Dining and food culture in Chicago

Detroit, City on the Re-Make: Corktown’s Gold Cash Gold and Two James Distillery

Road Trips No Comments »
Gold Cash Gold, new resto in old pawn store, photo Gold Cash Gold

Gold Cash Gold, new resto in old pawn store, photo Gold Cash Gold

By David Hammond

Founded by the French more than three-hundred years ago, ceded to the British after the French and Indian War, and eventually surrendered to the United States after the American Revolution, Detroit is having a restart moment: it’s changing, it’s exciting and it’s a little over half-a-day’s drive from Chicago.

Though still synonymous with automobiles, the Motor City—Motown, The Arsenal of Democracy and even, ugh, Murder Town—is now becoming less known for being one giant assembly line and more known for being something of a frontier where the limits of the possible are still being defined. Detroit is now where the adventurous can stake a claim for not a lot of money and, who knows, maybe ride the crest of the city’s hoped-for reawakening. Read the rest of this entry »

Still Falling Love: Romantic Fondue Classic Geja’s Changes Hands at Fifty

Lincoln Park, News etc. No Comments »
Jeff Lawler, new owner of Gejas Cafe

Jeff Lawler, new owner of Gejas Cafe

After two decades of working for venerable Chicago romantic dining destination Geja’s Café (340 West Armitage), Jeff Lawler will succeed John Davis as owner of the restaurant, just in time for Geja’s fiftieth anniversary.

Lawler, who has been in the restaurant business since he was seventeen, came to Geja’s in 1994 as general manager. He spent a few years working for Davis’ Wine of the Month club, but soon found himself drawn back to managing Geja’s day-to-day operations, a job with which he says he continues to “fall in love.”

“My responsibilities won’t really change all that much [as the owner],” Lawler says. “I got into the restaurant business because I love to serve people, and at Geja’s in particular I love working with staff to create special experiences for our guests.” Read the rest of this entry »

Taste of Transgression: Breaking “Rules” at the Sweets and Snacks Show and Dylan’s Candy Bar

Near North No Comments »
Have a scorpion sucker/Photo: David Hammond

Have a scorpion sucker/Photo: David Hammond

By David Hammond

In my throat, there was a cricket leg. At least I think it was a leg. Could have been mandible or wing. It was dry and scratchy. I coughed. It fell out. I didn’t examine.

Leaving last month’s Sweets & Snacks Show at McCormick Place, the last things I gobbled as I went toward the door were a selection of sweetened and spiced insects. The nice lady at the booth let me try the ants, worms and finally the crickets, which were dusted with a sour cream powder.

All the bugs tasted pretty much the same. Insects, it turns out, once fried, are crunchy but don’t taste like much. They need the added flavors of sour-cream powder, BBQ rub and Parmesan. Read the rest of this entry »

The Taste of Yellow: Finding the Food of the Dominican Republic in Chicago

Dominican, Humboldt Park, Logan Square 1 Comment »
Punta Cana Goat, photo Rob Gardner

Punta Cana Goat/Photo: Robert Gardner

By Robert Gardner

I have become fond of the food of the Dominican Republic. Rather, I shall say, I have grown fond of eating in some places that serve as conduits for food of the Dominican Republic. Both Tropical Taste and Punta Cana exist as clubhouses, daily meeting places, connections to home, where you’d expect to finish your meal with a Fuente.  Put it this way, the signed pictures of baseball players on the wall are not those you’d likely recognize; I imagine, instead, they are the ones known mostly to the diners at these places. If this seems cliquey, imposing, do not fear. On my Dominican food runs, I have always faced language barriers, but the good kinds: the ones that make me feel I’m on vacation.  Invariably, someone—a server, another diner—steps in, orders for me. Also, I should add, invariably, someone steps in offering me a taste of theirs. The crowd loves this food in all its simplicity, starchiness and mute impact on the palate. The imaginary cigar smoke wafting through the air, mingling with a hint of spice and the succor of fat, puts us all in a good mood. What they feed us, we all like. