Like many health-conscious Chicagoans, I’ve dined, and even seen a couple of live shows at Uncommon Ground in Wrigleyville over the years. I’ve always enjoyed the bright, natural ambience, attentive service, and loved whichever hopeful artist I chose to see, and of course, the food. It wasn’t until recently that I started to really consider all that went into their organic “farm to table” concept, and I had no idea that they had their own certified organic rooftop farm and organic brewery, let alone another location in Edgewater! By the way, the “farm” is not just an herb garden, we’re talking a legit farm – complete with beehives!
I had the privileged to sit down with the passionate founders of Uncommon Ground and Greenstar Brewing, Helen and Mike Cameron, on Uncommon Ground’s impending 25th anniversary. We chatted about what organic, sustainable ingredients mean to them and why we, as consumers, should care about such practices. They shared more details about their organic rooftop farm, Greenstar Brewing, how they met and also discussed some of their favorite musical guests and menu items.
Mike and Helen arguably started the local food movement in Chicago, back in 1991, by offering organic, locally sourced foods on menus that rotate with the seasons. Not only did they pioneer the “farm to table movement” they also opened smoke-free – this was unheard of in the early 90’s! People thought they would go out of business immediately. Not only was that not the case, they have survived the cut-throat Chicago restaurant industry, where more than 40% of all concepts fail, for 25 years strong.
They are true trailblazers in taking a huge leap of faith to offer the Chicago community great food with purpose, while staying true to their values. I left our talk feeling energized and extremely inspired to pay it forward and be the change that I want to see in the world. I hope you enjoy the Q&A as much as I did.
Helen and Mike Cameron
What does farm to table mean to you?
Helen: It means that you have to focus on the season and what is available (from local farmers), which shifts throughout the year. We’ve been farming for 9 years ourselves, and no season has been alike due to climate change, which makes it difficult to plan our menus far in advance. One of our goals it to help localize the food system, it’s important for our food safety.
Mike: We change our menus a lot, even the bar menu (based on seasonality). Our beverage manager designs the menus week by week based on what is available from our sidewalk and rooftop farm. That means our menu changes a lot. On the restaurant menu the sides change with the season but the main protein may stay the same. Mighty Vine, a local glasshouse grower of vine ripened tomatoes, allows us to have tomatoes year round now. In the past we just wouldn’t offer tomatoes on our menus when they were out of season and guests would ask us for a slice of tomato on their hamburger and we would refuse. We didn’t want to offer them a tomato with no flavor that has been gassed with pesticides and other chemicals.
Have you always done farm to table?
Helen: Yes, people thought that we were hippies, but we aren’t. We just wanted to serve the type of food to people that we were eating ourselves.
Tell us more about your certified organic rooftop farm – it’s the first in the USA, correct? What makes it a farm and not just an herb garden?
We grow .015 acres on the 800 sq.ft roof at our Edgewater location and some vegetables and herbs on our 70 sq ft side garden at the Lakeview location. We have planter boxes that are extremely efficient and have their own irrigation system built right in. Our rooftop farm is certified organic, which means we have to follow a set of standards in order to maintain our certification. We produce so much food in such a tiny space – 2/lb per sq. foot! The earth boxes we have are very efficient!
Why certified organic and not just organic?
Mike: Some of the farms we worked with would tell us that there was too much paperwork, money and hassle to get the certification, while others would say it was not a big deal at all. So we took it upon ourselves to see what it was all about. Certifying organic means there are no chemicals in our food stream and we have a third-party come in to ensure that we are following all of the organic certification requirements.
Helen: For us it was the simplest thing to get our certification, because we started from scratch doing it this way, we didn’t have to go back and change a lot of details, but then from there, learning how to do the documentation with a farm plan at beginning of the year and everything else was a lot of work.
“The organic process is all about biodiversity – bad insects may arrive, so naturally good ones come to keep the system in check. We use nature to work it’s course to grow our foods organically and care for all of the organisms that make the foods grow.” – Helen
Do you think consumers are truly educated on what organic actually means?
