Within Peoria’s Warehouse District, customers at Sous Chef are greeted by a large chalkboard bearing an outline of the State of Illinois. A heart scrawled in chalk represents Peoria, while the surrounding dots stand in for many of the region’s small farms and specialty producers. From familiar operations like Garden Spot Vegetable Farm in rural Princeville to unsung growers like Peoria’s own LaCarre Army Gardens, this chalkboard is quite literally a map to the suppliers who provide the small shop with fresh vegetables, pasture-raised meats, locally baked goods and more.
Since opening in October 2018, Sous Chef has been accurately described as “an oasis in a food desert”—an unfortunate reality that encompasses the city’s south side, where grocery stores have ceased to exist. It is also a throwback to the family-run shops that once anchored our neighborhoods, back before the national chains took over.
Visit more than once, and it’s quite possible that owner Katie Couri Rodolfi or her brother Patrick Couri will know your name. Strike up a conversation, and they may learn your allergies and individual preferences—or offer tips on how to cook what you’re buying. It’s surprisingly affordable, and you can purchase meals ready to go: they prepare, you just bake. With a welcoming approach and friendly demeanor, they have made Sous Chef a small but mighty connection in the local food movement.
“Local was always the focus,” Katie confirms, detailing her journey from high school teacher to running a specialty grocery store. “I was teaching French and a few business classes, and I had those students write up business plans. As I was reading theirs, I was also slowly but surely building a business plan for this place.”
Following decades of disinvestment on Peoria’s south side, the nearest Kroger had closed its doors, while new alternatives disappeared as quickly as they popped up. But even as the neighborhood became a food desert, the local food movement was gaining traction. The opening of Sous Chef was a natural progression. “I always knew we’d be small—that we couldn’t replace a Kroger,” Katie explains. “But I thought, if we could offer fresh food in an area that was losing its access, that would be a good service to provide.”
Their vision was essentially to extend the farmers’ market, selling locally grown products all week long. They work directly with Down River Farm (East Peoria), Hartz Produce (Wyoming) and Hungry World Farm (Tiskilwa), among others. Fresh milk, eggs and meats are supplied by Kilgus Farmstead in Fairbury, along with chickens from neighboring Feather Lane Farms; while weekly deliveries from Down at the Farms, a distribution network of 70+ Illinois farms, fill in the gaps. Peoria-made products from Up Beet Jams, 309 Cultures, Lovingood Foods and others are also available.
Ask where any particular item comes from, and there’s likely a story behind it. “Ron Abernathy is a man at one with nature,” Katie declares, describing how the flavors of Abernathy’s Honey—made right here in Bartonville—vary based on the plants being pollinated. The family behind Kathy’s Kitchen “are the sweetest people,” she says later with a smile. “Kathy will pickle anything!”
She speaks fondly of the fruit trees at Funks Grove, the potential for expansion at Bloom Shroomery, and the astonishing growth of Janie’s Mill. She credits Marty Travis for getting farmers to work together through Down at the Farms, and recalls how helpful Kim and Lynn Hartz of Hartz Produce were when Sous Chef was getting started. And we should not forget Better Earth Logistics, she notes, whose end-to-end composting services close the loop of sustainability—enriching the soils at Down River and Hungry World Farm, as well as any other buyer of Better Earth Compost. It truly is a circle of connection.
In recent years, many farms have discovered they can do better by working together. Naturally there is competition, but there is camaraderie as well. As each takes a slice of the pie, the slices are growing larger for everyone.
“I think that if you put in all the time and energy it takes to farm, you have a sense of a higher purpose and the interconnectedness of life,” Katie suggests. “These are all amazing people. I think they live that. If we can shift our priorities and work to support one another, everybody wins.” PM
Sous Chef is located at 1311 SW Adams in Peoria. For hours and information, visit facebook.com/souschefpeoria or call (309) 670-2433.