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Back to Basics

An Interview with Chef Robert Levitt of Mado

    Chicago Life caught up with Robert and Allison Levitt, the husband-wife duo running the Wicker Park neighborhood eatery Mado, which is known for its warm, charming and casual BYOB atmosphere with a seasonal menu consisting almost entirely of foods from local farmers. The pair also remains devoted to “using the whole animal” for Mado’s meat dishes, in an attempt to reduce food and resource waste. Here’s what chef Robert Levitt had to say about the philosophy and spirit of Mado, which is celebrating its one-year anniversary.

How and why do you choose to source the locally grown and raised produce and meats for the menu? The reason we opened Mado was not so much to pick and choose what things from the farmer’s market we would use, but to talk to the farmers to see what they were excited about. During market season, which is May through about October, we’ll go as often as there is a farmer’s market to go to. Green City Market is held Wednesdays and Saturdays, and we go to the Wicker Park Market on Sundays. All of the meat comes to us. Our farmers call us, and we tell them what we’re going to need for the week. There really is no better way to do this, and we feel it’s our responsibility as chefs and restaurant owners to support the local farms, the little guy.

What makes Mado different from the many other restaurants also buying local foods?  The idea is that you shouldn’t have to go to a fine dining restaurant to eat locally sourced food. It’s more about providing your customers with the best possible product. Even certain times of year, like in the winter when produce is limited, we do our best to buy locally. With the exception of olive oil, citrus and some dried goods, all of our product comes from local farms.

Which farms do you like? We get pork, beef, duck and pheasant from Swan Creek in Michigan, and we get the bulk of our produce from Nichols Farm in Marengo, Illinois, and Green Acres Farm in Indiana. Most of the fruit we use comes from Seedling Farm in South Haven, Michigan, and the list goes on. We also order from Werp Farms in Buckley, Michigan—they have hoop houses and green houses and grow all year round. We get produce from them and eggs from their neighbor. I met Tina Werp when I was in the alley of the last restaurant I worked. A woman pulled up behind Alinea with a hatchback full of produce. I said to her, “You’re obviously a farmer. Where are you going and what do you have?” She was dropping off lettuces and herbs and other things at Alinea. She got out a scrap of paper and a pen and gave me her number, and we’ve ordered from her ever since.

What do you do during the cold weather months? At the end of the market season, as the farmers were packing up their stuff to put in their root cellars, we bought a whole lot of squash, greens, potatoes, onions, dried beans, legumes and pulses. Werp Farm keeps us going through the winter, too, with sunchokes, beets and braising greens. We’ll serve the sunchokes raw, maybe with a really bright lemon vinaigrette and throw some preserved lemon in there, and that’s pretty much it. It’s a great, refreshing way to start the meal—crunchy, sweet, nutty, tart.

That seems to be the trend at Mado—quality food, prepared very simply. That’s definitely the idea—it’s that fresh produce and foods like this are really amazing and we don’t want to fuss it up too much. Like with greens, we’ll just braise them, very simple. I save some rendered pork fat from the hogs I get and use a little of that, plus a little garlic, onion, chili flake—get all that in, throw the greens in and let it cook down. It’s delicious. The other day I did a beet salad. We cut the beets in long matchsticks, very thin, and served them raw so they’re nice and crunchy. We tossed them with citrusy vinaigrette, some toasted pistachios, and a dollop of spiced yogurt with sumac, coriander, garlic, orange zest. It was a really popular. Very Middle East flavored, like something you’d have in Morocco or Turkey.

What are some other popular dishes on the menu? How often do you change the menu? We change the menu a little every day. We always have hanger steak and rotisserie chicken. I have a pretty good idea of how much I go through with those dishes. But otherwise, it depends on what else I’m going to be getting.

You serve things like sweatbreads, foods that challenge diners. How does that resonate with the community? A lot of it is knowing where your food comes from. A very dear friend of mine who’s a chef was in the restaurant yesterday for brunch and brought his wife, son and two kids. They’re about 13 and 6. I had just finished cooking a cow head, so, being a goofball, I asked the kids if they wanted to see a cow skull and they were like, yeah. They were looking at it and asking a lot of questions. Without trying to be preachy sounding, I think it’s easy in America to avoid knowing where your food comes from. A lot of people get disconnected from the idea of the whole animal. We serve a whole fish here sometimes, with the head and tail on it. A lot of people send it back and ask us to cut the head and tail off. We do it, but it’s a fish. It has a head and tail. We would never just serve a pork loin here. I leave the fat cap and skin on the loin when I serve it so it gets that nice, beautiful crackling and amazing flavor from the fat

What’s in season this month? April is right when we’re starting to get excited. Usually the last weekend in March we go down to Spence Farm because he invites a bunch of chefs to dig for ramps. It’s unbelievable. It’s like a giant green carpeting—there are so many. We can dig and take as many as we want. Ramps usually become the first spring vegetable we can put on the menu.

What are some parting words you can offer about being a sustainable business owner? I think the biggest thing is being a responsible business owner. It’s the idea of balancing what your customers want and knowing the identity of the restaurant. I’ve gone through this with other places I’ve worked and left jobs because of it. I love having the relationship with these farmers and talking to the person who’s growing the food. That makes the food more special and it means more to us than just calling up Sysco and asking for 12 individually cryovacked pork chops. As Allie says, it’s great to showcase local, sustainable foods for romantic-sounding reasons, but at the end of the day we both firmly believe that the stuff just tastes better. And there’s no substitution for that. o

Published: April 06, 2009
Issue: 2009 Spring Green Issue