Chef Paul Fehribach To Revive Great Lakes Food Culture

Reader Contribution by Lily Baker Of Familyfarmed.Org
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For 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.”

House specialties at Nonesuch will include old style cured meats, sausages, locally grown produce, and a host of local brews. “My grandparents would take oats and barley, boil them into a mush, lay them out and bake them into cakes and throw ‘em in a barrel,” he says. “Then you throw a bunch of persimmons in there, fill it with water and let it rot. You come back in six months and you drink it, and it’s awesome!”

If that sounds too weird to you, I’d suggest tasting anything that comes out of the kitchen at Big Jones. Paul Fehribach says it’s great, and call me crazy, but I’m willing to trust him.

Given the success of Big Jones, he’s hoping that people will be open to trusting him on a few other unusual ideas as well “I want to do a Great Lakes Foodshed restaurant…to show people that it can be done,” he says. “The Good Food movement, right now… is still very much tied to a lot of exotic ingredients.” The Mediterranean diet, with its focus on olive oil and wine, might be delicious and healthy, but if it’s not from the Midwest, it’s not going on the menu at Fehribach’s new restaurant.

Healthy?  Possibly.  Delicious?  Definitely.
Photo courtesy of Big Jones Restaurant

“Chicken fat is actually really good for you, and it’s great on salads! Lard is good for you, too!” Fehribach says. “A great cider is like a great wine, like a good champagne,” he says, and, “Beer goes great with food!” Ham, if it’s produced seasonally, sourced locally, and cured traditionally without refrigeration, is for Fehribach “the perfect example of a green food.”

Of course, Fehribach has also thought about things to do with all of the “weird animal parts” that end up in his kitchen as a result of the commitment to whole animal butchery. His vision extends way beyond just sourcing local produce, the first step for many restaurants thinking about sustainability. The new restaurant will “show by example that we have everything we need right here,” Fehribach says.

There are some limits to Fehribach’s “waste not, want not” vision, though. “I know a chef in the South who makes charcoal out of his pig bones, so even they get used,” he says “Here in Chicago we have a bit tighter fire department regulations so I don’t think I could get away with that.”

As excited as Fehribach is about the Midwestern restaurant concept, it’s still just an idea for now. Even presenting at the Good Food Financing Fair in March “was a little premature in terms of our timeline,” he says, but he “decided to go ahead and at least put it out there and let people talk about it.”

They might begin looking for space more seriously as soon as this July, but it will still be a while before the team behind Big Jones is heading up another place. “The Po’ Boy shop [Fehribach’s other new restaurant concept] would be a pretty quick and easy thing to open,” he says, so if they find a smaller space in a hipper neighborhood, we might see Big Jones sandwiches before we get to taste any Midwestern specialties.

The larger, more ambitious Great Lakes sourced tavern and brewery concept might take a little longer to come to fruition, but I for one hope they are able to raise the money, entice investors, and find a space sooner rather than later. I want to taste some chicken fat salad dressing, and that persimmon beer is calling my name!

The Financing Fair is an integral part of the Good Food Festival & Conference. Entrepreneurs, established and growing businesses, economic development professionals, and investors come together for a day of exciting keynote speakers, workshops, and panel discussions on innovative financing strategies for burgeoning Good Food businesses. Small family farmers and Good Food entrepreneurs with big ideas present their business plans, get feedback on those plans, and initiate conversations with investors interested in supporting the Good Food movement. We’re catching up with all of our financing fair businesses throughout the year to get the inside scoop on their business plans.

Want to know more about Paul Fehribach’s plans for a 100% local restaurant? Get in touch with Paul here for more information on his business pitch. We hope that investors get as excited about his plans as we are!

Paul Fehribach, Photo: Grant Kessler

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