Sustainability Chef Geoff Rhyne of SugarToad at Hotel Arista

Sustainability Chef Geoff Rhyne of SugarToad at Hotel Arista
April 2011

Chef Geoff Rhyne’s childhood was a patchwork of sunny memories, sewn together with crab nets in the saltwater marshes of Low Country South Carolina and fishing lines dropped into the languid rivers of Georgia’s red dirt fields. Rhyne learned at a young age to respect his catch and keep only what could be eaten. His food philosophy was further shaped by picking blackberries and accompanying his great-grandparents on assignments, as editors and photographers for farm magazines.

During a break in his college baseball career at the University of Tampa, Rhyne took his first restaurant job in Charleston, South Carolina. In Charleston, Rhyne met Chef Jimmy Sneed of Frog and Redneck, who introduced him to Chef Mike Lata at FIG. For two years Lata mentored Rhyne, instilling in him an even greater respect for product and purveyor. After FIG, Rhyne moved to Upcountry South Carolina, and became chef de cuisine at La Bastide, where he hand picked the ingredients from its 10-acre organic farm for each night’s dinner service. But he wasn’t just picking produce; Rhyne worked with farm manager Craig Weiner in determining crops for the menus and starting the inoculation of hundreds of logs for a mushroom farm.

It’s no surprise Rhyne’s menu at SugarToad in Naperville, Illinois, where he’s been executive chef since 2008, is ingredient driven and farm focused, showcasing the best of the Midwest and American cuisine. The garden that Rhyne planted steps away from the restaurant provides fresh heirloom tomatoes, peppers, potatoes, and herbs. But Rhyne takes his sustainability message beyond the kitchen. He was a founding member of Slow Food in Greenville, South Carolina; he spoke on sustainability at Furman University; and in 2010, he was a featured speaker at a TEDx event, where he addressed sustainability in agriculture to an audience of forward thinkers like himself.

Interview with Chef Geoff Rhyne of SugarToad - Chicago IL

Emily Bell: What inspired you to pursue cooking professionally?
Geoff Rhyne: Professionally? I would say just probably working in individual restaurants. My story of getting into restaurants wasn’t that glamorous. But it was Mike Lata down in Charleston. I started working for him, and his focus and respect for products and the integrity of the work that we did, as well as just dealing with the farmers, that’s when I discovered that’s exactly what I want to do.

EB: What advice would you give to young chefs just getting started?
GR: I’d say you have to be organized and disciplined and have a strong sense of focus. If you want to be great at this, as with anything, I think you’ve just got to put your head down and apply yourself. Not just in work. Outside of work. To be great at anything, it’s got to kind of consume you. You need to think about it outside of work, be reading constantly and finding inspiration through what you read, as well as what you do every day at work.

EB: Is a culinary degree a prerequisite for you when you’re hiring?
GR: Hell no. I went to college for seven years, and I have nothing to show for it. I went to three different colleges. I played baseball at the University of Tampa, transferred to Charleston, and then started working at culinary school. It’s good for fundamentals. But really you’re going to learn under someone who’s going to take the time to really mentor you. That kind of stuff can’t really happen in a classroom.

EB: What’s the difference between the classroom and the line?
GR: It’s no offense to chefs in schools. It’s just a different environment. It’s kind of a sterile environment. Whereas going to work with a chef at an independent restaurant—where his livelihood depends on a business—to pick up an education through him, it’s the hard knock life. It’s like knowledge you learn on the streets, it’s more applicable. I think all too often kids get out of culinary school thinking they’re ready to be a sous chef—which couldn’t be farther from the truth. Not to knock culinary school. It’s really all about drive for me, if they have the drive and if they want to learn.

EB: What do you want them to learn under you? Which is to say, what’s your philosophy on food and dining?
GR: It’s all about the product. You start there. Source great product. I take that mindset. We talk about it in the kitchen. With the time we spend sourcing product, our job’s just not to mess it up. It comes in so great; if we use proper technique, and season it right, it’s going to taste great. If you want to plate it aesthetically or present it in a particular way, it’s up to the chef. Styles come into play. But it’s about respecting the product, where it came from. The whole “what grows together goes together” thing.

EB: What about the experience of dining?
GR: Keep everything pretty approachable. My granddad’s 87 years old, and I’d want him to come into the restaurant and feel comfortable. The best meal I’ve ever cooked was for him. It was the anniversary of my grandmother’s passing. We just hung out for four days in South Georgia, in the middle of summer. We had a simple succotash with salmon. It was delicious. He still talks about it today.

EB: What goes into creating a dish?
GR: We start with a central ingredient. For instance, we start with beets; we taste the beets first to understand how they’re grown, what their intricacies are. Beet salad is a good example because we have three kinds: chiyoga, golden, and red. So we lightly pickle each one in different kind of vinegar to enhance the nuances of each one. It’s all about how to showcase the main ingredient. The rest are supporting actors. Everything else is there to lift that up, not to dominate it. Again we try to keep it fairly familiar. We want to keep everything straightforward, aiming for maybe five ingredients or less on the plate.

EB: How do you perceive yourself and your position within the culinary community?
GR: At the end of the day, while I am a chef and I love what I do, there’s still always a greater sense of community. I want to bring amazing ingredients to people. It’s great to talk about sustainable food and be able to offer it in a restaurant, but unless it’s available for the public, it kind of misses the point as far as sustainability.

EB: How do you reach out further? To farmers? To the public?
GR: We have one guy for all of our meats. He’s two hours south. The best compliment he could pay me was two Saturdays ago in the mid-afternoon. He called me up and said, “We just want to come up for fun! Can eight of us come up here?” And he and his family came in. That’s awesome, the coolest compliment. And we offer CSA to the public. Whatever meats we buy, our customers can join in. We do that with both meat and produce here. We serve as a drop-off and pick-up location for a produce CSA and a meat CSA. We establish connections and relationships and open them up to other people. We’re not trying to make a buck off it of it. It’s just the right thing to do.

