I live in a major metro area, so it’s easy for me to romanticize the idea of “farm living.” Still, having been nature-adjacent for most of my years, I have a deep appreciation for the quiet beauty of the countryside, and sometimes I just plain need to get back to nature. In Chicago, that means finding my way to Michigan, Wisconsin, or southern Illinois.
Recently, I was given an amazing gift in the form of a trip to Slagel Family Farms in Fairbury, Ill., about 100 miles southwest of downtown Chicago, where fifth-generation farmer LouisJohn Slagel and his six siblings run one of the premier meat farms servicing top-end restaurants in the exploding Chicago restaurant scene.
The trip was part tour and part dinner, as chefs Matt Troost of Three Aces and Michael Galen of The Bedford and Carriage House greeted the group with delicious snacks after the two-hour chartered bus ride from the city.
It was a delightful spread featuring lettuce wraps with bacon and bleu cheese and crostinis smeared with pimento cheese or chicken-liver mousse. The best, however, was a crostini topped with braised rabbit, arugula and some seasonal compote.
Well-fed, we took a tour of the family’s meat-processing shop a few miles from the farm. LouisJohn expertly broke down a hind quarter of beef in less than hour, while educating the group on the different cutting options a butcher has, how to spot quality meat and the operation as a whole.
At the end of the demo, the group had the opportunity to purchase freshly processed meat. I jumped at the opportunity to bring home two beautiful, bone-in New York strip steaks. I also snagged a few marrow bones and soup bones to aid in making homemade stock. I like to keep it on hand, since Chicago’s Autumnal Vortex has been sending some strong signals that braises and soups will soon be necessary for survival.
After returning to the farm following the butchering demo, more of LouisJohn’s siblings (and spouses/children) had arrived to assist with the remainder of the day’s festivities. A walking tour of the different livestock areas – cows, pigs, sheep, chickens and laying hens – gave us deeper insight into what it takes to provide hormone-free livestock on a sustainable scale. We saw laying hens with room to roam, free to lay eggs on their timetable, and not a 24-hour cycle imposed by artificial lights.
Ultimately, LouisJohn’s message was simple: “know your farmer” and “labels only take you so far.” Don’t focus on the raw numbers on a nutrition or the list of chemicals on an ingredient label; it’s more important to know your farmer and how they raise their animals or vegetables.
The chefs’ rustically divine menu featured a lot of the farm’s bounty. The travelers shared in the communal dining spirit, partaking of seemingly neverending BYO treasures from the myriad of coolers.
Here are a few examples:
- First course: braised beef neck and mushroom arancini, sweet corn puree, basil, endive, parmesan
- Second course: pork-belly sausages, aged cheddar polenta, arugula, Calabrian chilies, pickled fennel, roasted garlic jus
- Third course: black-pepper rigatoni, goat ragout, yogurt, parsley, pecorino
- Fourth course: sweet-corn cake, peach preserves, whipped cream
The epic meal inspired me to take a simplistic-yet-reverent approach to the beautiful steaks I brought home. Salt + pepper + charcoal: that was the recipe. After 15 minutes over indirect heat until the thermometer reached 105 degrees, the meat was seared over direct heat to finish at a perfectly medium-rare 115 degrees.
Served with a salad of Swiss-chard greens, bleu cheese, pickled chard stems, and shallots, the buttery New York strip complimented the richness of the cheese and acidity of the champagne-vinegar dressing.
In addition to a couple of amazing steaks, this journey gave me a deeper appreciation for the farm-to-table concept, and just what can happen when you bring the table to the farm.
Mike Lintal is an avid beer hunter and seeker of tasty treats. He lives in Chicago.