There hasn't been a better time to be meat-free in Chicago. The city is teeming with veg-friendly dining options, and it seems that the city of hot dogs and pulled pork is slowly experiencing an awakening to some greener alternatives. On a daily basis, I still have to counter comments expressing concern or disdain about the lack of meat on my plate, but the term "vegan" no longer has to be pronounced in hushed tones.
Some of North America's pioneering veg-friendly restaurants-- including Karyn's and The Chicago Diner, just to name a few-- started a movement in this former meat-and-potatoes city that has been trickling down to the mainstream ever since. However, when I think of the sort of restaurant that the meatless scene is still sorely lacking more of, I think immediately of Green Zebra.
Image from GreenZebra.com
How many vegetarian restaurants feature pressed white tablecloths, luscious libations menus, and in-house microgreens growing in their kitchen? It's a bit of a risky kitchen concept-- to many, "upscale" means the juiciest, meatiest of meats that money can buy. Vegetables haven't yet reached a luxury status in the popular consciousness.
However, Green Zebra takes the notion of sumptuous, exciting food and channels it into a menu that tells a story-- spanning both the ground that the ingredients were grown in to their larger role in the chain of food sustainability and preservation. The tangible result of renowned chef Shawn McClain's "respect and appreciation for purity of ingredients, with a specific focus on locally produced, seasonal fruits and vegetables," Green Zebra will make any vegetarian's heart go pitter-patter.
I, currently a beginner chef-in-training, had the opportunity to "stage" (basically, work as an unpaid apprentice in a kitchen for a day or two) at Green Zebra and experience the kitchen from the inside out. I was anxious throughout the entire week leading up to the day of the stage, as the fear of the unknown bloomed inside me.
On the day of, I walked through the restaurant's back door into what could be aptly described as the kitchen of my dreams: bustling, pristine, and featuring dazzling, jewel-colored produce in every walk-in cooler and work station. I was immediately put to work chopping an array of vegetables for the house-made giardiniera relish. Around me, the kitchen moved like a well-oiled machine: blanching fairy-tale fiddlehead ferns, unwrapping tiny plump Christmas-tree-light onions, and tasting dark firm huckleberries grown in the pastry chef's own garden (destined for use in a sorbet special for the night).
Green Zebra offers a menu of seasonally-rotating small plates to be shared between table mates, as well as an individual five-course prix fixe tasting menu. The current chef de cuisine, Jon DuBois, stresses that the menu is "vegetable-focused"-- not vegetarian by strict standards, as the menu includes some rennet-processed cheeses or gelatin-based desserts, but also featuring multiple fully vegan dishes and unique endeavors to incorporate specialty produce and “endangered foods.”
For those unacquainted with the term (as I was), endangered foods are those identified by the US Ark of Taste as “threatened by industrial standardization, the regulations of large-scale distribution and environmental damage.” The organization works with food producers and chefs to regenerate demand for these products and encourage farmers to grow them. Their belief, shared by Chef DuBois, is that these products are intrinsically linked to the history of our development as a nation—such as the beautiful corn species Capalote, the first to enter the US from Central America—and as such, deserve to be fostered, protected, and enjoyed.
Green Zebra makes an effort to highlight these ingredients in dishes when possible, and also works with local farmers, creameries, and foragers to source their produce. As I was working in their kitchen, their back door was a constantly-revolving passageway for purveyors of exotic-looking fruits and vegetables to parade through. These ingredients made their journey from boxes in purveyors’ arms to delicate culinary gems in the form of a beet salad with barley and local greens, flatbread with “melted” leeks, and their signature dish: a perfectly poached farm egg in a smoky potato purée that hits all of the same warm, hearty, intensively savory notes as a perfect cut of meat.
Overall, Green Zebra is one of the best restaurants Chicago has to offer—which is really saying something, and a qualification I don’t pronounce lightly. Their culinary philosophy is to honor each ingredient and let it speak for itself, rather than transforming it into something unrecognizable. It is a gem for the vegetarian community and beyond—and a beautiful, passionate kitchen to work in.