How did one chef's childhood memories inspire the menus at some of Chicago's best restaurants? I recently caught up with Chef Jared Van Camp - partner at Element Collective, the group behind some of the Windy City's trendiest eateries - to hear about his involvement at Taste of the Nation for No Kid Hungry Chicago, a benefit for Share Our Strength's No Kid Hungry campaign. Chef Jared gave us a sneak peek at the specials on his restaurants' fall menus, revealed the surprising reason why he opened Owen + Alchemy - and told us why access to food is a hot button topic for him.
Getting healthier food into our schools, and making sure it is accessible to every child should be our number one priority.
KIT GRAHAM: Which of your Chicago restaurants are participating in Taste of the Nation?
CHEF JARED: We have seven restaurants -- Old Town Social, RM Champagne, Nellcôte, Expat, Kinmont, Leghorn Chicken, and Owen + Alchemy - and all of them are participating. Each is preparing a dish based on their signature concept.
For example, Owen + Alchemy, which is a modern juice apothecary, is making a plant-based dish. Our handcrafted bar and grill, Old Town Social, will serve obsessively handmade food. And, of course, our chicken sandwich shop, Leghorn, will have a chicken-related dish.
KG: Now that it is fall, what exciting specials or additions can we expect to see on your menus?
CJ: At Owen + Alchemy, we're working with pomegranate and persimmons, as well as pumpkin and sweet potato. At Nellcôte, we'll be using pumpkin and butternut squash, probably in pasta, maybe in an agnolotti. As it gets colder, Old Town Social will have stews and braises—the kind of dishes that you crave when it is freezing in December!
KG: Why is the No Kid Hungry campaign important to you?
CJ: I got involved with Share Our Strength about seven years ago. When I learned about its message, its purpose—how could I not get involved?
I'm very close to my nephew. Watching him grow up, and talking to him about school lunches, I realized they were rarely wholesome, or unprocessed. It was eye-opening.
He's now 15 years old, and a very healthy young man, thanks to his parents' care. But not everyone is as lucky as he is. Getting healthier food into our schools—and making sure it is accessible to every child—should be our number one priority.
KG: What childhood food memories influence your cooking?
CJ: You know how great spring is in Chicago? How wonderful and liberating it feels when you get through winter, and it is finally warm again? Well, strawberries and rhubarb are the first signs of spring that we get locally.
When I was younger, my dad grew strawberries and rhubarb, and my mom made strawberry-rhubarb jelly and strawberry jam. It required a lot of hard work and elbow grease: mashing the strawberries, the rhubarb, straining everything. That smell immediately takes me back to spring with my family.
This year there was a salad at Nellcôte with roasted strawberries and a mascarpone cheesecake with strawberries. Owen + Alchemy had a strawberry-rhubarb kombucha. The inspiration stems from my love for local fruits, and memories of my mom cooking dishes like that when I was a kid.
KG: What's your cooking style at home?
CJ: I avoid carbs since I am a Type-1 diabetic—that's one of the reasons we opened Owen + Alchemy.
I eat a lot of leafy greens, vegetables, and nuts. Kale is omnipresent in our refrigerator. I love, love, love eggs. Some days, I'll have scrambled eggs with kale juice and avocado. For lunch and/or dinner, I'll have a kale salad with hard-boiled eggs, almonds, lemon juice, olive oil, and avocado.
I also love Sunday dinners and all-day cooking. Once the weather gets cooler, I make one-pot dishes like gumbo. Sometimes, we have a fried-chicken-gumbo special at Old Town Social.
KG: Give us a peek into your future. Do you have any exciting plans that you can share?
CJ: We have a dozen different ideas in the hopper at Element Collective, but nothing's set in stone. Leghorn is opening in the United Center this fall. We want to make its launch successful, so it's occupying a lot of our time right now!
KG: Thank you for your time, Chef Jared. I admire your support of Share Our Strength and look forward to seeing what's in store for Element Collective!
Citi is proud to partner with Share Our Strength and its No Kid Hungry campaign to end childhood hunger and provide nourishment to our next generation. To learn more about No Kid Hungry and the impact of its work, visit nokidhungry.org/onedollar.