A lot’s happening up on the roof
BY JUDITH DUNBAR HINES March 21, 2012 1:25AM
Chef Val Benner from the Palmer House came over to make the recipe, Firecracker Greens at the Downtown Farmstand at 66 E. Randolph in Chicago. | Al Podgorski~Chicago Sun-Times
The year-round Chicago’s Downtown Farmstand, 66 E. Randolph, offers Midwest-grown foods and other locally produced edibles, including those used in this recipe. Cooking classes are offered through the World Kitchen program (chicagoworldkitchen.org). Reach the Farmstand at (312) 742-8419, or go to
Updated: April 22, 2012 8:04AM
The official first day of spring at the Farmstand brings hope and dreams of little green edibles. Avid gardeners begin sprouting seeds inside, while the rest of us dream longingly of finding fresh spring ingredients in the markets to include in our meals.
Cooking local is not just happening in home kitchens. The current trend of most restaurants is to buy as many things as possible locally, listing those sources on the menu to let customers know that the products for their dinner traveled only a few miles from “farm to fork.” Many chefs are taking that even further by growing their own produce and tending gardens only steps from their kitchens.
But what if you are a garden-minded chef cooking in a historic property that encompasses an entire city block right in the heart of the Loop? Well, then, you look to the rooftop.
That was the case for the chefs at the historic Palmer House Hilton. When Valeria Benner interviewed for the sous chef job at the hotel’s Lockwood Restaurant last spring, she included the description “chef and gardener” on her resume. While her kitchen talents are bona fide, it was the second skill that got attention. A garden was the dream of her boss, Chef Greg Elliot, and he immediately included both duties in her job description.
“Not only could I take ownership of a garden project, get to work in a renowned hotel with fantastic chefs I respect, but I also get to garden? I am so incredibly lucky” says Benner, a local product herself; she grew up on farms in Michigan and western Illinois.
The resulting rooftop garden is an industrial space on the 25th floor, accessible only to the chef and her helpers but visible from nearby buildings. Neighbors see her march out first thing in the morning for breakfast and lunch ingredients, then again midafternoon for dinner service. Everything gets rinsed with cool water and goes directly onto the plate; nothing is ever chemically treated or refrigerated.
Our Farmstand farmers, too, are beginning to plant and harvest the first tender crops of spring greens and herbs. Even with a mild winter behind us, it’s always a welcome and delicious treat when those items begin to arrive in the weekly deliveries.
Benner reminds us that greens are available year-round, should appear frequently on our tables, and are incredibly good for us. Her warning, however, is to cook them properly so “they don’t taste like you are chewing on your front lawn.”
Her recipe here is a sure-fire way to cook tender new spinach, or leaves from the more robust kale family while we wait for our gardens — and front lawns — to truly awaken.
Judith Dunbar Hines is the director of culinary arts and events for the Chicago Office of Tourism and Culture, which operates Chicago’s Downtown Farmstand.