From time to time, we are privileged to review food or drink products that interest us. This week we’re happy to introduce you to a brand of all-natural nut butters, a line of slightly exotic seasonings, and a new line of drink-enhancing cordials for mock- or cocktail time. Love to hear your feedback on any of these you decide to try.
Crazy Richard’s Nut Butters are made without the usual oil, added sugar and salt. Our experience was that the peanut butter tastes more like pure nuts than others we’ve tried. The texture seemed a little drier as well. Crazy Richard’s butters come in traditional jars and in single-serve carry-along or lunchbox pouches. Try it in Extra Creamy or Crunchy Peanut Butter, Almond Butter, or Cashew Butter. The new Peanut Powder is convenient for ramping up protein in smoothies, and for baking or cooking. And they’ve just launched their new frozen snack line, Wholly Rollies – Frozen Protein Balls. But if you decide to buy online, be sure to compare prices. We found dramatically different pricing on different sites. For example, Amazon was three times more than Walmart. So do your due diligence.
Pereg Natural Foods makes a wide variety of unique food products. We recently agreed to sample a couple of their distinctively different seasoning blends that work either for sweet or savory. We found both of them complex and pleasurable in their own ways. We used the sweet blend as part of our seasoning in our favorite slow-cooker dessert/breakfast/snack recipe for no-crust pumpkin pie. It gave the dish a slightly exotic touch that went perfectly with the normal pumpkin-pie-spice-mix of cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg and cloves (or allspice). We also liked it quite a bit mixed with cottage cheese sweetened with a good sprinkling of powdered stevia. What an easy way to have an exotic but healthy dessert without cooking!
The savory mix gave a little mystery to the slow-cooker chicken we rubbed with it. We highly recommend trying these seasonings if you like to give your cooking a little pizzazz without a lot of work – and without a lot of extra sodium and sugar. Pereg hawaij retails for about $5.99. Available at kosher food stores, independents, health food and many chain stores (ACME, Albertsons). And check out some of their other healthy products like pasta made from quinoa. Love that idea!
Sōm Cordialsare hand-crafted with exotic botanicals, tropical fruits, local Oregon berries. They’re called cordials because they’re concentrated. You use them as flavorings to mix zero-proof “mocktails” or to create luxurious regular cocktails without having a closet-full of bottles for special liqueurs. Flavors include Ginger, Cranberry, Tangerine, Oregan Berry, Thai Basil and Pineapple. Conceived and perfected by a chef who loves Thai cuisine. Mix one of these with plain or even flavored sparkling water and you’ve got yourself a complex, layered treat. If you want a kick, they mix beautifully with real spirits, too. We did one with 3 parts raspberry-lime sparkling water, 1 part Tub gin (really good gin, by the way) and 1 part Cranberry. Wow. You’d have thought we had a professional mixologist hiding in the kitchen. Read more here.
Surprised and delighted to learn that River Roast, 315 N. LaSalle St., offers cooking classes. Well, more like cooking demos because you get to watch rather than participate. Besides the beautiful and eclectic decorations in the space, the great view of the river and the delicious foods you get to eat, one of the most positive things about these sessions is the fact that you get to ask River Roast Executive Chef Cedric Harden any cooking question you want (preferably related to the dish he’s preparing right in front of you – when you sit at the bar, which we highly recommend), and he gives you the straight dope from his extensive professional experience.
Attending a recent class felt like the most fun you can have in downtown Chicago on a regular Saturday afternoon. That day Chef Eric Lees, Chef de Cuisine at Spiaggia, a sister restaurant in the Levy Group of fine establishments, was on hand to assist. He and Chef Cedric put on a truly down-to-earth demonstration of what it’s like to invent and to execute an original dish.
It was pure pleasure watching the construction of the spring greens salad at this Cooking with Spring Ingredients session. Oh, and before the first course, the chef surprised us with an appetizer that wasn’t on the menu – a lovely concoction of salumi slices, wedges of fresh fig, and fresh arugula nestled atop a creamy puddle of locally made burrata. Delicious. Back to the spring salad. Have you heard of using shaved raw asparagus along with steamed asparagus tips together in a salad? It’s a cool idea that works very well, especially when dressed with a lovely handmade Green Goddess dressing. The freshness of all the flavors and the whole combination made all the students’ tongues happy. And that was just a single one of the many interesting ideas and tricks the chef gave his guests. He shared his knowledge generously, from talking about where to learn knife skills to explaining why and how to salt the water for pasta (you’ll be shocked to hear what he suggests!).
