Secret underground dining event? I RSVP’d before the email self-destructed in 30 seconds and the next day I headed off to experience the many facets of a 6 course dinner in the secret location of the test kitchens of Chef Micky and Tess Kearns of All Natural Chicago Catering. Although Micky and Tess have been operating their catering business, and throwing semi-regular underground dinners for the past several years, their work in the food industry was well established long beforehand. Micky trained at Le Cordon Bleu and has worked as a chef in Spain. Although his creations are gourmet, they are not fussy, but rather based on the principal that good food should be nutritious, lovingly prepared over time (using slow cooking methods like braising, smoking and slow roasting) and whenever possible, locally supplied. At this dinner I would happily test their motto that “All Natural Chicago stands at the crossroads of good health, gastronomy, ethics and pleasure.”
My journey began at 7PM on a warm October evening as I drove to the location specified and was lucky to find a parking place in the busy Fulton neighborhood. A well-stocked food truck nearby almost threw me off course, but I stayed resolute. Once inside the labyrinthian former factory where the secret location was tucked away, I was instructed to follow the signs to the room. For more minutes than I am proud to admit, I roamed the hallways searching for the signs. I followed noises that sounded like a party but turned out to be a crossifit gym. I followed smells that seemed promising but ended up being a gluten free bakery on the premises. It wasn’t until I found myself desperately snapchatting the experience and texting my son of my woes that it occurred to me to retrace my steps back to the beginning and reinterpret the first guiding sign.
I stepped in to the airy loft of the All Natural Chicago kitchens space and was greeted by the hostess Tess herself, as well as two well-dressed long tables and a handful of friendly strangers. After chatting with a few ladies we beelined over to the cheese plate where there was a homemade burrata mozzarella cheese covered in a sweet pear and cinnamon flavored sauce with fresh baked bread. We weren’t allowed to touch the wine yet, and for good reason.
The menu was to be paired with a Cabernet Sauvignon from the Howell at the Moon winery in Napa valley California, and the vintner Marc Cohen was present to enjoy the meal with us and describe the variations in the wines he brought for us to sample. Many pretty bottles lined a table, silk screened with their signature logo of a dog howling at a moon. Could the dog be named Howell? I meant to ask Marc’s wife, who I met before the meal began, but soon we were seated.
The first course was accompanied by an introduction to the 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon. It was a duck confit salad with toasted bulgur, big yellow heirloom tomatoes and a scallion vinaigrette. While we ate, Marc described how he had retired to the position of winery owner after being a surgeon for many years. Seated across from me was Diana who worked in wine sales, while to the right of me was a woman who worked at a children’s hospital. To my left was a newly engaged couple (a florist and a legal tax advisor) who explained how they make it a point to eat out at all of Chicago’s fine restaurants as a hobby-while always being certain to bring their mother, who was the most charming and well-versed foodie I have ever met. Next to her was Jessica who worked at Chicago’s own Mealsharing.com. The long table behind us featured the vintner, his family and a group of their friends, one of whom confided in me that he had no idea what he was up for that night, but he was ready to embrace it. David then spent the rest of the evening as the group’s unofficial ice breaker, mingling between the tables and asking pertinent questions about our lives and our impressions of the food and wine.
For the second course, a tiny bowl of roast pumpkin soup with roasted sage brown butter and croutons emerged. It was rich and savory and reminded me sharply that the fall harvest is my most inspired season for cooking and sampling other’s inspirations.
There were long breaks between courses, reminiscent of the types of dining you see often in movies involving the English aristocracy, when a meal was an affair to be savored along with the company while social partnerships were hammered out. The same sort of discourse that occurred in those days surely happened here, as naturally as if there had never been a brief historical stint of rushed meals, TV dinners and takeaways in human history. We discussed our work, our weekend, our plans for the future, our travels abroad, our connections with each other through organizations and most notably, our connection to food.
Andrew and Diana had both studied in Japan as my son hopes to do next summer, so we discussed the skiing, the people, the different prefectures, how working at an Outback Steakhouse in Tokyo really contributes to language fluency, and how weirdly tall a person felt in the presence of people who had not been raised on corn and milk. This led naturally to talk of Paris, Diana had studied briefly there too, and Andrew and I had been there in high school. The French relationship to food was bandied about by the whole table until talk circled back to wine, where it was noted that American wine consumption was surpassing French wine consumption and that every state in the USA is now producing wine.
When the third course arrived, red snapper tartar with Boquerone anchovies, Piquillo peppers, powdered olive oil, lemon zest and parsley garnish, it was paired with a new vintage, the 2010. Tess explained that the anchovy was supposedly the best in the world, and as a reluctant anchovy eater of the past I became quickly converted. They were tart and fleshy in their oil with a texture that matched the pepper completely, yet the flavor was in perfect contrast to the pepper’s accompanying sweetness. The red snapper was as fresh as if it were caught that day in the Gulf and expedited to our tables.
