“When I moved to Chicago I felt like it was the first time, as an adult, that I just completely felt embraced by my surroundings. Everyone welcomes you with open arms.”
In the first of of Alicia’s two dispatches from Chicago, she talks to bartender Alicia Arredondo and chef Pat Sheerin about the city’s reputation as a bad place to go meat-free. They discuss some of their plant-focused dishes, how the cultural and social context of Chicago influenced them professionally, and the broader ways in which food and politics intersect.
Part two can be heard here.
ALICIA KENNEDY: This is Meatless, a podcast about eating from How We Get To Next. I’m Alicia Kennedy, a food and drink writer. I’ll be having conversations with chefs, writers, and more, about how their personal and political beliefs determine whether or not they eat meat. This show asks the question, “How do identity, culture, economics and history affect a diet?”
In this episode we go to Chicago to stay at the new Ace Hotel, and consider the idea of a good vegan city. The messaging around Chicago was mixed. I’d only been once before, for one day, to eat a tasting menu at the Michelin-starred restaurant Alinea. My friend and I slept in bunk beds in a hostel and flew standby in order to afford this birthday gift we were giving ourselves, but that kind of dinner doesn’t give one a real sense of a place.
Still, the fame of Chicago Diner, open since 1983, and the city being home to big brands like Upton’s Naturals who make seitan, marinated jackfruit and boxed mac and cheese, as well as Dandies, a gelatin-free marshmallow maker, I’d gotten it into my head that this was one of the great vegan meccas, a mythology built on Instagram and packaging. As I did more research and talked to more folks, though, a different picture emerged. One that suggested Chicago was actually terrible for anyone who doesn’t eat meat. The truth though doesn’t sway too far in either direction.
On this trip, to get a more complete picture, I spoke to a few people who live in the city and make food their lives. What I found were chefs who can talk beautifully about the lifespan of a carrot, bakers making secret vegan pastries, cookbook authors mapping the city’s meatless options, lifelong Chicagoans blogging about food politics, and bartenders with animal rights activist pasts.
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ALICIA ARREDONDO: I grew up in east LA, so it is, obviously, the Eastside of Los Angeles, in a very, kind of, Hispanic-focused neighborhood, and I think I grew up eating all of those very, very traditional Mexican foods.
ALICIA KENNEDY: This is Alicia Arredondo, a vegan bartender at the city’s famous tropical bar, Lost Lake.
ALICIA ARREDONDO: My parents were both immigrants from Mexico. Yeah, it was all very meat-heavy. I think of, like, the pozoles and the birrias, and we had coffee for breakfast, even as a kid, you know, I had that super heavy cream-driven coffee, and some Mexican sweet breads, and, yeah, insert every single thing you ever think about when you think about Mexican cuisine.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Arredondo moved to Chicago six years ago.
ALICIA ARREDONDO: I love LA still to this day, there are so many wonderful things about it, but you have to, you struggle really hard to find community there, like, identity and community, and when I moved to Chicago I felt like it was the first time, as an adult, that I just completely felt embraced by my surroundings. Chicago has, yeah, it’s like, just a really loving kind of area where anything that you want to be a part of, everyone welcomes you with open arms.
ALICIA KENNEDY: She became vegetarian when she was 15, more than half her life, and has been vegan for eight to ten years.
ALICIA ARREDONDO: I’m not incredibly militant about it, I think that you do have to be very forgiving with yourself and allow yourself some luxuries, but I would say that I’ve been, I’ve been self-identified vegan for the last ten years.
I was I was a really strange kid. First and foremost, I was very politically driven at a really young age, and I would like to say that it was about, like, saving the animals and, you know, “Don’t do that,” but I had a moment where I realized that we were being told what to eat by our, kind of, system, and our government, and I, I don’t know, I feel like I read a book or something, and it, kind of, just like put in a lot of things, they just kind of clicked in, and I just had a really rebellious moment where I was, like, “I’ll be damned if you tell me what I’m putting in my body.” And, yeah, and then I just became vegetarian, and try explaining that as a 15-year-old to the world around you.
