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Lake Magazine
     May 19, 2017      #23-317 LK1
 
THE BIG CHEESE CHICAGO CHEF TAKES DINERS INTO THE BLEU AND BEYOND

Text by AARON STRAUCH

To an “uncultured” guest, the cheese cart at the Wyndham Chicago’s Caliterra restaurant could appear intimidating. Bold, blue-veined cheeses sit beside fine ashed-goat varieties. Oven-fried figs, sun-dried cherries and organic honeycomb array the front, while exotic sheep’s milk cheeses and familiar cheddars loom near the rear. During a given meal, a selection of anywhere between 30 and 50 cheeses greet Caliterra’s clientele, and while such a wide assortment can be daunting, Caliterra’s executive chef, Rick Gresh, is on hand to educate any guest.

Gresh has been astounding diners at Caliterra since 2002 with an eclectic array of modern, Italian-inspired dishes and fearless culinary experiments. Gresh’s latest offering is a bountiful, strong cheese cart that he designed mainly from guests’ suggestions. Gresh says he and his staff began by introducing “a few California cheeses, and in about three weeks’ time, just by coming out and interacting with guests, it went from ten cheeses to about thirty.”

Gresh has the chops to talk cheese and other appetizing subjects. The Cleveland native studied at the Culinary Institute of America in New York, then after working at the Waldorf-Astoria, he returned to the Culinary Institute on a fellowship. He then earned a position at the acclaimed Trio in Evanston, Illinois. In 1996, Gresh began working at the Hotel Nikko, then acted as a consulting Chef de Cuisine at the innovative Tsunami restaurant, followed by a successful stretch at Green Dolphin Street, another cuttingedge Chicago restaurant. He became Caliterra’s executive chef in 2002.

It’s Gresh’s personal approach that makes the Caliterra cheese experience unique; he arrives at the table along with the cheese cart, as sort of a cheese coach for the diner whose experience with cheese might be limited to what comes either in a can or in individually wrapped slices. Guests might find themselves surprisingly nervous as Gresh wheels the massive cheese selection to their table, but he is quick to put them at ease by asking details about their personal tastes: “What do you usually like in cheeses?” “Do you want something rich and creamy, or something bolder?” “Are you opposed to a washed cheese?” Through simple questions such as these, Gresh masterfully tailors a selection of cheeses to a guest’s specific tastes. He recently managed to serve a certain cheese-ignorant reporter the boldest, most pungent blue cheese available, Cabrales, a tri-milk cheese that Gresh affectionately calls the “bad boy of Spain.”

It’s that sense of humor and genuine personal interest that sets Gresh and Caliterra’s cheese cart apart from your typical dining experience. “I’m in the dining room, serving a purpose. It’s a reason to go to the dining area and interact with everyone,” he says. Gresh says that “a good portion of the experience is the education factor,” and there Caliterra truly delivers. With what he calls the “passion of an evangelist,” Gresh eagerly explains the actual differences between washed and unwashed, ashed and unashed cheeses. Washed cheeses are brushed with salt, wine or beer during the maturation process to prevent the growth of mold and keep the rind soft, and adding ash during production helps separate parts of the milk and adds a “new level of flavor,” he says. He will detail which regions specialize in certain types of blue and pine cheese, and will inform diners which individual producers are known worldwide for their productions (such as Sid Cook’s cave-aged cheddars). He’ll also explain why a bold, strong cheese might not be the best choice for a couple on their first date, but for a ten-year anniversary, a “unique, celebratory cheese that might spark a little something” would be perfect.

“We’re here to help everyone enjoy better food,” Gresh says.
 

CALITERRA 633 North St. Clair St (2nd Floor of the Wyndham Chicago hotel) Chicago, Illinois 60611
Phone: 312-573-0300
Open Sun-Thurs 6:30 am - 10 pm,
Fri-Sat 6:30 am - 11 pm.
Breakfast served daily 6:30 am - 11 am, lunch served daily 11 am - 5 pm. Reservations recommended.

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