Eric Mansavage

Farmhouse

07/24/2015

Eric Mansavage is the executive chef of Farmhouse in River North and Evanston.

How did you end up as the executive chef of Farmhouse?

I’m from Stevens Point, Wisconsin. I grew up in a large Polish family, both sides. My early experiences with food--- a half-acre garden out at my grandparents’ country home, where they canned, pickled, made soups, everything from scratch out there, a lot of those flavors I still carry with me today. I learned all about food at a young age.

I’m sure it’s a common story for a lot of chefs. I studied political science, business administration, and economics at UW-Stevens Point. Then I decided I wanted to become a chef. There were several interesting outcomes in certain elections… stuff that took me away from wanting to be involved with politics directly, on a grassroots level. And I always had a passion for cooking. It was a good platform for my business acumen, what I learned from my undergrad work.

I joked about it in college. “If all else fails I’ll become a chef.” I went to culinary school in Chicago, at CHIC [now Le Cordon Bleu], and then I worked. Worked really hard, tried to learn everything I could from all my mentors, books I’ve read, and experiences I’ve had staging at different kitchens in the city. Working, and working, and working. This place… it was a very fortunate opportunity for me. I was about to head out to California with an ex-girlfriend, I was pretty much over Chicago, and out of the blue I got an email.

Our owners, TJ Callahan and Ferdia Doherty and I have grown this from the bottom up. All those experiences in between, Farmhouse from where it began to what we’ve evolved into… we’re not quite there yet, and we have a lot of responsibility to our people that work for us, and work with us, and the farmers and everything. I didn’t get involved in politics, but I’m hopefully involved in a movement that’s trying to educate people about good food.

It translates. Is it political? Yes and no. What is the reach of a chef? Is it just the kitchen, or is it in the community, trying to work with people to enrich their lives?

Why is farm-to-table important?

We’ve taken some missteps in the food chain and it’s time to bring that back to the forefront of the conversation. For everybody’s well-being. We have local farmers that work very hard and it makes sense to support those people, build those relationships, source things locally, and hopefully nourish the community that we serve in.

It gets tied together through the seasonality of the Midwest. We work with the seasons--- spring is obviously huge for produce and winter is quiet. We try to source as much as we can locally, but we’re not 100% locally-sourced, it’s nearly impossible. Getting into some of the drawbacks… there’s a cost-benefit to everything. So you make choices.

But we do very well here, and every year we strive to get better. Our proteins are 100% locally-sourced and sustainable. There’s no hormones or antibiotics or anything like that. But produce, that’s where it gets a little bit trickier. Versus buying stuff from California--- which we still have to do when some things aren’t in season. We have to have tomatoes for our burger, otherwise people just wouldn’t get it. So we’re gonna source some of that stuff.

It takes a lot of creativity in your sourcing, and the entire logistical plan behind it. But it’s gotten a lot easier in the past few years with the advent of places like Local Foods, the aggregate suppliers. They do the legwork and find even smaller farmers that don’t have quite a presence in the Chicago market, reach out to them, and support them through that aggregate supply chain.

As a chef, if you’re not working with the farms you should be. These are relationships that I’ve developed over my ten years in Chicago. I’m on the board of directors for the Green City Market, and that relationship has built up to the point where now I’m working on the applications committee, vetting farmers and vendors to come into the market. All this means I have more extension and that actually extends our seasonality a bit, because it starts all the way down at the southern tip of Illinois, and goes all the way up to the tip of Wisconsin and Michigan for that produce.

If I was sourcing from right directly here, I would have stuff for two weeks. But I end up having stuff for four, five, or six weeks in the early part of the spring and summer.

You guys have both a farm in Wisconsin and a garden on the roof. Why?

We do a rooftop garden with Sarah Gasbarra of Verdura, it’s in the fourth year of operation up there. We grow for the bar and the kitchen, things we get a little more mileage out of: herbs, garnishes, hot peppers, things that we can scale out and use for substantial parts of the growing season.