Included in the price (~$65) you’ll be served a number of small cocktails/wines throughout the class. Just enough to give a pleasant buzz on a sunny Saturday afternoon. But it’ll undoubtedly work just as well on a cloudy one.
The winter series of cooking demos is finished now, and we are eagerly awaiting word on the new series. This is one of the most delightful ways to spend a Saturday afternoon that we can imagine. A bit of spirits, a lot of delicious food, and a generous helping of professional knowledge – a win-win in anybody’s book. Have already told friends about how much fun this was, and we can’t wait to get the new schedule.
Time to think about some spirits to uplift yours! Here are some news notes from three such companies: Rush Creek Distilling is a local distiller that’s just generally lifting spirits around town and for buyers online. Maker’s Mark is uplifting the spirits of sports/Chicago/Cubs fans and bourbon lovers across the land. and Bacardi is uplifting the spirits of women – and that spreads to everyone! Consider lifting yours with a few of these.
Rush Creek Distilling makes small batch releases of really nice vodka, gin and whiskey. The company is located in Harvard, Illinois, so it’s a kissing-cousin Chicago institution. The vodka and gin are both distilled from grain, so the flavor is unique. The American Gold and the Trophy whiskies are lovingly, slowly distilled. All the Rush Creek spirits are made using pure spring water and local grains. Plus, the distillery sounds like a beautiful and unique place to visit – artisan-designed and built to exemplify the spirit of craftsmanship. Book a tour and make a little vacation of it. They love to promote a spirit of adventure – even have an Adventurous Spirits Club you can join.
Recently Chicago welcomed Rob Samuels, grandson of the founder of the iconic bourbon Maker’s Mark, as he celebrated his company’s partnership with the Cubs. He met with media, Cubs people, club owners, and others as part of inaugurating the new Maker’s Mark Barrel Room, one of the private clubs for season ticket holders that’s opening in Wrigley Field this season. He highlighted key points in the history of Maker’s Mark, including how Bill Samuels, Sr. used to bake bread – and translated some of what he knew there into the beginnings of the famous bourbon. He also invites everyone to make a reservation at Star Hill Provisions, the on-Kentucky-campus full service restaurant and bar, with Chef Newman Miller offers authentic local cuisine with locally sourced ingredients – some coming from distillery employees’ own farms. There you can learn more about the deep and proud connection between horse racing and bourbon and about out how dramatically bourbon has increased in popularity in just the past decade.
Bacardi, one of the country’s premier spirits makers, kicked off its second annual Spirit Forward Women Empowerment Series April 1st in Chicago. Now they’re on the way to LA (April 23), then New York. Experts from hospitality, fitness, finance and entertainment will celebrate female leaders and entrepreneurs, especially the hospitality industry. Attendees will learn from panels, networking opportunities, hands-on workshops and more, designed for all genders, race, cultures and geographies. The theme this year is “originality,” and high-level industry speakers will address how it informs everything from the creative process to problem-solving bigger issues in the hospitality industry.
Some Italian, South American and Spanish wine makers of old focused their attention on producing the most possible wine to sell – because the citizens of their countries loved wine and consumed it in large quantities as part of their everyday routines. These days, many of those same wineries have gone completely over to focusing on high quality fine wines. The El Vinculo estate winery in Spain is one such vineyard.
The Fernández family is passionate about creating a legacy that reclaims the quality inherent in the heritage of D.O. LaMancha, despite the years during which quantity goals overshadowed quality. They make wines that call upon your highest spirit to appreciate them in full. Founding father Alejandro makes sure all the wines he produces at El Vinculo – ever since the estate began in 1999 – are unique in quality and class. He leases from selected growers of grape varieties that are indigenous to the terroirs of La Mancha. Below are brief descriptions of a few examples of wines produced to his rigorous standards.
El Vinculo Alejairen 2015 DO La Mancha. Made with 100% Airen and the only white wine made by the Fernandez family. This golden white wine has the subtleties and layers of flavor we ususally associate with a culinary masterpiece – yes, it’s so rich and full that it tastes almost like food. Look for rich, unctuous flavors of ripe apricot, brioche honeycomb, creme brulee and soft white flower notes in both the nose and the palate.