Mike: People are becoming curious, they are reading more and having kids, so they are educating themselves. People have not extended that thought process into what they drink yet, however. You can also get into the whole food vs. future healthcare costs (since organic is more expensive). But (if you eat organic) you will be healthier and will have fewer health issues later on. If we keep eating the way most of us do, it will cost all of us more money later on.
“Chemical companies make a lot of money from farmers using their pesticides and chemicals, such as roundup (weed killer), which is on US conventional wheat crops, because it dries up the wheat faster. This is illegal in Europe, perhaps this is why so many people are becoming sensitive or intolerant to gluten? ” – Mike Cameron
What’s the deal with GMO’s?
A lot of research proves that GMO’s are not as nutritious as we’d like them to be. Big AG companies are genetically engineering the plants (wheat, soy, corn are the three big crops) so that they in fact are pesticide ridden crops and they do not die when sprayed – pesticides literally live in the plant seed!
Where do you source your produce in the cold months?
What we produce in-house is a very small percentage of what we need, but a lot of the herbs and some of the produce is grown by us. Not everything is locally sourced, but we source local as much as we can and with the season. There’s been an evolution in local sourcing over the years. In the early days we would make direct contact with farmers and they would deliver directly to us, but that wasn’t efficient for us, or the farmers, so we sat down with our other restaurateur friends and farmers to see about a distribution network to make it more efficient. Today, we are grateful for companies such as Testa Produce and Local Foods that have solved this problem for both parties, making it easier to source local and organic foods in a sustainable manner.
What about Sustainable?
Helen: We are sustainable in that both restaurants have solar panels that heat the water and they provide 10% of our energy a year. It was an expense up front, but it was paid off in 4 years and now 10% of the energy for both restaurants is powered by the sun! We also have solar panels at home and an electric car that is charged by solar panels – so our car literally runs on sunshine!
Mike: We have an old jeep that runs on diesel and for the past 8 years I’ve been sending our oil from the restaurants to Loyola University where they turn it into biodiesel. This is what we use for the jeep. It smells like french fries every time I start the car!
What was your motivation to open the first certified organic craft brewery in Chicago?
Mike: We’ve been wanting to open the brewery for a very long time, and knew that it had to be organic. Our biggest challenge for our brew master, Martin, was that nobody had ever certified a brewery organic in Illinois, which presented a challenge for sourcing (the ingredients). We went to great lengths to ensure it was certifiable; 100% of every ingredient that we put into our beer is certified organic.
What are some of the issues the general population should understand when it comes to growing barley and hops for beer production in the USA as it relates to conventional ingredients vs. organic?
Beer is food and growing the ingredients to make beer; hops and barley (malt), are crops that are sprayed with a lot of chemicals. I have a number of friends that have not been able to have gluten for years and they came to our brewery grand opening and 3 out of 4 of them had no issues, whatsoever, with our beer.
How many varieties of beer will you offer at a time?
Mike: That varies. We cannot brew the beer fast enough. The goal is to have 10 tap handles, but occasionally we get to 6/7 taps. Some beers have longer fermentation times than others, IPA, APA, kolcsh are usually always available. The other beer will vary with the season. Right now we have a radler and a black current kolsch .
Helen: Nobody else doing a certified organic black current kolsch out there. The inspiration for this beer came from my mother, who was from Cologne. Currents are very popular in Eastern Europe, so it’s an ode to her; “mutti” means mom in German, and our black Current kolsch is named “mutti’s black currant kolsch. “
Will you be distributing your beer throughout the city to other restaurants, hotels, concert venues and bars, or keeping them exclusively for Uncommon Ground?
Right now, we are serving our beer exclusively at both of our restaurant; mostly because we cannot keep up with our own demand. We may cherry pick 4-5 other like-minded restaurants and have them offer our beer, as we do have plans to expand.
When can I try the rum raisin stout? It sounds incredible!
That is a winter stout, so late winter, early spring is when this comes out since we rotate the beer with the season.
What advice would you give to other restaurateurs that want to adapt more organic, sustainable practices but are scared due to sourcing challenges and passing on higher prices to their guests?
Helen: Do a little bit here and there, as much as you can. We do what we can when we can. Sometimes organic is too expensive or it’s not available. Yes, organic is more expensive, but if we keep creating more demand, the prices will come down.
