Farm-to-table approach inspires chefs at Starved Rock Lodge

Chef James with a brick-oven pizza. (Photo provided)

• Newest additions — fresh-grown herbs, brick-oven pizza — to be featured at Sept. 17-18 Vintage Wine Festival

By Kathy Casstevens-Jasiek
Director of Marketing, Starved Rock Lodge

Nestled into a previously under-utilized corner of the Veranda at Starved Rock Lodge is a garden, growing quietly under the summer sun. The raised-bed herb garden idea was brought to General Manager Mitch Wagner by Starved Rock Lodge CEO/President Terry Cross.

I saw the success of an herb garden when I was food and beverage manager early on in my career,” said Wagner. “I knew the idea of putting one into the small space where it now resides would be a natural fit.”

The staff and managers agree it enhances the customer experience when they see the herb garden and ask whether menu items really feature fresh ingredients. The answer is proven when their food arrives, and they taste the pico de gallo or bruschetta. Fresh mint is a must in a Mojito and vegetable wraps. Cilantro enhances the dressing on the Mango Shrimp Salad and several other items on the menu. Both locals and guests appreciate not only the quality of garden-fresh herbs, but the story behind them.

The lodge project supports the farm-to-restaurant concept by going green.

The herb garden at Starved Rock. (Photo provided)

It’s a great model for others to build on because going back to the basics, buying local products, whenever possible, along with providing our own garden-fresh herbs is the key because farm-to-table dishes just taste better than others,” Wagner said. “The convenience of having our own herb garden on the property has dramatically improved the flavor of every dish.”

The lodge now has more control over the ingredients they use in cooking, and the chefs agree hand-picked herbs provide the best-tasting result.

What’s next? The answer is brick-oven pizza.

The 1,200-pound unit recently arrived looking like a UFO, but stone mason Dennis Nielsen worked his magic to create a stone-and-brick masterpiece that is one-of-a-kind. But that’s not the only thing that makes this brick oven unique. The “Rockstar” pizza oven is on wheels!

Cross had seen the pizza-on-wheels concept while vacationing in California.

Our pizza oven can move from the Veranda to the front of the lodge or over to the Wine Festival very quickly and easily,” Cross said. “Without the wheels, it wouldn’t have a great story or mobility!”

Lodge pizzas are anything but ho-hum, featuring toppings such as strawberries, heirloom tomatoes, artichokes or grapes with mascarpone cheese and an olive-oil-topped crust.

Lodge employees were the willing guinea pigs to get a taste of something new: pizza with fruit.

The buttery-tasting crust actually is the perfect complement to the combination of the fruit and cheese,” said Chef James “Coach” O’Hare.

The lodge is planning to feature pizza with fresh herbs (plus traditional and unexpected toppings) at this year’s Vintage Illinois Wine Festival Sept. 17-18 at nearby Matthiessen State Park. This festival is the largest in the state, featuring all-Illinois wine.

Chef Bear concluded: “We know that this is comfort food with a twist that’s sure to surprise and delight anyone who tries it!”

All of these new additions aren’t just food for thought. The lodge plans to talk about the improvements on Facebook, the website and on new menus. A YouTube video will be created, too, once the pizza-on-wheels brick oven is in action.

To learn more or see the complete lodge menus, go to

From the Sept. 7-13, 2011, issue

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