When Sam McDermott traveled to Japan in January of this year, he was struck by the "reverence they have for food."
"There's a tremendously high level of respect for food there," he says. "One thing that struck me was the culture of gift fruit. If you would go to someone's house or business, it's just accepted culture to always bring a gift, and typically that gift is food. There's this market of perfect fruit, with a box of ten strawberries that cost $30 or a single honeydew melon for $250. One of the highest gifts you could give someone was a perfect melon."
When McDermott, who last worked at Elizabeth for a year (he also staged at Atelier Crenn in San Francisco and managed part of Zingerman's in Ann Arbor), returned to Chicago, he wanted to bring some of that culture back with him. About a month ago, he launched Buttermilk, a bento box delivery service that's available Wednesday–Saturday.
The boxes include five to ten dishes, and they're usually Japanese. My bento had shoyu-glazed ginger tsukune, shoyu-cured quail eggs on bed of kale with shiso dressing and powdered walnut oil, salmon onigiri, red miso soup, and cara cara orange carrageenan gel placed in its peel and topped with an edible pansy, among other dishes. McDermott has dabbled in other cuisines, too, like a recent barbecue box, with sous vide pig shoulder with his Kansas City–style sauce, macaroni and cheese onigiri filled with a yeast-fried pickle, and a jar of sweet tea.
"I make lists of what I want to make, techniques I want to involve, ingredients I want to use and then start thinking about what might go together," he says. "I want to play with new techniques, old techniques and run the gamut of cuisines."
McDermott primarily buys ingredients at Whole Foods and also goes to Mitsuwa Marketplace in Arlington Heights. He makes 16 to 20 boxes each day, and drives around to deliver them between 11:30am–1:30pm. You need to register for an account in advance, and once you're approved, you can log in and pick a day (you won't know what you're getting in advance). Then pay for the $15 boxes in advance via PayPal or upon delivery. He said that my delivery to State and Jackson was the farthest south he's been, and right now he wants to keep the northern delivery range to Lakeview.
The bento boxes have been selling out, and McDermott realizes he's going to need to think about expansion. Currently, he's the only person working on Buttermilk, and the schedule—cooking from 6pm until the delivery time the next day—is "brutal."
But in the meantime, he says, "I want to offer something for people they wouldn't get otherwise, which is have food lovingly made for them. When they say, 'I want lunch,' I bring them lunch."
Follow Buttermilk on Instagram (@porkbellies) and sign up for an account at buttermilkbento.com.