TJ purchased Brown Dog Farm up in Mineral Point, Wisconsin. He has an enthusiasm for cider making, hard cider and stuff like that. We went out there after he purchased the property and one of the first big projects was to plant an orchard, like two-hundred cider variant trees. He’s got a big asparagus patch, some tomatoes, we’ll get a bunch of stuff from the small garden, but Brown Dog Farm will hopefully produce lots and lots of apples primarily. Then there are the wild varieties that we get to cook with too, that grow on the property. We get to use it as a retreat sometimes as well, go up there into the country and feel that lifestyle.

How is the cider-making going?

TJ did a lot of research, and what we did is we sourced the cider juice and crafted it at the Fox Valley Winery in Oswego. We partnered up with them through the process, tasted different blends, very hands-on. We’re trying to produce something that’s not a sweet cider, more a dry, European-style cider you would find in Normandy or something like that. Having those yeast notes to it, that dryness and slight effervescence.

Will people continue to pay a premium for food that is sustainably grown?

I hope that if we’re gonna see prices go up it’s because we’re using better ingredients. Getting back to good food. You do see a little more money for that porkchop, but I know the source of that porkchop. I know where I got the vegetables from, I can tell any of the guests here where our food comes from. It’s something we’re very proud of, and we’ve been working hard at it. We’ve been around for four years, and we’re still growing. So it does resonate. And I believe people do come here because they want to eat good food. Not just delicious food, but food that is good for them, better for them.

We spend a lot of time working with our staff to keep them informed of the socially-conscious, sustainable choices that we make as a company, as a restaurant group. And it would be my hope that people come here for a reason. They see that this can be done, in a restaurant, reasonably priced, and they know the source of their food. It would be my greatest hope, on a larger scale, that everybody wants to know where their food comes from. Because that would change everything in this country.

If everybody gave thought to where they get their chicken from, it would start a bigger conversation that would hopefully shift us towards better agricultural practices. Better food for everybody. Not just the people who come to this restaurant, but the entire city. If Farmhouse can be part of that early conversation, that movement… it would be amazing to be a part of that.

What would you tell individuals who want to get involved in sustainable food culture?

A great place to start is the Green City Market. They have a great amount of outreach and education: working there or volunteering there, meeting the farmers, talking to these people that grow good food. Building those relationships yourself, and it’s a very laid-back atmosphere to do that in. Go up and introduce yourself to any of the farmers, one over the other they’re all very welcoming. Ask questions. “What is this? I’ve never seen this before,” and they’ll tell you, “This is how you can cook that.” The chef demos and things, you can meet a lot of people.

Learn more about good food and sustainability. Composting, the same thing. There’s a composting program there, we compost here. It’s about asking questions, actively researching online. There are tremendous resources online, all you need to do is type in “composting” and you can find about five million hits on that. And then find somebody who is involved with it, who practices it, and learn from them.

How do you build the menu?

I think the two biggest things that drive the menu production here--- and it’s changed so much since I began here a few years ago--- are seasonality and my teams. Ingredients are gonna drive the menu development, and I’ve got chefs that work with me now, we work on the menus together. So you get different flair, but we play in the sandbox of that seasonal, American style of food, not pretentious but well-designed. Heavy on technique, brining meats, doing beautiful roasts. Ingredients in different states of technical production. Raw states, and prepared--- we try to show that ingredient in all its most beautiful flavor profiles and physical states. And we try to put it together in a very simple, thoughtful presentation on the plate.

