The Chow Brothers A Story of Pickles and Pierogi
by Becky Liscum food • photographs by Chris Chowaniec
WHEN CHICAGO’S MARK AND CHRIS CHOWANIEC, the “Chow Brothers,” pay a visit to their Babcia (grandmother) Stanislawa in the village of Idzikow, Poland, they relish the best of Babcia’s foods: her pickles, and especially her pierogi, the homemade, hand-crimped crescent-shaped pockets of dough filled with combinations of meat, sauerkraut, mushrooms, potato and cheese.
They usually bring back a few of their favorites: “Grandma’s pickles, of course; dried mushrooms, called borowik (better known as porcini) sold on the side of the road by local merchants; and a smoked and salted sheep’s cheese called Oscypek made in the mountain region of southern Poland where our father is from,” says Mark. “Our meals were always prepared with love, care and attention to fresh and natural ingredients.”
Growing up in a house of good Polish food translated into a desire to share it with others. As Mark and Chris gravitated toward the food industry, eventually working in restaurants and training in culinary arts, they started throwing pop-up themed dinners and then moonlighting as private chefs, gradually introducing their clients to their favorite homemade dishes. Mark says they began with “pierogi, sauerkraut, brined cucumber soup and beet soup (barszcz) from brined beets.”
The dishes were so popular that people began asking where they could buy them, leading to the decision to create “The Chow Brothers” line of fermented products—starting with one of Babcia’s best. “Farmer’s Stash Pickles [are] based on our grandmother’s recipe,” according to Mark. They soon added more. “Pickled Fennel, which was a unique twist on our pickling tradition. We also launched a beverage made from fennel and turmeric, ‘Fennel Rickey’ which is based on Central European traditions of making compote—a brewed/steeped fruit punch.”
The natural extension to their offerings—Babcia’s pierogi. “Pierogi have a familiar and nostalgic identity in the Midwest—especially the Chicago Metro, Southern Wisconsin and Northern Indiana region. When we mention pierogi to people, you can see them reach back to a favorite memory and tell a story about a direct or indirect relative or an acquaintance,” Mark says.
The Chow Brothers want to take on the taco and put pierogi on top of the world. “I see great potential for this to happen and is one of our goals. The American flavor palate and culinary curiosity and exploration is evolving and people are expecting not only better-tasting food from good sources, but also looking for ethnic-influenced foods. We intended to use premium ingredients with distinct flavors for discerning palates everywhere,” boasts Mark.
The duo is investigating funding from the socially responsible venture capital firm Seed2Growth in Chicago. “An investment of dollars would definitely help us in opening our first retail concept, in addition to finding the right sources for all our products, but more importantly—getting the right production partners to be able to expand our responsibly sourced pickled and fermented products,” Mark adds.
Back in Idzikow in Babcia’s kitchen, she lovingly crafted her hand-crimped dumplings in anticipation of her grandsons’ latest visit—making about 50 an hour. On that trip, Mark first made a stop in Warsaw, to be trained on a newfangled pierogi-making machine. Topping grandma, it can crank out 1,000 in an hour.
This time he returned to Chicago with the usual: her homemade food—pickles, mushrooms and Oscypek cheese—but also with the best of both worlds: the pierogi machine. The Chow Brothers are on a mission to topple the taco.
The Chow Brothers line is currently at Mariano’s and will be expanding to other markets by next year. For more information: thechowbrothers.com
Becky Liscum is co-publisher of Edible Chicago magazine, a writer and a multimedia and television producer. The pierogi is one of her new favorite foods.