Sugar and Smoke
A syrup-making picnic celebrates a family that cooks, another that farms and the restaurant—Chicago's acclaimed Smyth and The Loyalist—they've grown together.
Elliott Papineau tends a reluctant flame in the frigid blue dawn at his parents' farm. A late, wet snow fell overnight-good for sap flow, bad for firewood. He painstakingly dries logs on the grate. Giving up isn't an option. A lamb roast waits, and chefs John and Karen Shields are in a car, driving down from Chicago with their young girls. When the fire finally takes, ashes float up to dance in the sky with falling flakes. Elliott's dad, Alan, sets a pot of clear sap above the embers. Over the next few hours, it will cook down to sticky amber. Meanwhile, the fire will play hearth to a maple-kissed feast to kick off the growing season and to toast a thrilling blaze of friendship and collaboration that began two years ago with a spark of happenstance.
Fate and black walnuts
In August 2015, John Shields tweeted the universe for help. The Virginia chef was planning two restaurants in Chicago and needed an Illinois source for black walnuts. Elliott, a food-lover with an entrepreneurial streak, saw the plea and answered: He knew a guy. It was his dad. (Never mind that Alan and his wife, Rebecca, viewed their 20 acres as a retirement hobby, not a commercial venture. The property didn't even have a name. It was-and remains-simply The Farm.)
When John and Karen came to investigate the nuts, they fell for The Farm's untamed intimacy, the way patches of woodland interrupted the fledgling orchard and gardens. They also warmed to Alan and Rebecca, a master gardener who barters with neighbors to get organic rye for baking bread. These were people who appreciated good food and healthy soil, and this was a place that could provide foraged berries and pine buds along with eggs and potatoes. Restaurants rarely rely on just one farm for produce, but on a hunch, John invited the Papineaus to be the sole local purveyor for Smyth and The Loyalist. "Something was pushing me back to Chicago," he says. "Finally I was like, it's meant to be." In late 2016, Smyth earned a coveted Michelin star. The restaurant had been open only six weeks.
The sap is steaming, and the air tingles with wood smoke and anticipation when John and Karen arrive. Three generations of Papineaus and two of Shieldses crowd into the tiny kitchen, filling the space with hugs and wet boots. It feels like Thanksgiving. In stocking feet, John inspects the leg of lamb Elliott procured from a neighbor. It's been marinating all night in buttermilk and maple syrup. The menu also includes campfire carrots, sweet potato hotcakes and corn-grit cookies. "This one's Grandma's?" John asks, grabbing a skillet from Elliott. "I'll use that."
Back outside, Elliott strings the lamb over the fire, with a pan of onions resting below to catch drippings. While it roasts, the families tour the garden, threading footprints through the trees. Hopeful shocks of chives and nubs of sorrel peek from the snow. The greenhouse holds stranger things, like salad burnet and purple sprouting broccoli. Rebecca pinches off a taste of miner's lettuce-it's sour, bitter and a bit fleshy, like a succulent. "John likes to lay a single leaf across a dish," she says with bemused pride, as if still marveling at growing food for a restaurant.
"Dad's the muscles, I'm the idea man, and Mom's the grower," Elliott explains. "The chef and I go back and forth a lot. Sometimes we grow a few packets of something that neither of us has heard of or seen, and it ends up being the centerpiece of a dish."
A pantry of experiments
The syrup operation began like that, a curious notion to tap maple, walnut and birch trees and see what happened. It's a small piece of The Farm's work, but a special one. Sugaring is the first sign of winter's passing, a reminder that there's life out here, bursting to move again. "It's a pretty short window where the trees are sapping," Elliott says. "Water that's been frozen in the ground and inside the tree is trying to force its way up and out. Last year, we just used a Ball jar with a tap. It was overflowing within a few hours."
Commercial maple farms heavily filter their syrup, but John asks the Papineaus to leave some of the sediment. He likes the rusticity, the tangible reminder of where the food came from and who produced it. "The Farm gives us direction," he says. "When you have a jar of something they pulled out of a tree, it's not just an ingredient anymore. It's a story, and that really motivates me to do something special with it. It's the same with everything here, the greens, everything."
The families' uniquely exclusive chef-grower relationship allows everyone's tinkering spirit to thrive, with less worry over scale or practicality. Last year, John urged Elliott to harvest pollen and tiny pinecones for infusing honey. They've done the same with lilac, elderberry and redbud. Elliott also has made vinegar from tender black walnut leaves, leaving it to steep like sun tea. "There are projects that may or may not work lurking all around the farm and restaurant, like a pantry," he says. "Normal farms could never do that, because they don't have an outlet and it's too labor-intensive, but we can." Looping back toward the fire, Elliott spots a brown fungus on a juniper trunk. He snaps a piece off and crumbles it, musing aloud whether it's edible. Everyone laughs, but one can't help but sense it might show up, improbably and ingeniously, at Smyth, dusted over one of Karen's desserts.
Back at the fire, the sap has nearly turned to syrup, and the lamb has a bronzed crust. John warms rainbow carrots on the grate, then heaps them with endive, radicchio and a handful of those chives harvested from the snow a hundred yards away. He also drops a knob of Rebecca's homemade butter in a skillet for frying pancakes. Batter splatters the pan. The first hotcake has crispy, burned edges, nothing like the artfully tweezed dishes back at Smyth. Blinking in the smoke, John contemplates it contentedly: "Now that's a good country pancake."
A chatty bird up in the trees agrees. Alan cocks his head. "Hear that? It's spring."
Taste The Farm
John and Karen Shields recently doubled Smyth's Michelin star rating to two. Translation: this young Chicago restaurant is one of the best places to eat in the country right now. Each course of the tasting menu highlights seasonal ingredients from The Farm in creative ways that both challenge and dazzle diners' taste buds. (For a sense of what to expect, check out @chefjohnshields on Instagram.) Downstairs, Smyth's sister restaurant, The Loyalist, serves a more casual menu, including a killer burger, with gooey cheese and a triple punch of onion.