My family was really confused for a really long time. They never told me, “No,” which is really great. They are, they are very understanding parents, although sometimes obviously out of tune with the way the world is, kind of, working around them, but they were, yeah, they never said no although they were very confused. And I had the father that even seven, eight years later would be, like, “Oh, just, like, eat some of this caldo,” and I’d be, like, “Dad, it has chicken in it,” and he’d be, like, “No, no, no, but it’s just a caldo, no tiene pollo, and I’d be, like, “No, that’s not the way vegetarianism works.” You know? At least not for me because that’s the way it could work for other people, but it’s, like, that’s not how I do my vegetarianism.
ALICIA KENNEDY: But they’ve adapted.
ALICIA ARREDONDO: Yeah, and then my mom, she’s always been a chef in one way or another, she used to work for a catering company, had her own catering thing for a little while, and then for a long time worked, like, at a deli counter for a major grocery store, so just always been around food. And she was the one that started to get really creative about the things that she would make for me.
It was all of the very nostalgic things, like, one of my favorite things growing up was arroz con leche, which is a rice pudding, and obviously, it is a very dairy-heavy product, and she figured out a way, this was, I mean, like, 15 years ago, she figured out a way of making me a vegan arroz con leche by using soy milk in it as a replacement, because fifteen years ago that was the only thing that you had to choose from. But she figured out a way of doing it, also figured out a way of making it taste good, and I think that she had a lot of fun doing that, in that kind of trial and error where, you know, you have these moments, and I’m sure anyone who’s ever had a dietary restriction where someone goes, “Wow, this actually tastes good.” And she would have a lot of moments when she would, like, cook for me.
ALICIA KENNEDY: There are non-vegan things that Arredondo still lets herself eat.
ALICIA ARREDONDO: Yeah, I think the number one thing I always, kind of, grant myself permission to eat is Mexican bread, which I mentioned. It’s very, very nostalgic, it reminds me a lot of my parents, it reminds me of mornings back home. So, whenever I’m feeling homesick, that’s kind of the one thing I’ll, like, walk across the street, I live really close to a bakery store, so it’s, like, “Oh, I’ll walk across the street and I’ll grab myself my little pan dulce.” And the lady at the counter is always so lovely and she’s like, “Hi, mija, welcome back,” because she knows that I’m coming because I’m feeling some type of way.
ALICIA KENNEDY: She doesn’t have to compromise at Lost Lake though.
ALICIA ARREDONDO: Our menu is about 50 percent vegan and-or vegetarian, which is really wonderful, especially for what people consider, like, a quote-unquote “bar menu,” which it’s not, I mean Fred does such an amazing job of curating this beautiful menu that goes beyond bar food. And I don’t, I don’t want to take credit for, you know, for the way he conceptualizes his menus, but I do believe that he’s really, like, self-conscious and aware of his surroundings. We do family meal every single day, and there are dietary restrictions that they meet. I mean we have someone who is gluten-free, someone who is vegetarian, I’m vegan, and there are just, like, all of these different things that they provide meals for.
And I’ve worked other restaurants where it’s, like family meals are one thing and if you can eat it, you eat it, and if you can’t, you can’t, and here they go out of their way. It’s, like, you go down there and it’s labelled “vegan,” “gluten-free,” like, all of the different things that you can eat. So yeah, I feel, like I said, I don’t know, I’m sure he’s not thinking of me specifically when he’s making the menu, but I definitely know that he does think of other dietary needs, which is really not always common.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Arredondo can see that Chicago lacks a lot in its vegan options, but there’s always something to be found.
ALICIA ARREDONDO: I both agree and I disagree with that statement. So, it goes 50–50. I definitely feel very spoiled because I came from a place like LA which has a different way of, it’s a different kind of veganism there. It’s focused on other, it just has a different focus, right? It’s, like, lighter, brighter, fresher products, and that’s, that is definitely the one thing that I’ve missed since moving from home, just, kind of, my vegan options are a little bit more brown, I would say, but I can definitely tell you that I’ve never gone hungry in this city.
