Houses of Craft

Chef Cleetus Friedman of City Provisions Gets His Hands in the Mash

If you live in the Ravenswood / Lincoln Square / North Center area — chances are you know City Provisions. And if you know City Provisions, you know Cleetus Friedman. He’s the force of nature behind one of Chicago’s best eateries (and one of our few legitimate delis on the north side). He’s received praise from almost every major Chicago news outlet, including Chicago Magazine, the Tribune, and Time Out Chicago

But on my visit, we weren’t there to talk deli. We were there to talk beer. You see, Cleetus can’t keep his hands out of anything that might show up at the dinner table. And most recently, that’s included beer.

Our goal at City Provisions is to Connect Community With Food. My goal is to shorten the length from the producer to your mouth.

I have honey, I have beehives, I make cheese, my bourbon’s gone now, but I do caramels and truffles with Katherine Anne. I’m not trying to brand everything that’s mine, but I want people to know that a lot of this stuff, I touch and make. And it’s not sitting on a truck coming across the country. It’s made down the block, or in Indiana. That’s why I have a map.

Cleetus’ interest in beer making has lead to an incredible number of collaborations with local brewers. But his interest in beer started long before he had a place to sell it. Before the deli came into it’s own, Cleetus created supper clubs and farm dinners. Known for their generous portions and incredible flavors, these dinners put his guests in awe of the farm. But another love, beer, was always a main component. 

These beer collaborations came about because I started my supper clubs, which evolved into my farm dinners because of my love for beer and my love and appreciation for cooking with it, pairing food with it, and educating people. 

When I moved out here in ‘95, wine dinners were all the rage. But nobody was doing beer dinners. So when I was with Jimmy Bannos at Heaven on Seven, I started doing beer dinners. And when I left, my first beer dinner was with Two Brothers and it just kind of snowballed.

So when I started this place [the delicatessen side], I had already established great relationships with all the brewers from my farm dinners. And at every beer dinner I did with Doug from Metropolitan, I would be like “let’s do a beer together! Let’s do a beer together!” and it was a great idea and we would talk about it. But at no point did I have a venue to sell it. So when I built the deli, I was like “let’s do a beer together and put it on tap at the deli!” But I didn’t have a tap! I just figured we’d figure it out.

And then Templeton showed up with a rye whiskey barrel and asked if I wanted it. And I said “Yes.” So I called Doug and I said “Look, I know we’ve been talking about doing a dunkle…dopple…rye bock and now I have a barrel!” And it was just “boom.” I took the barrel and went up to Metropolitan and we brewed. I went home to my wife and I was like “That was the coolest fucking day ever.” Besides the first day I broke down an entire cow — that was the coolest thing. I mean, I’ve always known the process, but actually doing it was awesome. And making a beer that’s gonna be here?! It’s like, so rewarding.

So what does a guy who’s an obsessed localvore and chef do about his newfound desire to create beer? 

So the next day, I started calling all the brewers around here and I was like, “What if we did a beer together?” And I called Nick at Flossmor and he was just like “Yeah, ok.” And I called Gabriel and Half Acre and he was like “Ah man, we can’t even think about that right now.”

I called — I called everybody. And I was really lucky to have all these guys just be like “Yeah, come on!” And now it’s become a thing to where people like New Chicago want their first beer to be with me. It’s kind of become — it’s crazy now. And great for the same reasons. 

Cleetus doesn’t seem to ever let his lack of expertise get in his way. Like any dedicated homebrewer or amateur chef knows, you just have to try new things. You don’t get good by thinking about it. But Cleetus barely even tried the homebrew route — he went straight for the big leagues.

Here’s the deal. When I brewed my first beer at Metropolitan, I had brewed a couple of times, but I’m certainly no homebrewer. I have a lot of home brewers asking me questions and I’m like ‘I don’t know…” I only know how to brew on these huge systems and I feel lucky and spoiled but that’s how I learned. I learned on a 10BL system! And I just brewed on a 25BL with Two Brothers. But it’s like when I started breaking down whole cows, whole pigs. I just jumped in to it, because in my 20-year career at that time, I hadn’t done it. And I knew I would want to get into it eventually, and I’m glad I did because that’s what I do here. When I don’t know something, I throw myself into it to learn it. And I wouldn’t say that I’m an expert at all of these things. But I can do all of these things pretty damn well. And when I’m only “good,” I hire or work with people to help make me better.

