Like many fathers, Sean Patrick Curry was filled with a mixture of hope, love and promise when he held his first-born child.
“All I could think was what could I do for her,” he recalls.
As a professional chef, one thing he knows he can do for his two children, and future generations, is cook food that is grown locally and in sustainable ways. Leaving a smaller carbon footprint is his way of making the world a better place.
Of course, he also wants his children to be proud of his determination to be a chef who cooks responsibly.
Curry, 40, of Naperville, is the executive chef at Chicago Marriott Naperville where he is committed to serving farm-to-table sustainable meals at the hotel’s restaurant, Artisan Table.
During his career, Curry, who has been cooking since 1993 and spent a year in France as an apprentice for L’Essential in Chambray, France, has learned how to find ingredients that are both local and sustainable. He admits the process is sometimes challenging but adds there are many rewards.
He shares several tips for others willing to take a similar culinary commitment.
To begin with, Curry cautions shoppers that naturally grown produce might not be perfect.
“When tomatoes are all the same size and shape and color, that is not natural,” he says. “Corn that is all perfect and uniform is not natural. You have to be flexible and accept that produce that is not genetically modified will not look perfect. The flavors will be amazing, but the tomatoes may not all be the same size.”
He also notes that prices may be higher for locally produced products.
During the summer growing season when farmer’s markets are plentiful, it is easy to find locally grown produce and locally raised dairy and meat products. But during the cold winter months, shopping local can be more of a challenge. Many of the items that are bountiful over the summer can be pickled, dried, frozen or canned to use during the winter. Another option is to learn to eat what is available.
“It is important to plan meals that use seasonal foods when possible,” he says. “This may mean that you can’t have fresh tomatoes in the winter or asparagus for Christmas dinner, but there are many other items that are available, so eat those instead.”
Curry, who completed a culinary arts program at Atlantic City Community College in New Jersey, says the best way to find locally grown foods is to simply ask.
“I always visit the farms to see the operation,” he explains.
He has seen how some farms grow grass all winter to keep their chickens plump and happy. He has seen how sweet potatoes properly stored in a root cellar can look freshly picked.
“The best way to find local sustainable food is to develop a relationship with these farmers,” he says.
For example, his friends at Heritage Prairie Farms in Elgin introduced him to Giles Schnierle of Great American Cheese Collection who sells specialty cheese from Illinois farmers.
“Then Giles tells me about Steve Spoerl who runs Farm Fresh Food Stuffs where a person can order local produce, eggs, meat and dairy online and have it delivered right to your home,” he says.
Curry also is able to find local farm information through Peter Rubi, a Plainfield produce market.
The ability to name the place where your food is produced makes it very personal, Curry says. He admits that some items like coffee do need to be brought in, but even that can be personal.
“I met Jake Elster who grew up in Naperville and co-founded Crop to Cup, a company that brings in sustainable coffee from Uganda,” he says. “One day we were serving his coffee at an event and meeting the people who grew the coffee through Skype.
“There were the farmers up on the screen who grew the coffee we were drinking. Because we serve Crop to Cup coffee at this Marriott, we have changed the demographics of that village in Africa. Now that, that is personal.”
With spring thaws on the horizon, Curry is looking forward to locally grown asparagus, tender baby beets and new crops of sweet lettuce leaves.
“I take pride in being able to tell people where their food comes from,” says Curry, who is a member of the American Culinary Federation and the Slow Foods Movement. “I have more suppliers than the average restaurant, because I have relationships with so many local farmers. They call me and let me know when they have something great to offer. That kind of relationship is worth it.”
Braised Tuscan Kale
2 cups rough chopped Tuscan kale
1/3 cup ciopollini onions
1/4 cup cooked and chopped apple smoked bacon
1/2 tablespoon chopped garlic
1 tablespoon herb oil
1/2 cup beef or veal stock
Rinse kale under cold water, remove midrib, pat dry and rough chop. Set aside. Roast ciopollini onions with skin on for 30 minutes at 375 degrees. Let sit for 10 minutes and then slice the tip of the skin. The peeling should slip off. Chop onions into 1/4-inch pieces. Set aside.
Heat sauté pan to medium high and add herb oil. Immediately add garlic and onions and sauté for a couple seconds. Add precooked bacon and sauté for 2 minutes. Add stock and bring to a simmer. Reduce heat and simmer until reduced by half. Season with sea salt and freshly ground black pepper. Can be finished with 1/2 teaspoon of butter and a squeeze of fresh lemon juice, if desired.
Portabella Mushroom Soup
1/2 cup herb oil
3 tablespoons chopped garlic
1/2 cup chopped shallots
1 cup sherry wine
1 gallon vegetable stock
3 pounds portabella mushrooms
3 pounds cremini mushrooms
2 cups heavy cream
Salt and pepper to taste
Clean mushrooms and roast at 400 degrees for 15 to 30 minutes or until tender. Heat soup pot to medium high heat. Add herb oil, garlic and shallots. Sauté for 2 minutes. Pour in sherry wine and cook until reduced by half. Add mushrooms and cook for 5 minutes until juices start coming out of the mushrooms. Add vegetable stock and simmer till reduced by 20 percent. Heat cream until warm and add. Season with salt and pepper.