Everywhere that you go has a very, very explicit vegan option, you know, for the most part, there are definitely exceptions, but, like, most places that you go to, even in this neighborhood alone, we know Lost Lake has, again, 50 percent vegan options. You go to Revolution, they have a vegan option. We have, we do have the Chicago Diner, we have Ground Control. Lula always has, their soup is always vegan and you always have something else. So it’s like everywhere that you go, you’re going to have a meal. Is it always going to be the healthiest meal? Probably not, you do have to look for that a little bit. You have to be a little bit more intentional about that in Chicago, but again though, I really do think that the vegan community here is also, it’s growing and it’s really strong.
ALICIA KENNEDY: For chef Pat Sheerin of Ace Hotel City Mouse, a lifelong Chicagoan, providing guests with options that reflect the city, produce-wise and stylistically, is super important. Dishes such as grilled carrot with persimmon, butternut squash with farro and winter citrus, and roasted cauliflower with caramelized cabbage and smoked dates offer a medley of textures and flavors that prove care has been taken.
PAT SHEERIN: I grew up on the north side of the city Chicago, a neighborhood called Edgewater. We were kind of the weird kids on the block. Well, actually it was a weird block, a very weird microcosm. My family history is Polish and Irish, my grandparents were in the burbs and grew a ton of food and also were very big into freezing and preserving.
So always, like, winter vegetables all came out of the freezer, preserved from the summer, but beets, sauerkraut, all those things were always put up every year. So, we ate all those things and then, during the summer, ate, you know, definitely there was always meat on the table because that very late-70s, 80s, iconic, you had to have meats, but always a ton of vegetables because my grandparents had grown up in the Depression and knew, like, you stretch a meal with vegetables because they’re affordable and they’re delicious.
The neighborhood I grew up in, the block I grew up in, was really a whirlwind of multiculturalism. We had a Greek family across the street that, you know, they would roast lamb in their backyard, a Chinese family that grew tons of vegetables I’d never seen before in my life. The postman was a Japanese guy down the street who, he would actually catch perch and he’d bring it by everybody because he just really enjoyed fishing, and still to this day, like, some of the cleanest cleaned fish I’ve ever seen in my life, so. So we grew up eating a lot of vegetables and it’s always been a part of my life.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Sheerin began his career in restaurants at a very young age, by accident, while working at Taste of Chicago.
PAT SHEERIN: I was taking tickets, I was like 12 or 13 years old, and somebody didn’t show up, and so they taught me how to use the grill, and I grilled swordfish and ribeye sandwiches for thousands of people. And that was back when Taste of Chicago was two weeks, and so by the end of the second week I was, like, “I want to do this forever.” I did study cooking, I took, my parents were smart enough to help me pump my own brakes. I would have gone probably right out of high school into a kitchen, but I ended up, I got my undergrad from Michigan State University in the hospitality business, and then I went out to New York to what was the French Culinary Institute, is now the International Culinary Center, and went to cooking school there.
ALICIA KENNEDY: I asked him how he develops vegetable-forward dishes, and whether that process is different when he works with meat.
PAT SHEERIN: The meatier ones kind of take care themselves a lot of the times, in that, like, they’re just, you know, they’re there, they’re there and they’re really tasty, but at the same time, like, especially when it’s high season for produce here, it’s, like, we’re always trying to find new ways and how do we really push more of them onto our menus.
And you know, like, highlighting the vegetable, any vegetable that’s highlighted on our menu comes from a local grower, even at this time of the year, because, like, hoop house technology and all those things are much more prevalent and used a lot more nowadays. So, you can have, you can have vegetables throughout the course of the winter, even green ones, you know, like, people do a lot of greenhouse growing and stuff like that. So, so we focus on those for our vegetable-centric dishes, and then we also try to figure out a way to, like, pack as much, as many vegetable into our meat dishes too, that’s always like important. It adds, you know, it adds a lot vibrancy, freshness to a dish that you don’t get from just, like, a piece of protein.
ALICIA KENNEDY: He sees Chicago’s dining scene as vibrant, regardless of the kind of cuisine being served.
PAT SHEERIN: And especially as generations of cooks, like, go back to their, you know, what their family restaurants are. I mean, you know, it’s again one of those, like, classic examples, Birrieria Zaragoza is my favorite places in the city, and I know Jonathan, the son, he’s a super-talented chef in his own right, but like he loves that he goes back to his roots and cooks birria with his family.
But, like, beyond the birria, which is delicious, they have a person that makes fresh tortillas, to order, and they’re, like, there is nothing in the in the world like a tortilla right off of the griddle. It blows anything, your idea of a tortilla out of the water. So, there’s a lot of people that are doing things like that. I mean, growing up we had a small Vietnamese restaurant on the North Side that, you know, it was the grandma and the family in the back cooking and it was very much from the soul. And still, it was, like, we would get it all the time because it was just so good, and you just tell a lot of love was put into the food.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Farm-to-table dining has become the expectation.
PAT SHEERIN: For a lot of chefs that’s just the assumption that you’re using all these local things, and that market is so much bigger now, the Green City Market, I mean, near us, local foods, there’s a number of logistical managers that are operators, like food companies that help get local farmers, local Midwestern stuff to different restaurants. I don’t think that you need to have that as much, like, on the, in the title, because all of a sudden it becomes, a lot of the time it becomes the same thing over and over again. But you know, like, for here, like we said one farm can’t supply us all the carrots that we need, so we do use a different number of carrot, you know, from different farms.
So, I think that happens a lot with a number of the restaurants, but I think that that scene is still extremely vibrant, and, you know, still very, like, it’s economical, it’s works. I mean, I like to see more farms popping up, and we get more and more emails and phone calls from people wanting to do business with us, and I think it’s, it’s a tell for the city that, like, people are using more and more local in the restaurants. Maybe not as advertised or pushing it as much, but yeah, it does happen.
ALICIA KENNEDY: I wanted to hear more about the thought behind their carrot and persimmon dish.
PAT SHEERIN: Like carrots, especially when they sit in the ground through the colder months, they get sweeter because they need to produce more sugars in order to not freeze. So, they get really sweet, and we felt like there’s something really interesting about that, because they kind of dry out a little bit as the ground gets really, there’s not a lot of moisture and whatnot, so they’re kind of like intensely sweet.
So, we roast them to add a little bit of bitterness from the roasting process, but also intensify that sweetness a little more. And we roast them to soften them up a little bit, and then we finish them on the grill to give them, like, some of that charred flavor. But they’re sweet, they’re charred, and then we add a little spicy, it’s, kind of, a riff on salsa macha. We put that on there along with a little bit of pickle, right now we’re using persimmons to add some acidity and, you know, I’m trying to think what else is on the plate too, but yeah, so all those things are on there to kind of help create balance, and then some fresh herbs just to add some brightness.
ALICIA KENNEDY: And he does believe that the choices one makes in the kitchen have political implications.
PAT SHEERIN: One of the choices that we make here is to really focus on making selections that are, you know, not only in the best interests of our guests but also of the planet, and we just feel like the food tastes better then, too. It’s what I feel very comfortable serving my own family as well, so I wouldn’t want to serve a guest something I wouldn’t feel good about serving my own family.
So, we do make choices in terms of, like, you know, the meats and produce, and everything that we buy is as local as possible, but always, you know, look for sustainable, lack of use of antibiotics or growth hormones, and, because I think that does impact it. Although we’re one spot, if more people make that choice, it is, in the long run, will help. And I think having a lot of vegetable selections too just kind of helps point people in that direction. We all know, you know, we consume too much protein as a planet, not that there isn’t room to consume it, but, like, at the rates that we’re doing it, it’s not really sustainable for our planet. So, we do make that choice to make sure the vegetables are featured, because we want people to come here and feel welcome regardless of why they’re here or how they choose to eat.
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ALICIA KENNEDY: In part two of the Chicago episode, sponsored by the Ace Hotel, we’ll talk to Natalie Slater of Bake and Destroy, baker Valeria Taylor of Loba Pastry, and Lottie + Doof blogger Tim Mazurek for their perspective on the meatless scene in Chicago.