Soon the engaged couple’s mom began to talk about her love of dining out and the places they had recently eaten, while her son and his partner assured us of her cooking ability. I was out of my league, wearing a sweater from Target, new to the world of homemade burrata and tasty anchovies, but I caught on quickly, and to listen to this woman speak about her dishes and her exploits where she collected chef introductions like 10 year olds collect Magic cards, I was enthralled. I took good notes on the places she recommended. Now that I was armed with a list of must eat places, perhaps anniversary dinners of the future would be more adventurous than our usual lazy jaunts to Oak Park to get Indian food or sushi.
Tess introduced us to the next course by explaining that it was their attempt to win over Marc to what Chicago had to offer by way of great comfort food. It was a mini Italian sausage in a mini bun with caramelized onions. Since I live in the Italian neighborhood of Chicago, I considered myself an expert at last. I’m pretty sure chef Micky had a secret ingredient to make the caramelized onions the creamiest I’d ever tasted. Combined with the mouthwatering sweet sausage it was perfect. We sampled it along with the 2008 wine, which was a slightly different hue than the 2010, although it was made from the same vines. The taste was milder as well, with some fruit aromas apparent.
At this point, the comradery of the table was peaking. David was frequently bopping over to ask us what we thought of the wine and each course. The discussion had moved on to farmer’s markets and how all the chefs hit them well before the plebes, sometimes before dawn even, in order to pick out their supplies for the week. Jessica said she had always meant to get there that early to see what it was like, but the only way she’d manage it was if she stayed up all night drinking nearby. I told her I thought that was a great plan, especially with her camera skills. She had been photographing the meal much more diligently than I was-since I had forgotten my camera and decided to Snapchat it instead (to the amusement of all of the younger people around me who couldn’t believe I was snapchatting.) A plan was hatched for us to collaborate, me writing and her photographing our white night farmer’s market exploits. But we only had 2 weeks until the market closed down until spring. So we vowed to do it in 6 months.
That is when the next course came out, a braised short rib, a roasted potato cup and a wild mushroom confit. It was the highlight of the meal. The braised short rib was tender and perfectly seasoned. The potato cup was adorable and delicious with the meat, and the wild mushroom confit was a flavorful mushroom combination featuring the hen-of-the-woods mushroom, a rare beast that can be found in the northern forests of the US and in Japan. The taste and texture were something akin to bacon, my neighbor informed me, but as I chewed away on the meaty texture, I found it to be pleasingly nutty. All of this came with the introduction of the third wine, my favorite, the 2009. There had been a draught that year, Marc explained, and it was their smallest batch ever. They were nearly sold out of this vintage as a result. But something about the struggles the plants had endured through thirst lent them a more full taste. It captured a hint of the fruit and managed to feel rich and bold at the same time.
A fateful text arrived informing me that it was time to pick up my daughter from her job, a mere three hours after I had arrived at the underground location to dine with these strangers. I stood and began my apologies just as Tess showed up with the dessert. I sat back down and shot off a quick text telling her to hang back because I was about to have 5 spice gelato with poached pear and feuillitine sables (which it turns out are crumbs of a sugar cone like substance). My daughter understood completely and I enjoyed finishing the last course with my table full of new friends, who were now exchanging emails and plans to check out other dining options together.
As I left, Tess gave me a big hug and Micky came over to introduce himself. I confessed it was the best meal I ever had and asked him if it was nice to be able to create a menu like that from mainly from local and seasonally available supplies, which he assured me was the coolest part of his job. Half of the guests I met at the table happily shared with me how they had met Tess and Micky and what down-to- earth people they were with an amazing arsenal of catering and cooking skills. What is most intriguing about Chef Micky’s style is that he blends his love of traditional French, Spanish and Italian cooking with his passion for local, fresh, organic and ultimately nutritious ingredients. Not every chef is flexible enough to combine food theories to that extent, especially when you take in to account that he also honors food allergies and the vegetarian palate upon request.
I found my way out much more easily, sated by the gourmet experience and vowing to myself to take my food preparation and consumption to the next level. I also made a mental note to hire All Natural Chicago for any catering events that arose in the future, and to keep an eye open for their upcoming underground dinners. Of equal importance, I gained a deeper appreciation for the art of group dining with strangers and gaining insight in to the motivations of fellow food lovers.
To learn more about All Natural Chicago, visit them at allnaturalchicago.com
To learn more about Howell at the Moon Vineyards and Winery, visit them at www.howellatthemoonwine.com