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If it’s fresh, it’s at the new Garden View Café

Chef Michael Kingsley riffs about the new menu

Karen Z. —  May 7, 2014 — 17 Comments

“Fresh. Seasonal. Delicious.”

That’s how area executive chef Michael Kingsley describes his food philosophy at our newly re-opened/revamped (and renamed!) Garden View Café.

Let’s start with a few photos of the food—just to focus the brain.

PHOTO: Yogurt with honey and fresh granola and berries.

Breakfast at the Garden? Try the fresh-made yogurt with granola and fruit.

PHOTO: Salad of baby greens with watermelon radish, bacon, tomatoes, and homemade croutons.

Lunch at the Garden? Try a salad of baby greens with watermelon radish, a hint of bacon, and homemade croutons.

PHOTO: Sandwich of grilled chicken breast, local white cheddar, roasted tomato, lemon-basil mayo, sourdough ciabatta.

Dinner at the Garden? Enjoy outdoor seating under the willows with your fresh-made balsamic chicken panini.

Chef Kingsley has the experience to know what those words really entail. He’s done it all in his decade-plus as a chef: cooked in the world of hotels, country clubs, and French restaurants; served VIP dinners to former President Bill Clinton, to Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and to sommelier Alpana Singh of Check, Please! and, as area executive chef for Sodexo, overseen the restaurants at some of Chicago’s most popular public institutions.

In a fun and foodie interview, the chef explained what makes the Garden View Café’s approach so interesting.

The Menu: Seasonal and Plant-centric

PHOTO: Flatbread with shaved cheese, grilled tomatoes, and balsamic vinegar on baby salad greens.

Seasonal veggies never tasted so good: arugula topped with shaved cheese and a drizzle of balsamic vinegar on a fresh-baked flatbread.

“We wanted a truly seasonal menu,” Kingsley says, “that changes three times per year, according to what grows in spring, summer, and fall. What we’re serving here is what’s really growing around here.” Of course, it takes a lot of planning to gather all the ingredients for a fresh-based café menu.

First, the chef worked closely with our horticulturists at the Regenstein Fruit & Vegetable Garden and Windy City Harvest Youth Farm to coordinate what’s being grown outside with what’s being served inside. That means some of the heirloom tomatoes, supersweet peppers, kale, onions, and carrots—the staples of the Café—are grown by the Chicago Botanic Garden itself. “Sometimes the produce picked in the morning will be used in the kitchen that afternoon,” Kingsley says. “The cross-pollination between the Café and our other Garden programs gives visitors unique access to truly fresh food.”

Map showing local sources for food at the Garden View Café.

Know where your food comes from: local suppliers from the quad-state area are proudly pointed out at the Café.

Beyond the Garden, Kingsley honed relationships with the local vendors that supply what the Garden can’t: bread from Chicago’s Red Hen Bread, pastured chickens from Indiana’s Gunthorp Farms, handmade cheeses and fresh sausages from Wisconsin’s best artisans, asparagus from Michigan’s Daisy Farms. “It’s not just that we use local chickens,” Kingsley explains, “but also that we support our neighbors—and therefore grow an economically healthy community for us all.” It’s a fantastic group of resources, whose names are proudly posted in the Café. Check out the full list of providers here.

The Service: Quick and Casual

With his resources in place, the chef turned to the how-to’s of service. How to grab a quick takeout or snack (at easy-to-browse coolers and a farmer’s table at the Café entrance). How to order from the fresh-cooked menu (walk right up to the counter at the open kitchen, where it’s prepared on the spot). How to get hot food to your table quickly (servers deliver and/or pagers buzz when it’s ready).

PHOTO: A pizza goes in to the pizza oven.

Flatbreads are baked to perfection on demand.

Two conveniences stand out:

  1. A Wood Stone brick-style oven. It’s big. It’s fast. It cooks Kingsley’s flatbreads (thin pizzas + yummy toppings) to crispy perfection. The daily flatbread special is always posted on the chalkboard, and there are four standard versions on the menu, too.
  1. Barista service. Double-skinny vanilla latte with a splash of hazelnut? No problem. At the new barista station, we proudly serve Starbucks coffee…and its full menu of hot and cold beverages. The baristas—all of whom have been trained by a Starbucks coffee master—are happy to talk roasts and brews, too.

An awesome view

PHOTO: View of the remodeled cafe.

The new Garden View Café

PHOTO: A view from the Skokie Lagoons of the cafe deck, with trees in bloom.

The café deck, abloom in springtime

It’s renamed the Garden View Café for a reason. The clean, open, airy interior lets in maximum light—and a photo-worthy view—through the big, Edward Barnes-designed windows. They act like frames around the always-changing view of the lakeside garden: daffodils in spring, flowering natives in summer, hibiscus in fall. Two outside decks (take your tray across the hall to relax with a view of Bird Island) act like the ultimate sidewalk café—except without the traffic, the concrete, or the noise. 

And then there’s the food

It’s good. Really good. Because it’s local and fresh, the tastes are vibrant. Because the cooking techniques are simple, it’s healthier for you. And because the menu is in tune with the seasons, each dish satisfies. “Even the desserts are minimally produced, but full of flavor,” the chef notes. (Yes, they are: have you tried the house-made baked goods yet?)

“Of course we give out Café recipes,” smiles area executive chef Michael Kingsley. “They’re not proprietary, and they’re uncomplicated—you can make meals this way at home, too.” Three seasons’ worth of café recipes are on our website.

Kids get the healthy treatment, too (though they won’t realize it). Sure, there are chicken tenders, but they’re baked with a cornflake crust. There’s mac and cheese, with good-for-you butternut squash as a hidden ingredient. And almond butter panini with apples subs for PB&J.

PHOTO: Cornflake-crusted chicken tenders with a skewer of fresh fruit.

What kid wouldn’t try fruit shaped like a star?

“Food at cultural institutions used to be high calorie and high fat,” Kingsley recalls. “Now, we want to educate people about how to stay healthy. The Café isn’t just a place to go out of necessity—we want you to say, ‘Let’s go eat at the Garden. The food’s great there.’ ”

We couldn’t agree more.

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org