El Vinculo 2013 Crianza D.O. LaMancha. 100% Tempranillo. This uniquely intense wine boasts savory notes of spice and smoke along with plum and violet in the nose. Be aware of rich notes of ripe plums, toasted wood, fresh tobacco, barbeque spice and vanilla liquor – earthy and complex, with well-defined tannins and a persistent finish. Potent flavors and good acidity yield to cool sensations on the tongue.
Condado de Haza 2015 Crianza, D.O. Ribera del Duero. 100% estate-owned Tempranillo. Enjoy the intense balsamic and ripe fruit aromas as they morph into undertones of sweet spice that develop from the wine’s extended aging in neutral American oak. It is fresh but also fleshy, with round tannins and beautiful balance that lead to a very long finish.The weather this vintage produced superb quality in the grapes.
Tinto Pesquera 2014 Crianza, D.O. Ribera del Duero. 100% estate-owned Tempranillo. Burgundy in color with a soft fuchsia rim, this soft, elegant wine offers aromas of red fruit, candied apples, vanilla and nutmeg. It’s silky on the mid-palate with its well-rounded tannins and satisfies the most demanding palates with its long velvety finish. Enjoy it now, or lay it down to for up to several years.
Susana Balbo turns the rich terroirs of Mendoza, Argentina, into her personal palate for creating fine wines of all varieties. From whites and rosés to reds, these wines are made with deft yet powerful touches that make them standout choices for entertaining, gifting or simply enjoying at home. Try some of these for your next party – wherever it might take place.
Susana Balbo Signature Rosé 2018. 60% Malbec and 40% Pinot Noir. Almost impossibly luscious. Hard to believe it’s a rose – but then roses have become all the rage these days. And this one is right up there with the nicest. Elegant salmon color with a delicate nose of floral with aromas of strawberry and cherry. Fresh, juicy acidity pairs with strawberry and red currant flavors.Nicely balanced and well structured. Great by itself or paired with smoked salmon, Asian food, grilled white meats and hard cheeses.
Susana Balbo Signature Brioso White Blend 2017. 45% Semillon, 30% Torrontes, 25% Sauvignon Blanc.Aged 4 months in first-use French oak barrels and 40% second-use. Floral and citrus aromas with hints of resh grass, white fruits and orange. Tastes of flowers, fresh and fruity, combine beautifully with the smooth oak ageing. Persistent finish with nice minerality. Great potential for aging. Pair with fish, rabbit, Asian food and hot sauces. Very nice.
Susana Balbo Signature Brioso 2016. 53% Cabernet Sauvignon, 24% Cabernet Franc, 16% Malbec, 7% Petit Verdot. Deep, bright ruby red in color, this wine has strong tannins with its sweet red and black fruit and subtle oak flavors. Aged 15 months in 100% new French oak barrels. The elegant florality of Cabernet gets additional flavor and complexity from the other grapes. Fine and fresh finish with excellent ageing potential. Serve with beef, pork, lamb, squab, quail and duck. Highly enjoyable.
Under Susana Balbo’s sister (brother?) label, BenMarco, come these delicious options:
BenMarco Cabernet Sauvignon 2016. 100% Cabernet Sauvignon, aged 11 months in 100% second-use French oak. Grown in the rich, alluvial soils in Los Arboles, Uco Valley. the grapes gives this wine a rich concentration along with its floral notes. On the palate, black fruits, black pepper and cassis balance with fine-grained tannins. Serve with beef, sausages, veal, rabbit, medium-strong cheeses and meat pasta sauces. Utterly delicious!
BenMarco Expresivo 2016. 75% Malbec, 25% Cabernet Franc. Aged 14 months in 100% new French oak barrels. Chalky alluvial soils in Gualtailary, Uco Valley, where BenMarco grows these grapes, yield a wine with deep, bright ruby color and notes of chalk, earth, floral, peppercorn and tree fruits. Ultrfine tannins and great ageability. Enjoy with grilled meat, veal, medium-strong cheese and spicy sauces. Wonderful wine.
BenMarco Malbec 2016. 100% Malbec. 11 months in second-use French oak. Grown in sandy loam and rocky soils, the grapes must struggle and thus assure the complexity of this wine with aromas of fresh black fruits and hints of violets. Great balance with fine tannins and just enough acidity to lift the wine and add to the length of the finish. Complements beef, sausages, spiced or grilled pork, medium-strong cheese and meat-based pasta sauces. Excellent!