In the spring everything’s pretty predictable. I’ve been doing this for a few years, so I know when everything’s gonna hit. When strawberries are gonna be here, even in the coldest of winters it’s only been off by two weeks. We’ll begin our menu-planning process ahead of time, we’ll always have ideas, but I have full autonomy with the menu. So I can change it daily if I need to. If berries are in today and out tomorrow…

We just really try to roll with the punches. And the weather is a huge variable, our rooftop garden is slow this year because it’s been cool. But it’s been like that everywhere. The winter is tricky, we do some preservation, stuff like that, but to do it on a scale tied to the number of people that come through here is challenging. In the spring you’re gonna see your greens, your salads, your beautifully ripe produce, and in the winter you go to more starches, your meats, your braises and stuff like that.

How do you meet and challenge the expectations of tavern food?

Well, we’ve got amazing Wisconsin State Fair cheese curds.

And we balance it out. Throughout the menu we have that approachable vibe and when people order stuff it reads very well. And when you get the plate you’re like, “Whoa, this is… it’s beautiful,” you know? I think it’s the surprise element that gets people. You’re drinking your beer, the atmosphere is very casual, warm, and inviting, and you get that surprise when that plate comes out. We lead with the simplicity of the tavern atmosphere and surprise the guests when they join us.

As the Farmhouse restaurant group grows, how do you manage more and more things outside the kitchen?

It’s a difficult transition. I’ve always been very hands-on with the entire process, and when you go from one restaurant to two restaurants, you have to have--- there’s a paradigm shift in the way that you manage, and the way you develop your cuisine and menu. The differences in the guests: between here and Evanston, very different clientele. Two different menus, two different teams. Trying to take all that in, and not make mistakes, it’s nearly impossible.

I’ve made plenty of mistakes, but you grow, and you try to take everybody along for the ride. You need to find people that you can trust, that’s the biggest thing. You need to spend a lot of time, a lot of resources developing those people. All of the above, and really working--- your focus shifts a little bit from the day-to-day operations, and more on the development of your team. And I’ve been very lucky in that I have a good team at both restaurants now, and that extends to the front of the house as well.

We don’t really have a differentiation between the front and back of the house at Farmhouse. It’s too small of a restaurant, and everybody should have their eye on the prize, all the time. It always comes down to the guest experience, and how it translates. So the transition… I think once you make it from one to two it becomes a little easier,  and hopefully you learn enough hard lessons to make better decisions and mature enough so you can avoid things, issues before they come to bear.

It’s not for the faint of heart, I’ll tell you that much.

Was there a moment when the realities of the profession hit you as a young chef?

As a cook I was fortunate to work with some great chefs. Just being allowed to look over their shoulders. But the real lessons in learning to be a chef… I got laid off of a job during the recession, and the the owner got me in touch with Bobby Paladino over at Club Lucky. Red sauce, Italian, classic food, but not my style.

So I’m sitting there working with a crew that’s been there for fifteen years, all Latino. I speak kitchen Spanish, and I’m in charge of all this: trying to make the place better, refine systems and work with these guys to continue a guest experience that’s been going on for twenty years. That’s where I learned how to lead people. I made a lot of mistakes there, and I had a lot of successes. You make some friends… I’m friends with some of these guys still. “Chef, how you doing?” A different culture that I was able to somewhat tap into and work with. And I think that’s where I really got my chops. A very different experience, but you know that’s what it’s about: being able to roll with all those kinds of punches.

Outside of the kitchen, what do you like to do?

Get back into nature. Fishing, camping, stuff like that is something that first and foremost, when I do have time I just try to get close to nature. Whether that’s cycling on the lakefront, or going up to the farm in Wisconsin, or going home. Hanging out with my parents and going to the farmer’s market. Making a big family meal for people I haven’t seen in years. Stuff like that charges my battery.

Giving back to the community is another thing that’s one of the brighter aspects of my job. Teaching little kids how to cook at the Melting Pot Cooking Club, that’s something that I’m involved in. Working with them and seeing little lightbulbs go off. Common Threads and Purple Asparagus, I’ve done some work with them as well.  I think if I can’t get out to the countryside and I need to be in Chicago, that’s what I look forward to.

Farmhouse