Read our interview with Heather Lalley, author of the wonderful ‘Chicago Homegrown Cookbook‘.
Heather Lalley spent more than a decade as a daily newspaper reporter before beginning the baking and pastry program at Washburne Culinary Institute in the spring of 2009. Heather, who has a journalism degree from Northwestern University, wrote feature stories on health, food, music and other topics for The Spokesman‑Review newspaper in Spokane, Wash. for nearly a decade. Previously, she worked at newspapers in Detroit; Rochester, Minn.; and Portland, Ore.; as well as for the Chicago Tribune and Associated Press in Chicago.
She received a degree in Baking and Pastry Arts from Chicago’s Washburne Culinary Institute in May of 2011. That same month saw the publication of “The Chicago Homegrown Cookbook,” a farm-to-table book featuring interviews and recipes from about 30 Chicago chefs who work closely with local farmers.
She lives in North Center with her husband, 8-year-old son and 1-year-old daughter. She continues to do some freelance writing but spends most of her days chasing after her increasingly speedy toddler.
Chicago Farm & Table: You clearly have had a lot of experience as a journalist, as well as extensive training in the culinary arts. Can you talk about how these two skills came together, and what motivated you, inspired you to create this cookbook?
Heather Lalley: I graduated with a journalism degree from Northwestern in 1997 and spent about 10 years as a daily newspaper reporter in Spokane, Wash. But I knew I had to find another path when my husband got a great job in Chicago. We moved back here four years ago (he’s the editor of Time Out Chicago) and I started freelancing. But I also started baking bread. I loved it, and decided to enroll in the two-year baking and pastry program at Washburne Culinary Institute. The publisher of “The Chicago Homegrown Cookbook” contacted me, looking for a writer for the book, and thought I’d be a good fit. I’m so glad we found each other.
CF&T: How were you able to find the chefs you featured – i.e. how did you find out that they were utilizing local food sources?
HL: Many of the chefs in the book are quite well-known in Chicago for their commitment to local foods. Some of the lesser-known ones are personal favorites or were recommended to me by other chefs.
CF&T: Were there more restaurants/chefs that also source produce locally, but who didn’t make the final list?
HL: Certainly! We are so fortunate in Chicago to have so many wonderful chefs and farmers committed to local food.
CF&T: The ‘farm to table’ movement has been building momentum with the public over the last several years. How did you experience this change of attitude on the part of chefs/farmers during your research? Do you think it is the public asking for more locally sourced food sources, chef’s discovering it, or the farmers supplying more of it to locals?
HL: I’m thankful that a couple of the earliest followers of farm-to-table cooking – Erwin Drechsler and Rick Bayless – contributed to the book. They make it clear what a struggle it was in the early years to even connect with farmers and get enough produce to supply a bustling restaurant. Over the years, farmers have become much better marketers of their products. And chefs have become increasingly willing to forge relationships with their food producers. And, of course, the public has come to demand local, high-quality food.
CF&T: What has your personal experience been as far as utilizing locally grown foods in your own cooking and baking?
HL: I love it. We’ve gotten a CSA box from Angelic Organics since the first summer we moved here. And my kids and I are farmers’ market regulars. I also get a meat CSA from C &D Farms. The flavors are so intense and the food is so fresh that you really don’t have to do much with them in the kitchen.
CF&T: Would you share with us one of your own favorite recipes – a locally sourced seasonal creation?
HL: Judging by the mountain of cookbooks in my kitchen, you’d think I followed a lot of recipes. But I’ve got an 8-year-old and a toddler and, most days, I’m just happy to get something healthy and tasty on the table. Plus, the locally grown food is so stellar, you don’t need to gussy it up too much. So, often, I’ll just roast up a big pan of vegetables with some olive oil, balsamic and salt, and toss it with some pasta or quinoa. Oh, and I’m addicted to green smoothies in the morning: Milk, a banana, a couple of big handfuls of local greens and whatever frozen fruit I’ve got around. You can’t go wrong with any of the recipes in the book, either, of course …
CF&T: What were some of the surprises you encountered while writing the book?
HL: I’m forever impressed at how hard both farmers and chefs work. And I was fairly shocked at how challenging it was in the early days (say, 20 years ago) to bring farm-to-table food to folks. It’s also pretty stunning to see how the public’s attitude has evolved. Used to be, diners craved exotic, far-flung ingredients. Now, they’d like to have their meal grown tableside, if at all possible!
CF&T: The photographs in the book are wonderful. Can you tell us about them?
HL: The Chicago Homegrown Cookbook is as stunning on the coffee table as it is in the kitchen thanks to the beautiful photography of Brendan Lekan. Brendan visited nearly every farmer and chef featured in the book to capture their work and the rich colors of the local harvest. For more information on Brendan and his work go to brendanlekan.com.
CF&T: What would you like to see happen in Chicago’s future and the future of the movement, in regard to the themes you capture in your book: local, seasonal, sustainable, farm fresh?
HL: It’s my hope that this movement doesn’t become a buzzword or something sparkly to put on a menu. I also think that while we’ll see continued relationships with farmers, we’ll see even more rooftop gardens as restaurants look for ways to bring the freshest food to customers. And I kind of hope that at some point, this isn’t really a big deal at all. No one will really blink at “farm-to-table” because that’s just the way eating and cooking is supposed to be.
The Chicago Homegrown Cookbook is available through your favorite local bookseller, or you may order it directly online through Amazon.