Kim Crawford is renowned for Sauvignon Blanc wines that are reliably excellent – and that taste very much like each other – from vintage to vintage. That’s unusual in the wine world. Most vintages change according to the vagaries of the weather. Kim Crawford’s secret is blending – and going on blending – until each vintage tastes enough like the last one to give consumers a sense of comfort and familiarity.
Chief Winemaker Anthony Walkenhorst, a tall, handsome , slender young man with striking blue eyes, was already a seasoned winemaker when he joined the Kim Crawford team in 2005 and began working side by side with the founders to learn to capture the essence of the brand. Now, he shapes the brand’s unique style of wines while living by its unwavering philosophy about making wine. Read more about Anthony below.***
On a recent visit to Chicago, Anthony sampled the newest vintage of the classic Kim Crawford Sauvignon Blanc 2018. Rich and juicy acidity with a hint of tropical pineapple, this vintage, like all of KC’s SVs, requires lots of blending in order to reach the KC classic profile. This one retails for ~$17.99
On the same visit, Anthony introduced a new Reserve version of the brand’s top selling varietal: Kim Crawford Signature Reserve Sauvignon Blanc 2017 from the Marlborough region of New Zealand. Made with grapes grown from a certain small area in the vineyard where the market vegetables used to grow. The ground is flat and at a lower elevation and as a result, the wine has big aromatics. It’s a crisp, very minerally wine. STP ~$24.99
Another notable expression among the wines he brought to Chicago recently was the Kim Crawford Chardonnay 2017. 100% Chardonnay Alc 13.3% Consider this creamy, unoaked (although he says they’ve officially stopped using that term) wine that pairs nicely with almost anything light. Its second fermentation is what gives it the creamy mouthfeel. SRP ~$16.99.
Any of these Kim Crawford beauties would make a lovely hostess gift for your next dinner with friends!
***Anthony’s journey to becoming Kim Crawford’s chief winemaker befits the unique flavor and rebellious nature that’s ingrained in the brand’s DNA. As Anthony puts it, “Being a winemaker allows me to combine creativity and growing, which I love. I was hooked from the beginning.” An attitude that Kim Crawford couldn’t agree with more.
Anthony received his First Class Honors Bachelor of Agricultural Science Degree from the highly esteemed University of Adelaide in Southern Australia. In a quest to immerse himself in every aspect of wine after his studies, Anthony traveled the vintage trail to partake in harvests from Australia to Napa Valley.
That spring, the stars aligned and a spot at Kim Crawford Winery opened, one which Anthony jumped on. This was not only the chance to work with one of his idols, but with the famous Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc grape at the same time. After his first batch won the Sauvignon Blanc Trophy at the Year New Zealand Wine Awards, everyone agreed, it was a match made in heaven.
Like his mentor Kim Crawford before him, Anthony immerses himself in the entire winemaking process from the harvest to the blending to ensure every bottle is as good as his first batch.
Tasting through the wines with the guy who made them is always a delight. In this case, the service and food at Pacific Standard Time (here’s ChicagoMag’s lively review) were excellent, and Anthony was a warm and friendly host. Born and raised in Australia, he moved to New Zealand when he became part of the Kim Crawford team and is now the face of the company around the world.
California was the original US player in the global wine market. And now individual regions, just as in France, have become stars on their own. Everyone knows about Napa Valley. And everyone has heard of Sonoma – in fact, many say the two in the same breath, “Napa-Sonoma” to describe the richest wine terroirs in the state. And lately, Sonoma County – roughly 1700 square miles that is home to about half a million people – is taking pride of place as a truly innovative leader in the wine world.
Sustainability is a question on everyone’s mind, especially in these days of increasing global warming, and Sonoma County Winegrowers are behind that concept in spirit and in fact, in no small measure because of their trade association president. This dynamic woman, Karissa Kruse, came to Chicago recently to talk about the exciting news going on in their region.
Kruse is a petite blonde beauty with the education, experience and passion to make her the ideal flag carrier for Sonoma County Wine Growers. She used to be a Chicagoan and still loves to visit, but has now gone completely over to the California wine country lifestyle. She is passionate about helping the members of her association become more effective at sustainable growing and helping make wine an even more powerful force for good in the world.