Why did you make the decision to incorporate music and other art forms into the Uncommon Ground restaurant concept?
Mike: I had a small little label back in the day. My brother and I were musicians and I also represented a few artists. Since we opened, we’ve been doing music 7 nights a week. There is not a venue in the city that has been doing this for 25 years! We needed to have a ground zero for music in the city, where anyone could play.
Can you name some of the most notable artists that performed live at Uncommon Ground over the years?
Mike: We were the launching ground for so many artists – Jeff Buckley and Howie Day had some of their first shows here.
Glen Hansard of the Frames, and the movie Once, had is first show here. David Grey called me personally. I didn’t believe it – when I picked up the phone, I said “f -you, who is this really”? Train got signed here by Sony; Gavin DeGraw – because we are “ground zero”, nobody knew these artists, but I did. We are still good friends with (Jeff) Buckley’s mom, and we host a yearly tribute to him, and she attends.
What is it like working together being husband and wife? Ever get sick of one another?
Helen: (smiling at her husband) No, actually, we have a divide and concur mentality. Early in our marriage we worked together in the industry for the Levy’s for three years and would see each other every once in a while, but not enough. Then Mike brought me to this French Hotel, The Richmont, he was working at, so we could work together. I was the Sous Chef and had a Chemical Engineering background, and at 26 years old I became the Exec Chef of the property. I didn’t feel prepared, but I ran the bistro and the hotel. Mike created a jazz club in the hotel and Otis Clay would drop by. This is when the nightly music started.
What is your go-to alcoholic drink of choice?
Helen: “Agripolitan” which is organic Koval vodka, strawberry rhubarb shrub with a rhubarb garnish. It’s a philanthropic cocktail that benefits our rooftop farm agriculture internship. Previously we had the “Tree-tini” and planted 10,000 trees in India as a result, but someone else trademarked the name after we had it on our menus, so we were sure to trademark this cocktail.
What is the best plant-based dish that you have on your menu today?
Helen: We’ve been running a fun gnocchi dish with asparagus, but it’s changing soon since we are moving past asparagus season. The greens and grain salad is Mike’s favorite. The fried green and heirloom tomato salad is also something we are very excited about.
Greens and grains salad featuring house-grown edible flowers and spouts
When you are not working at the restaurant, the rooftop farm or running operations for the brewery, what do Helen and Mike and Cameron enjoy doing in their free time?
Together: What free time? We actually take separate vacations, but this year we are going away in August to Croatia.
Helen: 3 years ago we built a “green house” as in, its sustainable; so we just enjoy being home and doing nothing and cooking. We entertain small groups at our house and have a small garden.
Anything else we should know?
Every year we have a harvest dinner at the Devon location. It’s a slow food fundraiser and it’s all vegetarian. It’s on August 24th, so a lot of items will come from the farm. It’s an organic beer and farm dinner. Almost everything we make and grow ourselves will be at this event.
Come celebrate with Helen and Mike Cameron of Uncommon Ground Chicago on their 25th Anniversary this Friday, July 1st, at the Edgewater location (1401 W. Devon). The party is free and will be hosted on their rooftop farm, complete with organic bites, cocktails and brews! As a bonus, I will be there too! Anyone who dines at either location that day will receive 25% off their bill with the option for a $25.00 prix-fixe menu! #Eatwell #Livewell #PayitForward and share!
Uncommon Ground operates 2 independently owned restaurants located in Chicago. The first, located in the Lakeview/Wrigleyville neighborhood, opened in 1991. The second uncommon ground location opened in the historic Edgewater neighborhood in 2007. Both uncommon ground locations are open for brunch, lunch and dinner daily and feature contemporary comfort cuisine with an emphasis on seasonal, regional, organic ingredients. The bars feature famous house-infused organic cocktails, a selection of local craft beers and an eclectic, sustainable American wine list. Enjoy tree-lined outdoor cafes in the summer & 2 warm, cozy fireplace in the winter. uncommon ground operates the “1st Certified Organic Roof Top Farm in the US” as well as our own brewery, GREENSTAR BREWING, “The 1st Certified Organic Brewery in Illinois” – M.O.S.A. For more information, to book a table or plan a visit, check them out here and be sure to watch their quick video!