Anthony Tahlier
The dining space at Province is brown but
magnify Click image to view more.

Greener Schemer

William Rice - June 2009

Pursuing the sustainability grail, a Chicago chef plots to make his new restaurant as eco-friendly as possible.

Randy Zweiban has wrapped himself in green, and a very becoming look it turns out to be. In mounting his first solo restaurant, Province, which debuted last October, almost every decision, from site to construction materials to menu covers was taken with an eye toward gaining Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design Green Building Rating System certification. Managed by the nonprofit U.S. Green Building Council, LEED certification "provides independent third party verification that a building project is environmentally responsible, profitable, and a healthy place to live and work."

A New York City native with culinary credits there, in Florida with chef Norman Van Aken, and, most recently, a decade as chef/partner at Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises' Latin supper club, Nacional 27, the slender, soft-spoken chef is widely admired for his tact, taste, passionate commitment to sustainable agriculture, and an ability to balance artistic vision with the realities of running a business. He's as enthusiastic about his loading dock ("It's covered," he explains. "With Chicago weather, that's a chef's dream.") as he is about the cold smoke refrigerator that produces seductively scented fish, poultry, and vegetables.

"Nothing is left to chance," comments an associate about Zweiban's attention to detail. "Everything from printing the menus on recycled paper to the cork floors and tabletops is part of a holistic package." Yet the only testimony to his commitment, printed in very small type at the bottom of the menu, reads "Province was constructed using eco-friendly/sustainable materials. We support Chicago's Green City Market and serve only sustainable seafood."

The chef found a match for his eco concerns when the exhaustive search for a location led him last spring to a sparkling rehabbed building just west of the Loop business district and only a few steps away from restaurant-rich Randolph Street. It's housed in the Chicago Transit Authority building, but despite its bureaucratic reputation, the agency, which had won Gold level LEED certification, was to prove highly supportive. While his restaurant would not be required to seek a rating of its own, Zweiban and his associates jumped at the opportunity. The team made their path steeper by applying for the same Gold level their landlord had earned.

"I didn't see a downside," the chef recalls. "Sure, it put us in a box, but it also meant we couldn't compromise and cut corners."

(Province's application was pending at press time. The program is well advanced in rating a building's structural elements, electricity and gas efficiency, even equipment. But standards have not yet been set for kitchen items such as pots and pans.)

Zweiban and I met in March for a tour of the 4,200-square-foot facility. Despite the crippled economy and a snowy winter, Province has attracted many reviews and is building a base of return diners. Late in a weekday lunch service, the chef is relatively relaxed. No stranger to the dining room, he weaves his way through the tables introducing himself and catching comments, most of them kudos. Indeed, he briefly interrupts our tour to intercept a couple at the exit. When they praise a dish, he volunteers to send the recipe.

Poised in a corner of the silver and glass CTA building, Province is sleek and modern but restful as well. With 16-foot floor-to-ceiling windows, there's lots of light during the day and LEED–endorsed electric lights at night. There are three distinct dining areas: relaxed banquette and stool seating for 25 in the bar, 110 in the light and airy main dining area, and up to 40 in the space used for private dining. Rather than separating the two sections with a conventional but claustrophobia–inducing wall, the designers constructed an eight-foot-high glass wine wall with a capacity of 925 bottles.

Zweiban points with pleasure to a wine service and mixology station at one end of the bar that boasts its own glassware storage and washing capability. Eco-friendly features line our path: a decorative panel of live low-maintenance moss beside the reception stand symbolizing the restaurant's greenness, menu covers made of PVC-free vinyl, recycled leather on the chairs, eco-friendly bathrooms with motion sensors, automatic flushers, etc.

We pause at the entrance to the kitchen as he recounts the vista that greeted him, along with his kitchen designer, Eric Chaplick of Boelter Companies, and Robert Wissolik of Leopardo Construction last June. Except for two intrusive structural columns, the 4,200-square-foot space was empty.

They had come equipped with a culinary mission statement that "Province is an American restaurant with cuisine inspired by Central and South America and Spain." They also knew the chef was determined to create a menu that would encompass elements of both fine dining and the relaxed European cafe experience. Dishes such as his grilled tuna taco with serrano chile tartar sauce and 10 hour braised lamb with eggplant, chorizo, and cornbread were early examples. Zweiban's goal was to be distinctive enough to attract destination diners while also offering comfort food fare that would inspire return visits from residents and offices in the revitalized West Loop neighborhood.