Hosting a group of trade and media at a beautiful semi-private dining space at GT Prime Steakhouse, the trade president glowed as she talked about the exciting initiatives she’s helped spearhead on behalf of Sonoma County Wine Growers. One of those is the move to have every single vineyard in Sonoma County be certified a sustainable growth vineyard by 2019. This will be the first entire region to be certified in the United States and possibly in the world. Sustainable farming requires a commitment – of faith and of resources – to make it happen and keep it going. Kruse was a driving force in getting the wine growers to understand how critical it is to make that commitment in spite of what might appear to be insurmountable obstacles like cost.
Many compliments to the serving staff and the culinary team at GT Prime steakhouse where Sonoma Winegrowers presented their wines with a carefully curated selection of dishes. The Dutton Estate 2017 Kylie’s Cuvee Sauvignon Blanc from the Russian River area (just grapefruity enough, yet much smoother than a typical New Zealand SV), and the sustainably grown Lynmar Estate 2016 Quail Hill Chardonnary were delectable with all the first course choices, which included Tuna Tartare, House Gem Salad (strawberries, snap peas, manchdgo) and a Kale Salad with sweet cherry tomatoes, brioche croutons and white anchovies).
The second course choices were Prme Beef Tenderloin, Halibut with lobster, fennel and corn, or Roasted Green Circle Chicken Breast with chipotle buttermilk, cucumber and onion rings. Along with the entree GT offered shared sides of Shishito & corn with parmesan sauce, lime and paprika, French-style mashed potatoes with chives and olio verde, and Brussels Sprouts with maple butter, prosciutto and peppercorn. All this was paired with two Sonoma reds.
Stemmari is one of the premier wine brands in Sicily today. And their winemaker Lucio Matricardi, PhD, came to Chicago recently to share some of the exciting new ways he is using Sicily’s indigenous Nero d’Avola grape to make powerful wines, including Stemmari’s new creation, Hedonis Riserva Sicilia DOC 2015.
Tall and handsome, with the quintessential charm for which Italian men are famous, Lucio revealed some of the secrets of the work he is doing for Stemmari. Speaking to a group of members of Chicago’s trade and media at Fig & Olive’s delightful semi-private dining space, Lucio explained that Nero d’Avola, the single most important grape in Sicily – grown on 50,000 acres of the island – is quite different from those associated with areas like Tuscany – e.g., Sangiovese, Italy’s biggest-selling grape and the principal ingredient in Chianti Classico. Lucio explained that the Nero d’Avola grape suffers in the dry wind conditions of Sicilian vineyards and then expresses itself with vigor.
Stemmari’s basic Nero d’Avola 2016 vintage is deep red with violet pinpoints and has a bouquet of wild strawberries in the forest with hints of currants and pomegranate. The flavor is fruity, soft and velvety. And the Nero d’Avola grape takes very well to blending. For example, Lucio makes a wonderfully rich and structured wine called Cantodoro. He brought along samples of the 2015 vintage of this blend of 80% Nero d’Avola and 20% Cabernet Sauvignon (~$16). He says adding Cab grapes grown in the same soil as the Nero d’Avola complements and gives muscle or backbone to the Nero d’Avola. In this case, the Cab mix gives a deliciously full and structured mouth feel, flavor and finish. Lucio makes many a fresh and elegant wine for Stemmari, including a Pinot Grigio, a mango-and-papaya scented Grillo (another extremely popular Sicilian grape that Stemmari brought back to prominence for its floral, fruit and nut flavors with a hint of salinity ~$10), a Cabernet Sauvignon, a Pinot Noir, a Moscato, a lovely, fresh and fragrant Rosé Terre Siciliane IGT (~$10) – the 2017 is perfect with food, even spicy meats.
And introducing one of his most impressive accomplishments, Lucio presented the new Riserva that artfully combines the strengths of both Nero d’Avola and Cabernet sauvignon grapes – Stemmari Hedonis Riserva 2015 (~$50). Winemaker notes:
Color: Intense ruby red with hints of violet. The resulting aromatic profile of Hedonis is a bountiful and deeply complex expression with hints of dried red fruits, anise and sweet spices, notes of almond, vanilla and tobacco resulting from aging in wood. There is a profound structure on the palate along with a velvety and juicy attack, finishing with soft and sweet tannins.
This premium red blend is a showstopper in the Italian red category.
