Took a tour today of the highly anticipated Chicago French Market opening next Thursday in the Ogilvie Metra station. There still wasn't much to see beyond empty display cases, but there is much to look forward to.
My guide was market operator Sebastien Bensidoun (below, with his father Rolland), an enthusiastic 35-year-old Frenchman whose family name is synonymous with markets in France, New York, Connecticut, Michigan and, by and large, suburban Chicago. The Bensidouns run 13 open-air French markets in the Chicago area, including the 12-year-old Wheaton market.
Foodies in Chicago have long pined for a permanent, year-round market featuring fresh produce, meats, baked goods and more under one roof. The efforts of the late Abby Mandel, founder of the 10-year-old Green City Market, to achieve that end should not be ignored.
This particular project was first announced in 2001. It's taken this long to come to fruition simply because there are so many moving parts, among them 25 individual businesses, Bensidoun says.
And the vendor list is far from static; the 26th vendor, the nuns of Fraternite Notre Dame, who were to offer their scrumptious baked goods, just dropped out, choosing to focus on their presence at the seasonal farmers markets.
Meanwhile, the Spice House is said to be on a short list of additions; owner Patty Erd was so jazzed after visiting the raw space two weeks ago, she sent out a Tweet saying, "Exciting things seem to be happening there."
After chatting with Bensidoun, what I found most encouraging was his (and his 74-year-old father Rolland's) genuine concern for how this market should function and for whom. Sure, it's going to have some fantastic eats (bahn mi and pho, crepes, Belgian frites) that will no doubt draw the lunchtime worker bees and first-on-the-scene Twittering crowd. But Bensidoun, who checks out various Chicago blogs to stay on top of the food scene, cringes at the word "gourmet." And "food court"? Forget it.
"This is a fresh market, first of all," says Bensidoun, who says his priority when seeking out vendors was securing the local (and mostly organic) produce. There also will be meat, seafood and cheese purveyors.
Bensidoun has been, and continues to be, choosy about the mix of vendors going in -- and he promises there won't be Whole Paycheck sticker shock.
"We don't want to target a certain elite," he says. "We want anybody to be able to come here and shop."
Heading into winter, it seems a delicious prospect.
More photos after the jump.