EB: How have you incorporated sustainability and your mindset into SugarToad?
GR: As far as sourcing product, you have to do some research. It takes leg work to figure out who’s doing things. But there are organizations out there that help, like Chefs Collaborative. When I first moved to Chicago, Chefs Collaborative did an Earth Day Event at North Pond that brought farmers and chefs together. There were 20 different farmers; that’s how I initiated relationships. That’s a great way to use these organizations—they’re out there to spawn these relationships.

EB: So there’s an infrastructure of chefs and farmers that facilitate sustainability?
GR: It’s kind of a challenge. And it’s the same with seafood. Coming from the East Coast, when I got to Chicago I thought, “How am I going to get fresh sustainable seafood here?” I reached out to Barton Seaver. I did an event with him four years ago. I met him once, but I just knew at the time—and still now—he’s the man as far as sustainable seafood. I asked him some questions and got hooked up with this company called Sea to Table, based out of New York. They have five outposts: Louisiana, North Carolina, Alaska, New York, and Trinidad and Tobago. They have relationships with fishermen. They put us in touch with the fishermen, and we get fish straight from them.

EB: What about waste management within the restaurant?
GR: It’s all about total utilization and respect for animals. You’ve heard this a million times—“You don’t raise a pork chop.” When we get a whole pig, we figure out how can we do things to utilize the whole animal. Our philosophy is take things more foreign to the customer, like beef heart, and present it in mainstream way. For instance we did a corned beef heart. We brined it for six days and cooked it in beef fat, and it tastes better than most regular corned beef. It’s looking at those tricks of the trade to present product in approachable manner to customers while also staying true to what we believe.

EB: Do you think it's difficult to structurally incorporate sustainability—local product, less waste, etc.?
GR: I can’t imagine a good argument for not being able to do what we do. For me it’s easy; it’s what I want to do. If you set your mind to something and you’re passionate about it, it only makes sense. I guess it’s like I have an addictive personality—I just want to keep going to going the next step. That’s how we started our own garden.

EB: Tell us about your garden and how it influences the restaurant.
GR: It’s 1,600 square feet. We thought, “wouldn’t it be cool to grow our own stuff too?” When you have a 22-year-old cook that’s able to go pick tomatoes he’s cooking that night, it opens his eyes to that world. If people have a part in growing [producs], they respect the effort it takes to grow and it makes them appreciate it more. Then they have newfound respect for the farmers that are doing it on a day to day basis. Those are the ones that should be lauded. I’m tired of chefs getting all the praise. Farmers are some of the hardest working people out there.

If you really care about food the way chefs should care about food then you’re going to want to do all this. This is the way everything used to be, so what happened?

EB: Do you think it’s becoming at all more pervasive in Chicago?
GR: Chicago itself has huge support for local movement. Green City Market is one of the best markets I’ve come across. A lot of chefs are loyal to the different farmers there. They’re just great people who grow great product who you can work with, hand in hand. When you forge relationships where they can specifically grow something for you, that’s a whole new dimension. Another restaurant, 20 minutes away from us, is now ordering a couple things every week from our CSA, coming and picking things up here. So not only are we a drop-off location for food and CSAs, but another restaurant that this guy might not deliver to is able to piggyback his order. If we can have a couple restaurants every couple months jump on the bandwagon, it’ll make a pretty serious impact. I’d always like to see more. Ideally I want every restaurant dealing with farms. But it’s a process.

EB: What was it like speaking at TEDx? Do you think more chefs should take their message across disciplines?
GR: I think they have to. Especially with TEDx. I suck at public speaking, I hate doing it, and I never want to do it again. But I think there are certain people out there that are very good. I’m just very passionate about it. But there are certain people that really possess this ability to get onstage and touch people. That’s what great orators are. Dan Barber’s two TEDx speeches are amazing—one about foie, one about fish farming. He keeps the audience engaged and can pull in a variety of people. Same as Barton Seaver, who talked about seafood, and Jamie Oliver, who talked about childhood obesity. There are great forums to get the word out on a larger scale.

EB: You also have a blog. Does that help get message out?
GR: Yes. And I’ll keep up the blog thing. I enjoy writing. But public speaking? Probably not again. Dan Barber’s the man as far as that goes.

EB: What’s the toughest thing you’ve had to do in your job?
GR: Spending time away from my wife. I’ve lived in Chicago without my wife for two and a half years now. She still lives in South Carolina. I moved out here to open up this property and the economy tanked. It’s an unstable time, so instead of us completely uprooting, she stayed. I’m very family oriented, a lot of what I do is influenced by my grandfather, who was a farm writer growing up. They had chickens in the backyard. They had a greenhouse, and they would hunt and utilize the whole animal. My quiver that holds arrows was made out of hide. All my family is back South. Far and away the hardest part of this job is the time you have to spend time away from loved ones. But it will be worth it. In the big picture, in the long run, it’s going work out for the best.

EB: Where do you see yourself in five years?
GR: Probably still working hard in the restaurant. My goal is to continually make food, good clean fare to really keep bringing that product to the forefront, showing how awesome it can be in our way and showing how we can utilize everything—showcase the versatility of the product, making it accessible to more and more people.

EB: So that would be success for you?
GR: Getting people more and more connected with food. I don’t want to be preachy. I think there’s enough info out there now where people are really realizing it. To me, again, we are reverting back to where we were years ago. This is how people always used to eat. We got a little lazy and spoiled in this fast food world. But we’ll keep bringing it to the forefront. Bringing people back to the table. I love that stuff!

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