And while we’re at it, let us not forget to compliment the serving staff and the culinary team at Fig & Olive where Stemmari held this lovely introduction of its wines. Delicious bites and warm, gracious service all round.
Affordable wines that complement your meals and showcase for you the unique beauty of the Sicilian marriage of soil and vine. Perfect for gift giving or treating yourself anytime.
We are sometimes offered samples in the hope we’ll review them, so we try to accept samples of only products we think our readers might be interested in. They’re usually food and drink, but sometimes they’re simply related to food and drink, like today’s products (occasionally they’re even more random than that). One is a floss-bristled toothbrush that’s also antimicrobial. The other is a new type of food storage container we are pretty excited about called Wellslock. We wrote about these once already but thought they were worth mentioning again.
Doctor Plotka’s Mouthwatchers is a group promoting the toothbrush invented by a dentist that has flossing bristles that clean better on and around your teeth. Those bristles are also infused with silver which they say makes them naturally antimicrobial – meaning they eliminate 99% of bacteria that grows on bristles between uses. The net effect for users of the new brush, according to their marketing department, is an opportunity to have better overall health by not reintroducing harmful bacteria into your body via your toothbrush. They couldn’t direct us to any scientific studies backing this up or any way for the consumer to see it in action, so feel free to take this claim with a grain of salt.
But those flossing bristles do seem to clean teeth better than any of the brushes we’ve been using lately – grocery-store varieties and the ones that come free from the dentist. We like the feel of this brush when it’s cleaning – it seems more thorough than most toothbrushes these days that are being made with fewer and fewer bristles. The Doctor Plotka’s brush bristles are also made of polyester, which they say will outlast the nylon ones on most traditional brushes. Can’t say for sure on that because we haven’t been using this one long enough, but we did learn something new. Their marketing materials note that your toothbrush durability is based on times you brush. SO, if you only brush once a day, yours should last six months instead of three!
We are fans. And if you try it yourself, they offer a 100% guarantee that if you don’t like it, you get your money back. You can get ’em in a two-pack on Amazon for $9.99.
As for Wellslock, these containers boast a double-snap tab that, in one move, creates a watertight seal that really works. And the plastic of the containers themselves (not the lids) is nearly crystal clear, like glass, so you don’t have to guess what’s inside. We particularly appreciate that they come in some unusual sizes – for example, one deep enough to accommodate a big avocado with just a small section removed (normally something we’re not able to fit into a plastic container and have to put in a plastic bag), or a big chunk of fresh orange or of red onion or any clunky piece of fruit or veggie. We use one for our cut lemons and limes, which we tend to have always on hand. Once you’ve identified a size that fits something you regularly use and/or refrigerate, you may, like us, tend to want to re-use that one for the same thing each time. It’s like buying one of those containers-made-just-for-half-an-onion, except it doesn’t have to be for that. It’s nice having options!
We enthusiastically recommend these Wellslock containers. Safe for dishwasher, microwave and freezer. Start with the smaller 14-piece mixed-size Wellslock storage set ($27.47 on Amazon). Try ’em in the bathroom, or sewing room, or craft room, or kitchen, and see where your imagination takes you. P.S. The taupe-tinted lids look classy.
Christmas is not quite yet a dim memory, but you’ve got a whole new year ahead to get acquainted with a new kind of treat. If “dough” is your favorite cookie flavor, we’ve got great news. You’ll never have to be without your kind of cookies again now that Joe Dela Pena is gracing Chicago with two locations of his Warm Belly Bakery (1148 W. Monroe in West Loop, and 2472 N. Clark in Lincoln Park).
Cookie dough is where Joe, founder and owner of Warm Belly Bakery, started his dream. Despite his scientist-parents’ propensity to serve up very good chocolate chip cookies made from rolls of Nestlé Toll House Morsels’ dough, Joe the kid – and later the grownup – dreamed of eating cookies of all kinds that tasted as good as that dough. He began experimenting to find a cookie recipe that yielded cookies as close to the texture of cookie dough as possible without being mushy or raw-egg risky. And now Joe’s dream is already blossoming beyond his expectations. We met with him at his West Loop cookie café recently to talk about how it all got started.
Joe is the picture of a warm, caring guy. His kindness and self-deprecating humor shine out from his tall, substantial frame, which he describes laughingly as “Body by Cookies.” His West Loop space is a great place for a small, private meeting – cozy and inviting with tables and chairs, benches and walls full of art that’s custom-designed for Warm Belly, including a giant painting of the company’s cookie-belly logo.
