Michael Altenberg

Michael Nagrant / 04.24.07

If chef Michael Altenberg were any more green, he might glow in the dark.  Long before shopping at organic markets became a flashy photo-op for media-savvy chefs, Altenberg was quietly dishing up tasty organic dishes at Campagnola in Evanston and Bistro Campagne in Lincoln Square.

Altenberg’s commitment stems from both professional and personal inspirations.  As a young chef at Italy’s Antica Osteria del Ponte, he cut herbs and picked vegetables from the restaurant’s garden and went to a poultry house to pick out birds for dinner service.  His young son contracted a strain of leukemia likely caused by exposure to toxins, and eating organic food was a way to rid poisons from his family life.  His newest project, Crust, an organic pizzeria opening next month in Wicker Park, is an attempt to bring affordable, healthy and locally grown food to the masses.

Q. What do you wish you could change/pickle about the Chicago restaurant scene?

A. I would like to see fewer chain restaurants and more sole proprietors.  My wish is to preserve the diverse ethnicity of the city.  We have a world of options, and I believe that preserving each group’s culture is very important.

Q. What would your last meal be?

A. Sushi.  I developed a love of sushi when my family lived in Yokohama, Japan, when I was 5 and 6 years old.  My father would take me to the local sushi bars, and I quickly developed an addiction to Japanese food.  To this day, their focus on simplicity and clean, precise flavors has a huge impact in how I approach food.

Q. What Chicago chef would you be most willing to share a kitchen with?

A. Katsu from Katsu Japanese Restaurant.  He’s a master of Tokyo-style sushi preparation and has a real respect for all of the product he handles.  He cuts fish in a block style, which is typical in Tokyo.  My favorites are anything to do with blue fin, especially toro and his miso, with a potpourri of textured soy bean products.

Q. What’s the can’t-miss dish at Crust?

A. Any of our wood-fired flatbreads, especially Flamkuchen, a flatbread from Alsace, the region between France and Germany.  The flatbread represents a fusion of French and German cuisine featuring caramelized onions, smoked bacon, creme fraiche and Kirsch Wasser [cherry brandy].

Q. What should we know about Crust that we probably don’t?

A. We are the first third-party certified organic restaurant in Chicago.

Campagnola; 815 Chicago Avenue, Evanston (847) 475-6100

Bistro Campagne; 4518 N. Lincoln Avenue, Chicago (773) 271-6100

Crust; 2056-58 W. Division St., Chicago (773) 235-5511

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