I'd move into Locally Grown Gardens if Chef Ron Harris would let me. I'd curl up between the bushels of apples and boxes of garlic; I could pluck one of the bags of fleur de sel - imported in bulk from France - to use as a pillow. I'd wake up to the smell of sugar cream pie and coffee and the daily hog roast.
It feels like home, and that's the point.
"The whole market is everything that I've always enjoyed in my life," Harris, who is often called simply Chef Ron by regulars, says.
When Harris opened Locally Grown Gardens in a 1950s Standard Oil Gas Station in 2008, everything came from his house: the oven, the porcelain, the flatware.
Harris is locally grown too. His first job in a kitchen was a high school job as a dishwasher at MCL Cafeteria. After stints at Ciattis Italian Restaurant, The Keystone Bar & Grill and the Illinois St. Food Emporium, Harris graduated in 1990 from the Culinary Institute in Hyde Park, N.Y., then found his way into high-profile positions with Larry Forgione (An American Place, Beekman 1776 Tavern) and Jean-Georges Vongerichten (Jo Jos). He was swept at that time into the burgeoning local, slow food movement.
"Working with Larry was working with everybody. In the '80s, everything was just new," says Harris. "Wolfgang Puck, Paul Prudhomme, Alice Waters - we would do dinners with all of them throughout the year. They all ran in tight circles."
Building relationships between farmer and chef was a priority in those kitchens.
"[Forgione] sourced top-notch ingredients from all over the country. The farmers would bring something to your back door, and then you're cooking it," says Harris. "It makes it more intimate. It made my product more valuable and the connection more natural."
After five years in New York, Harris returned to his hometown with a job offer: Corporate Chef for MCL Restaurant & Bakery. While there, Harris developed those same relationships with local farmers.
"I thought that the best thing that MCL could do was empower the farmers and source ingredients directly from the farmers in the Midwest - corn, melons, strawberries, etc," he says. "It was a very new thing for these farmers to do that kind of volume. It went really smoothly overall, but it took years."
After 12 years with the company, he was ready to launch his own spot, just steps from the Monon Trail and off 54th Street.
"When I first started in April of 2008, I was initially just going to do produce," says Harris. "Then, the fall came along and the produce was running very lean and I needed to make a living, so I went back to my roots of cooking. I thought, I can make pies, I can do hog roasts - I had no idea of a blueprint of where I was going to do, besides offering the things I've always enjoyed and knew I could deliver."
Harris opened a sitting area to serve his fare (menu items vary seasonally, but often include grilled salmon and freshly made salads), and moved in his collection of cookbooks, creating a food library framed by massive glass windows. His produce selection grew steadily, always seasonal and often local.
Throughout the spring and summer and into the fall, the wide doors of Locally Grown Gardens are thrown open and more treats (in October, pumpkins; in April, herbs) line long, rough-hewn tables in the store's front lot. Fridges in the back are stocked with chilled glass bottles of specialty sodas, fresh eggs and a small selection of cheeses.
But what we keep coming back for is the pies, gorgeous and silky, with thick crusts, including a sugar cream served year-round.
"People have a lot of memories of that pie - either they have memories of it or they've never heard of it, one or the other," Harris says of the sugar cream. "You don't see it around very often."
Harris bakes an average of 300 pies per week during the summer months (and around half that amount during the winter), including seasonal pies like peach, blueberry, pumpkin and apple as ingredients allow. Has all that pie baking has soured him to the idea of eating the sweet treat himself?
"No, no. I've actually developed more respect for the pie because how it allows me to live. Sugar cream pie - I cannot turn that down," says Harris. "The seasonal pies like the blueberry? I'll eat at least a couple slices a day. So I might eat 2-3 slices of pie per day in the summer."
Harris has made Locally Grown Gardens into a collection of what's best in life, culled from a lifetime of caring deeply about ingredients, aesthetics and community. And pie. There's still plenty of time to place your order for Christmas.
[Food+Drink] Dining Out
[Food+Drink] Dining Out
[A+E] Theater + Dance, Dining Out