Abra Berens in the kitchen at Local Foods' cafe, Stock Credit: Nick Murway

THE FOOD ISSUE: An exploration of midwestern cuisine

Midwestern Cuisine

Running a cafe that’s located inside a locavore superstore means that Abra Berens has at her fingertips the freshest seasonal fruits and vegetables, lovingly grown and harvested on midwestern farms. From her station in Stock’s open kitchen, the chef, a farmer herself, is able to survey Local Foods’ produce cooler, which in late September overflows with peppers, cauliflower, corn, and squashes. Here she gets a feel for what’s in abundance without having to look at an availability sheet like the other local chefs who source ingredients from the four-month-old grocer and wholesaler. To add protein to her menus, Berens can simply walk to the other side of a dividing wall where Rob Levitt’s the Butcher & Larder has set up shop. Stock absorbs cuts of meat that don’t sell particularly well—top rounds, for instance, which are roasted for cold cuts—as well as encased meats Berens thinks are worth highlighting.

“The cafe is a place to show off some of those [local] products and also just get people excited about that food,” she says. “Like when you go to the farmers’ market and you see kohlrabi for the first time and you can ask, ‘What is this? Tell me about it,’ and it’s an actual connection to the story—we can do that same thing here even though we’re not the one growing it. This is what it looks like, this is where it came from, this is how we cook it. That’s the whole idea behind Stock.”

Using local and sustainably produced ingredients to cook her interpretation of midwestern food is a big part of Berens’s vision for Stock. But her more ambitious goal is to curb food waste—and to set an example she hopes others will follow. “That’s the thing I’m by far and away the most proud of here,” Berens says. “The food waste in this country is intolerable.” About a third of all food produced for human consumption each year—more than 1.3 billion tons—ends up in the trash, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

Since 2009, Berens, who’s done time at Vie and Floriole, has co-owned Bare Knuckle Farm in Northport, Michigan; now she’s turned over farm operations to her business partner, Jess Piskor, but the time she spent planting, tending, and harvesting vegetables to sell at market has given her a profound appreciation of the work that goes into every single piece of produce: “Every head of cauliflower is someone’s work. Having been a farmer I understand implicitly how intense that work is, so the food we throw away is, without getting too hoity-toity about it, it’s disrespecting that work. We want to do as much as we can to try and protect that.” “Honoring the product” is a frequent refrain.

Twice a week Zero Percent, a Chicago-based organization that salvages food that would otherwise be disposed of and delivers it to charities that feed the needy, picks up what’s accumulated on Local Foods’ spoilage pallet. It’s typically produce that, for one reason or another, isn’t appropriate to sell in the store or to distribute to chefs, from broccoli that’s gone limp to tomatoes that were damaged in transit. Berens and her small staff have first dibs, though, and part of their daily routine is seeing what’s collected in spoilage and figuring out how it can be incorporated into the menu. They also keep an eye on dairy that’s nearing the sell-by date and fruits that should be frozen or preserved before they’re out of season.

House-made oatmeal cream pie; potato hash with soft-boiled egg and sausage
House-made oatmeal cream pie; potato hash with soft-boiled egg and sausageCredit: Nick Murway

On a recent afternoon, Berens repurposed wilted kale from the spoilage pallet as the base for a pesto she tossed with wheatberries and red peppers. She also roasted off wilted broccoli and served it in a skillet with butterkase and chile oil, a cleaner, fresher take on the classically midwestern side dish of broccoli in goopy cheese sauce. Also on the menu: a blue plate special of potato hash with a soft-boiled egg and a sausage, spaetzle, a beet salad, two different pasties (aka “Michigan calzones”), and a Butcher & Larder hot dog. To Berens, this all constitutes midwestern food.

“I thought about this a lot, what I want midwestern food to be,” she says. “It’s something that pays homage to history, the Jell-O salads and things like that, not being ashamed of those things. But also, I went to the University of Michigan and there were a lot of people who arrived from each coast and were like, ‘Oh, there’s no culture in the midwest,’ and I’d be like, ‘You guys are fucking idiots.’ But I do think there’s still that push to get people to say, ‘We have a beautiful roasted beet salad right now, and that’s midwestern food, a potato hash is also midwestern food—it can be all those things simultaneously.”

The approaching winter means that the selection of produce that’s available to Berens will change significantly in the coming weeks. But that’s not always the case. For instance, Local Foods has partnered with MightyVine, a grower with an eight-acre greenhouse in Rochelle, Illinois, that will be supplying hydroponic tomatoes all year long.

Berens sees the chance to use only seasonal produce as an opportunity rather than an inconvenience: “I think it would be a shame [not to cook to the season]. It’s going to take longer to educate people on how to use frozen fruits and vegetables from the summer and also how to utilize the limited selection we have here in the winter—I think that’s my job right now.”

But what about spoilage? If we have a choice between not wasting food and being strictly locavore, which should be prioritized? “That gets tricky,” she says. Using mangoes as an example she asks, “Which is worse? Do you waste them or use them when it’s outside of your dogma? I don’t know. It’ll be interesting to see what happens.”  v

Credit: Nick Murway