So what’s it like to collaborate with a chef that’s willing to throw himself into any situation? Well, for starters, Cleetus takes an unusual approach to making beer. And then he relentlessly pursues a recipe until he and the brewer are both effectively out of their comfort zone. And it’s that collaborative element that drives him.

It doesn’t matter if it’s beer or if it’s bacon — I have six different bacons in my case right now — I sit awake at night and think of things like whiskey bacon and tea bacon and half the stuff on my menu comes to me because of lack of sleep, or a song, or what other chefs are doing, or beer. 

Now I’m trying to take a culinary approach to beer. This Biere de Mars I did with Two Brothers — I’m working on a rhubarb pale ale with strawberries with Flossmor Station.

Beer is essentially soup. In fact the beer I just did with Greenbush is called Loud Mouth Soup. But that has nothing to do with actual “soup” of course. The more I make beer, the more I realize that you’re creating a dish that you’re extracting the liquids out of. Ultimately, this [beer] is every element of the dish in liquid form. So whatever you’re putting into the mash, tweaking in the brew kettle, and then playing with fermentation — the ultimate dish is a very complex profile of flavors that people savor in a glass. So instead of just the pale ales and the blondes, I’m thinking of what kind of food we can put in the mash. 

Cleetus has made about half a dozen beers already, with many more on the docket for this year. It seems like his head is constantly spinning with recipes. His eyes glaze over just thinking about them all, like a kid at Christmas thinking about a BB gun that Santa might bring. How he keeps them all straight, and all the ongoing back-and-forth of ideas between various brewers, I have no idea.

And that’s pretty much how I’m going to let the rest of this interview play out — the stream on consciousness that is Cleetus Friedman, and the beery genius that’s occupying more and more of his grey matter every day. I can’t wait to see what this guys does next. 

So, I said to Nick [Flossmor] — we were kind of drunk at FOBAB — and I was like “what if we did rhubarb?” And he was like “Yeah! Like a hint of strawberry maybe?”

I was up at Greenbush and I had the coriander and the fennel, and peppercorns and all this, and I started toasting some and chopping some and I was starting to blend them and smell them. And I was like “wow, this is just soup.” 

So that’s kind of my take now. Not only to create great beers that are unique to the brewery, but so that people are like “oh, that’s definitely a Cleetus beer.” Like the Dunkleweiss — Finch’smay never have done that. But I’m able to bring that out and excite them about it.

I’m doing a cider with Paul at Vander Mill now. For Rosh Hashanah I’m doing an apple and honey and aging in Jack Daniel’s barrels, what’s called a cizer, which we’ll release for the holiday. 

The Bier de Mars with Jason [Two Brothers], I wanted to do a hoppy scotch ale and call it Hop Scotch. Maybe somebody’s done that, I don’t know. I don’t get on Google and see if people have done things already. He was like “Yeah that sounds cool. What if we did figs or dates?” And I was like “Yeah, but they’re not seasonal.” So then we though about sweet potato and spice and it started becoming like a carrot cake, which wasn’t a good spring beer. And he was like “Nah, I don’t like potatoes.” But then he told me he had some Bretts he wanted to use. And it was like “boom.” We spent five months talking about it, and no no no, and then “wham,” as soon as he mentioned Brett. [snaps fingers].

The collaborative process is really exciting. When we were brewing at Greenbush, we started talking about a summer ale. And honey came into the picture. And I though “what if we smoked honey?” And Scott was curious. 

And Finch was like “What if we do a kolsch?” and I was like “I’m not gonna do a kolsch. But what if we did a kolsch and we toasted some hops or roasted them or something?” And the Richard was like “What if we beechwood aged it?” and I was like “No.” And he was kind of like “Well, listen. You know, it’s kind of showing people what beechwood aging is really like.” So I was all like “Alright, that could be cool.” It has since turned into a summer Kolsch style with pan toasted hops, burnt lemon peel, and applewood, named “Toasted Summer,” and will be bottled in 22oz bombers. “Beechwood aged…” [Budweiser commercial voice], “triple hopped” or whatever. I can see it now, with a big old horse’s hoof on it. Just the hoof. 

Michael Kiser