Marion Street Cheese Market, 100 S. Marion Street, Oak Park, IL
L’Amuse Gouda has the color of a harvest moon. Pockets of salt crystals gently collapse against the dense fudgy texture tasting of caramel, hazelnut and subtle earthen notes. How can this all be in a cheese? you ask yourself. The mountain herbs and wild flowers used to make up the brine of the washed rind Bergblumen Käse become better versions of themselves when in cheese form. Historian William Cronon said of Frank Lloyd Wright that “for him, what an artist is is a person who transforms nature by looking at nature, passing it through the soul and in the expression of what the soul experiences in nature, something more natural than nature itself emerges which is as close as we get to G-d.” While not advocating for a religion revolving around cheese – it probably already exists, anyway – Cronan’s words ring a truth that’s worthy of question: Is cheese more natural than the ingredients of its composure?
One gets the sense that this is happening within the experience of the artisan cheesemaker. Such a powerful experience would be enough to move anyone to do more than just eat, however. For Eric Larson, it was what he needed to crystallize the kaleidoscope of his person into focus.
“I had a longing to be an entrepreneur. My wife and I were foodies, and my wife’s mother started turning me on to cheeses of France, Switzerland, Britain,” reminisces Larson, “and then we started seeking out these cheeses. I’d go to Sam’s Wines in Wicker Park because at the time that was the only place that had true Swiss Raclette, for instance. And then I started to learn about American artisan cheese.”
We know the end of this story. Eventually, Larson opened up a cheese shop. What we don’t know, and what’s been made official care of a successfully completed accreditation from The Green Restaurant Association, is that Larson’s shop exemplifies another passion of his that’s been around long before the cheese and long before the Association.
“I can remember as a kid in my house running around – I must have been 10 or 12 years old – seeing how slow I could get the electric meter to spin.” Larson pauses to laugh before he goes on. “When my parents were gone, I’d turn off the lights and every little thing I could think of and then run out to see how much slower it was going.”
As a child of the 70’s, Larson carefully provides context for his intense passion for the environment. “I remember well the No Nukes movement, I remember well the old commercial of the American Indian crying – there was just a big push in the 70’s towards environmentalism and growing awareness.” The way Larson depicts such a time, it seems perfectly reasonable to think every child of the 70’s should have turned out with such a high regard for the environment, that it’s just a matter of common sense.
And so, Larson ran his cheese shop in accordance with his own code, a code that had yet to be codified into anything approaching official. “We were the first business in Oak Park to use compostable to-go deli containers back around November, ’05. This was even before Whole Foods was doing it.”
As impressive as this might be, what’s more impressive is that Larson had never professionally cut a piece of cheese until his first day in business. In addition, Larson explains: “I worked seven days a week for nearly two years. I didn’t have my first employee for almost a year. It was just me, everyday. I did everything. I’d come in and open the store at 8 or 8:30 in the morning and wouldn’t leave until 8 at night.”
After a couple months, Larson was exhausted and morale was low. Then, something happened that in the movie version of his story will include parting clouds and cascading shafts of light scored by angel chorus: an overheard conversation.
“I still remember the first day I met her,” explains Larson as he refers to Mary Jo Schuler. “She came in with her sister and turned to her and said, ‘This is exactly what Oak Park needs more of.’ And I remember that day because it was in the first couple months of the business, and I was struggling. She also spent a good amount of money that day. I thought, ‘OK, there’s hope!’ Over the course of time, she became a regular. When we got the wine list, she started buying wine. A couple of years later, we started talking and dreaming and this is how this came to be. She also had the same environmental ethic as me.”
Now with more employees and support from Schuler, Larson moved across the street to what is now the present location of Marion Street Cheese Market (MSCM). The move meant not only a larger space for more retail items including craft beers and wines along with honey – they have their own beekeeper – and chocolates but a bistro as well. “We worked with the architects and made it clear that we wanted to be as environmentally friendly as you can get. The bar rail is re-milled glass made in Chicago, and the tables were reclaimed from an old restaurant,” explains Larson. It’s also not a coincidence that the chairs appear to be made from what were once seat belts.
What’s not so apparent is the other side of Larson’s commitment to the environment, that when it comes to running a cheese shop and bistro, everything must come from sustainable, local sources that are organic whenever possible. Chef Leonard Hollander trots out some of the complexity involved under such constraints: “We rely on 15 to 20 farms for product, and none of it comes from agribusiness.” Larson further explains that they are careful about their food distributors: “We use Testa who powers their trucks with biodiesel fuel or Fortune Fish who has a whole line of environmentally-friendly fish. And so, as much as we love tuna, you’ll never see it here because it’s over-fished fish. Conversely, halibut is in great supply, so we feature halibut.”
Such care also translates to cost, something that’s not a surprise to anyone. The numbers, however, are breathtaking. For instance, eggs are about three times the cost. Meats can be just expensive and yet, the cost is worth it. As Eric explains, “The pork we serve are allowed to burrow and as one farmer said, our animals literally have only one bad day in their life.”
With all this care and investment, Larson it seemed a natural step for MSCM to apply for accreditation. After all, explains Larson, “We thought we’re one of Chicago’s greenest restaurants, but we can’t officially say that because we haven’t gone through the accreditation process. So we did a few upgrades: hand dryers in the bathrooms, but we didn’t have to do much. And now we’re one of only three restaurants in Chicago with three stars.”
Protests usually look like people with picket signs or sit-ins, not cheese shops. But when Eric Larsen opened up the Chicago Tribune’s food section back in June, 2004 and read an article about the growing popularity of artisan cheese in American, something clicked. He immediately called his wife and shared with her that he wanted to open a cheese shop. Undeterred by her gentle and loving accusation of insanity, Larson held fast to his vision: “I just barreled forward, found a location, signed a lease, double-mortgaged our home and did all the stupid things you should never do. I put the first down payment on my Discover card for the security deposit on the lease.” It’s still unknown if Larson is actually insane or not. With the recent birth of twins, life in the Larsen household might just be beyond crazy. Of course, if it results in something like the Marion Street Cheese Market, we should all be so lucky.