arts. The chef-humanitarian also recently donated items to the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. He has written nine cookbooks, created a line of Mexico-inspired foods and opened seven restaurants.
Among his newest restaurants is Cruz Blanca Cerveceria, a taqueria brewpub, and it is one stop on a Feb. 25-26 Chicago Beer Tour with motorcoach transportation from Wisconsin. Departure points are Madison and Milwaukee.
The Hop Head Tours excursion involves six breweries, one distillery and Binny’s Beverage Depot (a liquor superstore billed as the biggest in the Midwest). A beer-paired brunch at Haymarket Brewpub and “adult daycare room” visit at Lagunitas Chicago Brewery are other highlights.
Hop Head narration focuses on beer and alcohol history and heritage. The company, whose tours began in 2010, also routinely offers tours in and between Madison and Milwaukee.
The Chicago Beer Tour costs $365, which includes lodging in the West Loop, transportation, tours and the beer brunch. Deadline for reservations is Jan. 11; the max is 40 participants. hopheadtours.com, 608-467-5707
Stay tuned to buffet-go.com, a West Coast effort to have less food end up in landfills. Participating restaurants opt to sell take-out boxes of buffet leftovers at a deep discount. The only Midwest participant, at this time, is Hilton’s Oak Brook Hills Resort and Conference Center in suburban Chicago, which recently charged $5 for a box of breakfast buffet leftovers. Questions? 818-835-7085
This project and many others were a part of this month’s Food Tank Summit, which drew nonprofit groups, farmers, researchers and foodies to Chicago. The nonprofit Food Tank aims to lessen hunger and obesity as it nurtures food networks that are environmentally good and accessible to all. foodtank.com, 202-590-1037
One example: Farmer’s Fridge, new vending machines in Chicagoland that are made of reclaimed wood and sell jars of healthy and fresh breakfast items (almond butter oatmeal), snacks (maple-chili nut mix) and other items. For November, that includes a mix of squash and shaved brussels sprouts, Thai salad with coconut chicken, avocado BLT salad, shrimp-succotash salad, a hash of sweet potato and kale.
Kiosks are planned for at least two dozen locations, contents are emptied daily, and leftovers go to food pantries. farmersfridge.com, 312-229-0099
The Tuesday after Thanksgiving is “Giving Tuesday,” a reminder to do something to give back to charities and causes that matter to you. Follow #GivingTuesday on Twitter for inspiration or to document how you are making the world a better place.
Americans waste about one-third of all food produced for consumption, and holiday time is a prime time for getting carried away with cooking, baking and too many leftovers. Danielle Nierenberg, Food Tank president, shares this advice to avoid waste:
Plan ahead. When preparing several dishes for a crowd, each person will not need a full portion of each offering.
Use what you have. Take stock of ingredients on hand, before buying groceries. Fridgely is an app that helps record and track what is in the refrigerator.
Rescue discarded “waste.” Learn to repurpose food. Examples: Stale bread makes great croutons. Cooked turkey giblets add flavor to gravy. Simmered meat bones and veggie tops and skins turn into soup stock.
Allow guests to serve themselves. Buffets and family-style meals help minimize food waste. So do smaller plates.
Store food properly after the meal. Do not leave hot or cold foods at room temperature more than two hours.
Love your leftovers. Know how much your family is likely to eat. Provide containers for guests to take home the rest, or share it with others who are in need.