30 08 2011

It’s amazing to think that no matter how old you are, food is always a part of your life.  Everybody has to eat.  People gather around food all over the world to bond, celebrate, catch-up, share remorse and make memories.  In certain cultures, life  revolves around food gatherings.  Last night I was reminded of this.  It warmed my heart and made me realize why I love what I do and how it does make a difference to some people.

I was given Sylvia’s number over a month ago.  A client of mine told me her mother’s friend was looking for a caterer.  I gave Sylvia a ring the next day and the sweetest woman answered the phone.  Her soft and gentle voice was a focused on the task at hand: feeding her family for her son’s birthday party.  She explained,” I am getting bids from several caterers in the city for my grandchildren. They are throwing a big party for their father.  They are so busy with their lives, I told them I would do the research for them.”  I could feel Sylvia’s sense of purpose over the phone.  It literally softened my heart to think that an older woman was taking on the role of a party planner.  We spoke for a good 20 minutes and I told her I’d call her back with a price quote.

When I called Sylvia back, the dynamic on the phone was a bit different.  It took her a moment to get situated as she found a pen, paper and asked me to speak slowly.  She explained that she was getting older but her brain was very sharp.  When I told Sylvia my catering fees and suggested some appetizers for the party, she was overjoyed.  She cautioned me that the party would have to be “Kosher-style” and asked me if I knew what that meant.  I told her I was Jewish and mentioned that I had several friends that keep Kosher.  This put Sylvia over the edge.  The questions came pouring out, “Where are you from?  What is your favorite Jewish food?   Do you eat Nova lox? Who is your rabbi? Are you single?

I decided from that moment on, I loved Sylvia.  She was absolutely shameless, without being insulting.  Sylvia declared, “You will cater this party.  I can’t wait for you to speak to my granddaughter!”  The next line out of her mouth took the cake.  “Now Kasey, you have to understand as a 60 year old, my family really loves food, so your food must be great.  Also, my granddaughter is very busy.  She is a doctor and has a baby.  But I assure you she is a wonderful host.”  I paused for a few seconds, smiled from ear to ear, took a breath, and confessed to Sylvia that I was not 60 years old.  She did not understand.  She said, ” Well how old are you then.  You seem too professional to be younger than 60?”  I told her I was 30.  Sylvia became utterly flustered.  She just couldn’t believe I was as young as her granddaughter. I thanked her and immediately asked,” Well how old are you Sylvia?”  She answered, ” Dear, I am 92 years old live in a nursing home.  You need to speak louder.”

That was probably the best party planning moment of my life.  My client thought I was thirty years older than my age and I thought she was thirty years younger.  I guess, it really didn’t matter.  We both came together around the topic of food with passion, focus and joy.

The highlight of the event last night was meeting this amazing matriarch.  Sylvia walked into the party and everyone stopped speaking.  Regardless of the fact that she was 4ft, tall and had a fabulous white hairdo, you could feel that Sylvia was the most respected person in the family.  She came right up to me with her granddaughter and introduced herself.  We embraced with a huge hug and she whispered in my ear, “Kasey, so lovely to meet you.  You really pulled it off darling.”

Minutes later her granddaughter came over to me smiling.  She said Sylvia wanted a detailed description of what I looked like.  She was blind as a bat and just wanted to make sure I was not “12 years old”.


Urban Farming

19 08 2011

Have any of you have heard of the term “farm to table” eating?  Born and raised in Chicago, I had no idea what that term meant.  When I moved to San Francisco and worked at a restaurant where the farmers literally knocked on our door to sell us the freshest ingredients they picked that morning, I finally understood.  I was shocked by the honest taste of a fresh fig, a juicy peach, romaine lettuce or a clove of garlic.  The apples weren’t shiny from supermarket wax and the lettuce wasn’t shimmering from the supermarkets sprinklers, but let me tell you, the flavors of the farmers products were unbelievably delicious.

All summer I have yearned to find that special connection with food in Chicago.  Yes, I go the local farmers markets and I have tried great produce,  but something has been lacking for me.  First of all, the markets are always swarmed with so many people, it seems like the food runs out before 11am (the time I usually wake up on Saturday).  Most importantly, I never  get the chance to talk to the farmers.  In San Francisco, the farmers would hang out at their stands and proudly tell you stories about their week of harvest, what foods were coming up in the next few weeks and secret tricks about how they cook their vegetables.  I never realized how important connecting with farmers became to me.  I realize now, I am a sucker for stories.  I actually care about why the tomatoes are not here until August and why specific farms choose to grow certain vegetables.   I realize this information gives my cooking meaning.

This week I found what I have been looking for in Chicago.  I was riding my bike from the lakefront to Wicker Park and I saw this big plot of land, surrounded by fencing with a colorful signs advertising vegetables and farming.  Right on Division and Clybourn street, an area I drive by almost every day, I found “City Farm”…..my new obsession in the city.

City Farm is a functional and high-producing farm smacked right in the middle of the old Cabrini-Green and the Gold Coast.  Professional farmers and volunteers come together to plant, harvest and sell incredible vegetables, herbs, and even chicken eggs to restaurants and locals.  I was amazed by the variety of produce the farmers were growing on their simple plot of land.  They had everything from kale, collard greens, exotic lettuces, micro-greens, beets, carrots, over 15 varieties of heirloom tomatoes, to chives, Thai basil, opal basil, parsley, garlic, cippolini onions melons and scallions.  They even have a whole tented garden devoted to peppers: poblano, jalapeno and habanero peppers, grown specifically for Rick Bayless.

The best part of my experience at City Farm were the farmers, who couldn’t be more down-to-earth and helpful.   Nathan, the chef/farmer that helped me, actually took me on a tour of the farm with a crate and pocket knife and literally cut the vegetables from the ground that looked good to me.  He answered all of my questions like, “why don’t you have cucumbers”.  I found out when cucumbers grow they sprawl and take up too much space.  Also, “why was the romaine so wilted”….because its too hot to grow in the summer with Chicago heat.  They decided romaine was better suited to be grown in the winter.    

The whole idea of City Farm is inspiring.  They take advantage of vacant urban land and make it a resource for anyone in the city.  The farm is open to the public Tuesday-Friday from 1:30-5:00PM and on Saturday’s from 10:00-2:00PM.  If your interested in volunteering, you can show up on Wednesday’s or Saturday’s during working hours and lend a hand.   I invite you all to check out this Chicago treasure!