An equal priority, however, was the quest for LEED Gold. This mandated an impervious epoxy floor, odor-free low VOC (volatile organic compound) paint from Benjamin Moore, and star-rated (meets or exceeds government standards) electrical equipment. (The restaurant's single deep fryer, used during service only to fry potatoes, qualified.) Trade names for cutting-edge items--CVap and combi-oven--entered the chefs' vocabularies.

The team met early and often. "Our first estimates were over budget," Wissolik recalls. "We got the price down at the very beginning. Randy was very clear on what he wanted and took us through every detail. He was passionate on gaining LEED certification, and he wanted to do it for the right reasons." Four and a half months and $250,000 later he had his dream kitchen.

After the geometric purity and vivid colors that punctuate the dining spaces, the kitchen feels dull. The equipment is crowded into unlikely locations, and there's even some stacking. ("Two pieces in a single footprint," offers a craftsman.) But Zweiban, an antagonist of unproductive motion, wants it that way.

Following his vision, the Province kitchen has been built out to contain three loosely structured, parallel walkways. The first is a sort of Roman Forum where the servers congregate. Against a wall next to the entrance is a beverage counter: coffee brewer, espresso machine, an Everpure water filtration system that delivers hot or cold water, still or sparkling, on demand.

On the far side, next to a trio of adjustable heat lamps, is the chef's command post. Here Zweiban and his chef de cuisine stamp order tickets and supervise their preparation by cooks at two work stations. One is responsible for hot and cold appetizers, soups, salads, and desserts. The other prepares small and large main dishes. "The chef and I gather, clean, and garnish the plates to fill an order," Zweiban explains, "and jump in to help anywhere we're needed." A Victory Refrigeration "Mega Top" sandwich prep table, poised on a counter within easy reach, contains ingredients for the chef and his line cook. The other station has a similar setup.

With the lonely, only fryer as a signpost, we turn into the middle walkway. It runs beside the line. Three six-burner Blodgett gas ranges with ovens underneath (one convection) are in a formation that brings to mind a World War II parade of warships. The 36-inch ranges are the battleships, with smaller, more streamlined equipment cast as cruisers and destroyers. One station (hot and cold food) encompasses the fryer, one six-burner range with an oven beneath, and a griddle top. The other (hot food only) contains 12 burners, a grill, and a charbroiler. With easy access to a sandwich top and undercounter refrigeration, each station "is virtually self-sufficient," says the chef.

Between the ranges is a fine example of the "two items in a single footprint" approach. A countertop Alto-Shaam electric rotisserie sits atop the prized CVap, Winston Industries' "cook & hold" humidity controlled electric oven. The CVap keeps foods that are very vulnerable to becoming overcooked, such as the "very slow cooked Tasmanian salmon," perfectly moist over several hours.

After retracing our steps, we walk past the single walk-in refrigerated storage unit into the third walkway. It turns out to be a typical food preparation center with work tables and a collection of machines including a Robot Coupe food processor, a slicer, mixer, and dough sheeter. A vertical freezer contains "only some bones and meat." The three-sink scullery is here as well.

Located at the entrance to this walkway are two of Zweiban's prized possessions: One is Blodgett's full-size gas combi-oven, a combination of moist steam heat and convection oven that, for example, makes his rabbit confit so succulent. Next to it we find an Arctic Air vertical reach-in refrigerator, a cold smoker in disguise that is responsible for the memorable fragrance that accompanies the house-smoked sablefish seviche as well as various vegetables and poultry.

Back at the cafe-like bar area, restaurant designer Sara Hurand of Iris Design in Cleveland, Ohio, fields a final question about the cost of launching Province, reported to be in the neighborhood of $1.9 million. "I believe," she responds, "that the sustainable choices that were made did not increase the cost of the project. The cost of working for LEED accreditation is not insignificant, but it's important to us to be a front-runner, to support the green movement. We believe that over time what now is a matter of choice will become a matter of course."

"Our goal was--and still is--to be as ecologically friendly as possible in everything we do," Zweiban says in summarizing what all the participants recall as a rewarding experience.