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Feature Fri Sep 04 2009

Uncommonly Green @ Uncommon Ground

"We have a great culinary group here in Chicago. Great restaurants. Great chefs. And [Uncommon Ground] will be the future right here for many of those restaurants. The customer wants this."
—Mayor Richard J. Daley

No matter where you turn, it's gotten pretty hard to avoid the words "green," "sustainable" or even "farm to table." And since green (ecologically speaking) has become so green (financially speaking) it's only a matter of time before even McDonald's hawks a sustainable solution while eating out. The problem is that some of the greening of our dining tables is merely lip service.

Farm View 1.JPG

In the U.S., it's the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) that controls what is considered organic and what isn't. Anything bearing the label "100 Percent Organic" must contain, according to the USDA, "(excluding water and salt) only organically produced ingredients and processing aids."

The next label, "Organic," can only be applied to products that "consist of at least 95 percent organically produced ingredients (excluding water and salt). Any nonagricultural substances approved on the National List including specifically non-organically produced agricultural products that are not commercially available in organic form." Pretty confusing, huh? It basically means your organic ice cream could have corn syrup in it so long as it doesn't exceed 5 percent of the ingredients.

Lastly is the "Made with Organic Ingredients" label, which "must contain at least 70 percent organic ingredients" and may list up to three of the organic ingredients. An example of this could be an ice cream made with organically produced milk, eggs and sugar.

The problem is that some consumers also equate labels like "Free Range," "Sustainably Produced," "Cruelty-Free" and "No drugs or growth hormones used" with being organic. Like herbal dietary supplements, these statements are not evaluated for validity. So what's a conscientious consumer to do?

Well, if you're in Edgewater you can dine at Uncommon Ground (1401 W. Devon) and rest assured that you're doing your part to support a business that's doing its part to create a truly sustainable and green dining experience. And it's not all talk.

The building was redesigned and refurbished with LEED (The Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification in mind. The interior is a beautiful restoration featuring the original brick, salvaged woods and locally built furniture. And the basement was dug out an additional five feet to accommodate the steel beams reinforcing the rooftop farm.

That's right. A farm. Chicago's first Midwest Organic Services Association (MOSA) certified, organic rooftop farm. The nation's first one as well. This is a fact that's not lost on Chicago's leadership. In attendance at Uncommon Ground's green ribbon cutting were Alderman Patrick O'Connor (40th Ward), Alderman Mary Ann Smith (48th Ward), and Mayor Richard J. Daley. During the ribbon cutting ceremony, the mayor spoke to the greening effort in Chicago.

Mayor Daley 2.JPG

"As mayor I always believed that nature can coexist in urban communities," he said. "And this is an example of all the roofs in the city. You get up on the Hancock or Sears and you look down and you see all the flat roofs of the city. What an opportunity to bring nature back into our city."

Talking to congestion, pollution, and civic pride points, the mayor then cut the green ribbon officially celebrating the farm's certification.

After, the speeches and ribbon cutting most of the crowd retired downstairs to the restaurant for a complimentary brunch of fresh bright raspberries, blueberries, and cherries, and a plate of crisp home-style potatoes with a delicious creamy egg scramble of goat cheese and fresh herbs.

UG Brunch 1.JPG

Owners Helen and Michael Cameron are making real their vision of a future where the local restaurant is more than just the place down the street. It's a community table that is not only a business, but a place of respite and a learning opportunity. It's an idea that the city is more than just steel and concrete. And It's a place where you can dine on produce from some of the best local farms and one only 20 feet above your head.

Natalie Pfister, Uncommon Ground's farm director, said, "This farm represents a model for new ways of farming... There is nothing more local than climbing your fire escape... and harvesting tomatoes. We have the opportunity to utilize the city we've built in new ways. Raising the Great Plains two, three, sometimes 30 or more stories higher."

mark / September 5, 2009 1:14 PM

For such a "sustainable" restaurant, Uncommon Ground's menu is remarkably not vegan friendly. That was quite disappointing for me and my friends.

James / September 5, 2009 1:27 PM

Yes, because "sustainable" = vegan...get over yourselves.

Michele / September 7, 2009 7:26 AM

Uncommon Ground is one of my go-to restaurants in the neighborhood. The food is always great and love the fact they grow some of their food right on site.

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