Chef Paul Fehribach grew up on his family’s farm near Jasper, Indiana, and spent much of his youth in and around Kentucky.
He originally intended to be a musician, and earned a degree in music from Indiana University. But shortly after graduation he took a job working in a kitchen, where he fell in love with the art of cooking with local ingredients and heirloom recipes, and he laid his trombone down.
Fehribach is now the owner and chef at Big Jones restaurant in Chicago, which he opened in 2008 with an emphasis on seasonable, sustainable food.
University of Chicago Press has just published his first cookbook, “The Big Jones Cookbook: Recipes for Savoring the Heritage of Regional Southern Cooking.”
His own personal research into Southern cuisine has involved years of delving deep into historical cookbooks. In the introduction to his book, he notes that Edna Lewis’ “The Taste of Country Cooking,” published in 1976, changed his view on cooking and cemented his love for the food of the South. His menu is also informed by cookbooks that are much older, like 1839’s “The Kentucky Housewife” and 1879’s “Common Sense in the Household.”
In both his restaurant and his book, Fehribach emphasizes eating and cooking in keeping with the seasons. But how does that concept line up with a world in which all ingredients are available year-round?
“I wonder all the time whether eating seasonal is going to be the niche market that vinyl records have become,” he said.
“Everybody thought they would go away. Maybe eating seasonally is going to be a niche thing, but I think we definitely can eat seasonally. Yeah, you can get strawberries in December, but if you’ve had a strawberry from Kentucky in early June, you’re never going to want those California strawberries in December again, because they just aren’t right.”
While Fehribach has long been a supporter of the farm-to-table movement, he says it will need to expand to more people to avoid becoming just a passing fad.
“I think there’s a little bit of that going on already,” he said. “People are declaring the end of farm-to-table. I think that farm-to-table is here to stay.
“The question is, to what extent it grows and becomes a normalized way of eating, or whether it continues to be this niche thing that is seen as elitist. In which case, a lot of those criticisms that people throw at it are valid. If ordinary people don’t have access to food of that quality, then that’s just really quaint. You can’t call that a movement, it’s a marketing gimmick.”