Two-Day Chefs Summit Unites Farmers, Fishers, and Celebrity Cooks

After an eight-year hiatus, the Boston-based Chefs Collaborative hosted a two-day summit in Chicago, where activities included trips to the aquarium and the farmer's market.

By Jenny Berg September 17, 2009, 4:37 PM EDT

Chefs Collaborative National Summit
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On Tuesday and Wednesday, 160 sustainable-food enthusiasts from around the country convened in Chicago, where the Chefs Collaborative hosted a two-day summit that included educational seminars, farmers' market tours, book signings, and a sustainable seafood reception. Based in Boston, the Chefs Collaborative is a nonprofit network of chefs dedicated to promoting sustainable food systems, and this year's summit was the first since 2001. According to Melissa Kogut, the nonprofit's executive director, the event's restart was the result of the sustainable foods zeitgeist. “There's just a huge, growing interest in this type of agriculture,“ she said. “We figured we'd seize the moment." 

Kogut and her team decided to bring the event to Chicago for a few reasons. First, the Midwest provided a central location for conference attendees: chefs, farmers, and fishermen from around the country. “Also, Chicago is such a vibrant food city. It's where our board chair [Bruce Sherman, chef and partner of North Pond] is located, and it's also where [Frontera Grill owner and celebrity chef] Rick Bayless is—we really wanted to involve him in this,” Kogut said.

To introduce her audience to “basically, all parts of the city,” Kogut arranged for activities to take place in various neighborhoods throughout the summit's two-day run. On Tuesday, the group headed to Kendall College for educational sessions from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. The day started with a Bayless-led plenary session dubbed “Taking Steps on the Path to Sustainability" and segued into smaller sessions that covered topics ranging from butchering to artisanal beers.

At a sustainable seafood reception held at Shedd Aquarium on Tuesday night, tables cloaked in dark-blue linens were scattered with brochures that listed facts about environmentally friendly fishing. Tasting stations offered dishes such as citrus-marinated shrimp and cornmeal-crusted perch with saffron aioli. Local restaurants Naha and Hot Chocolate catered cocktails that incorporated whiskey from Michigan and vodka from Wisconsin. The event's cocktail chatter revealed the group's foodie roots. “He just casually mentioned Red Lobster. I was like, 'Dude, you've set yourself up to be this sustainable seafood guru,'“ one guest scoffed, while on the other side of the room, a woman trilled, “You must meet Sarah from the U.S.D.A.!”

Conference attendees headed to Lincoln Park's Green City Market early Wednesday morning. There, educational sessions and book signings took place under a tent on market grounds, and tours of various stalls offered a look at local produce, meats, cheeses, and flowers. As they toured the market, guests chatted with reps from local farms, and in one heated conversation, chefs discussed the balance of acidity in various types of local cherries. The day, and the summit, wrapped up at an afternoon luncheon and closing session held in the park's Cafe Brauer.

At communal tables set with sunflowers, floury loaves of bread, and jars of local produce, guests listened to closing remarks while they feasted on dishes from a handful of local chefs. Selections included goat cheese cakes with late-summer vegetables from chefs Sarah Stenger and George Bumbaris of Prairie Grass Cafe, Lebanese eggplant and white corn polenta from Naha chef Carrie Nahabedian, and sandwich cookies filled with peach and caramel buttercream from Hot Chocolate pastry chef Mindy Segal.

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