Chef Paul Fehribach To Revive Great Lakes Food Culture

| 6/6/2013 10:39:00 AM

Paul FehribachFor Paul Fehribach, Good Food isn’t just about taste. Good Food, cooking, and running a restaurant are about history, food politics, and sustainability as much as they’re about taste and business sense. I sat down with him recently at his buzzing Andersonville, Ill., restaurant, Big Jones, to learn what drives him, and what’s behind his two new business prospects: a low-key, Southern inspired po’boy and butcher shop, and a tavern and brewery offering Midwestern farmhouse cooking.

Fehribach is a font of knowledge about the history of the American food system, and American regional cuisine. Big Jones plays on that knowledge in a big way. From the maps of the South adorning the walls, to a menu dotted with mentions of local family farms, heirloom crop varieties, and even the dates of origin for some of his signature recipes, Big Jones is a restaurant with a serious sense of place.

That sense of place, as well as a concern for sustainability, drives both of Fehribach’s new business plans as well. The project he’s most excited about, a Midwestern tavern and brewery sourcing 100% local ingredients, will delve even further into history. Tentatively titled Nonesuch, after one of Johnny Appleseed’s famous antique cider apples, the restaurant will feature what Fehribach calls “proud Midwestern farmhouse cooking.”

Midwestern food, for many of us, conjures up images of hot dogs, Kraft American cheese, and maybe an apple pie, but our region certainly doesn’t have a reputation for culinary greatness. “There’s just not as much history here,” Fehribach says. While the varied regional cuisines of the South developed for centuries before the rise of processed food and our country’s mass exodus from the farm and the kitchen, the Midwest wasn’t quite so lucky. “By the time my hometown had 1000 people in it you’re starting to see cookbooks have recipes that call for Jell-O brand gelatin…Things just start to fall apart,” he says.

Even though we may not have a rich culinary past to boast about, Fehribach’s family history gives him a unique window into what once made Midwestern cooking distinctive. Life on his family’s five-generation farmstead in Indiana revolved around food. “Grandma had a pantry the size of this room and a four acre garden. They had a milk cow, a couple of pigs, and some egg layers…Then there were the woods out back where they could hunt and forage,” he says. “That was what they ate… It would have never occurred to them to turn over their food security to a transnational corporation.”

Fehribach wants to bring some of those old ways back. “Eating here isn’t exactly the same as eating in my grandparents’ farm kitchen would have been,” he says of Big Jones, “but we try to still be true to the spirit of it.”

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