Joe’s mom had taught him some Filipino baking techniques growing up, but his soul kept calling out for more, so he continued messing around in the kitchen. While still in college, Joe promised cookie rewards to investors as a way to drive funding for his 5K run for cancer – and was surprised when people contributed thousands of dollars. More than he bargained for, having to bake all those cookies – after he came home from work. He was amazed to find that people continued, after the race, giving more money for the cause just so they could get more cookies. It occurred to him then. Maybe there’s something going on here. A business hadn’t been on Joe’s radar, but…
Joe met his business partner at the gym where they both worked out. And the rest, as they say, is history. From locations in the trendy West Loop and recently a storefront in Lincoln Park, to a handy dandy food truck, vendor participation at Chicago Gourmet, and baking champion on Food Network, it looks like just the beginning. “We are where we are today from a combination of sweat and hard work and luck,” said Joe. The Warm Belly concept has become so popular that franchise companies are already after Joe to work with them. “We’re not there yet, though,” he said. “Things have got to be repeatedly successful and then proven to be replicable before we think about going there.” The new Lincoln Park location is a great start.
Joe’s heart was in his original profession of teaching English to high school kids. He remembers loving Shakespeare from an early age because of a book that printed Shakespeare’s English on one side and a modern English interpretation on the other. He said he learned pretty quickly how to interpret the language himself and as a result realized just how cool Shakespeare’s stories really were, even in modern times. His other passion was coaching kids in tennis. Many of his former students remember him fondly – we heard about him from one of his coachees Meredith, now a talented young physical therapist in Lincoln Park – one of the many who kept urging Joe to open a spot in Lincoln Park.
Now Joe’s humbly grateful to be mentioned in the same breath as some of Chicago’s finest chefs, and very happy that his new profession as Warm Belly cookie guru gives him lots of opportunities to interact with kids. Several schools near the West Loop location send a steady supply of young customers in for after-school treats, and parents become regular customers for birthday and other party orders. Joe makes sure when they come in the store, it’s more than cookies that keep them happy. The mantel over the fireplace – right under the Warm Belly custom-painted logo pic – is loaded with books for all ages to enjoy. “The array is always changing,” said Joe. “Occasionally a kid ends up walking out with one. Sometimes people bring in a new one.”
The office and kitchen for Warm Belly is next door in the rare-and-antique-car building owned by Joe’s business partner. Joe was kind enough to give us a look at his showroom-clean-and-organized storage and baking spaces and at the amazing array of flavorings, colors and add-ins that inspire him. Gives you a strong sense of how much imagination and care go into these cookies.
But nothing prepares you for the actual taste. On first sample, you may think, oh, these are pretty good. But then the magic sneaks up on you, and you find yourself irresistibly drawn to take another bite. And another. And if you’re not really careful, it’s shockingly easy to consume the entire quarter-pounder cookie at a sitting, particularly if you were hungry. We have had this issue with every flavor we’ve sampled. We leave it to you to make up your own WBB playlist of favorites. Uh, by the way, theydeliver these addictive cookies via several popular services. Use Postmates to get them from the Lincoln Park location.
The array of flavors grows and changes on a regular basis – from the S’Mores cookies that won him the Food Network competition and the dozens of other flavors that rotate in and out, to the several that are fixtures of the store (PB&J, Double Chocolate Chip, etc.). One of our favorites is the beautiful purple Ube cookie flavored with a bean-like plant that’s indigenous to the Philippines where Joe’s family is from. We love that it’s topped with a lovely swirl of not-too-sweet lavender frosting that coordinates beautifully with the purple dough. Num! Check out the whole Warm Belly menu here.
And by the way, we highly recommend you get at least your first batch in one of the WBB tins. The tin makes a perfect storage container – just the right amount of seal and breathability to properly preserve the slightly crunchy exteriors and cookie-dough-ish interiors of these giant treats. And of course, it’s infinitely refillable.
Not meant for those who like their cookies thin and crisp but, for anyone who loves cookie dough or soft, chewy cookies with a slight crunch on the outside, these are the bomb. Don’t say we didn’t warn you…
Follow Joe on Instagram @thejoedelapena and follow the cookies @warmbellybakery.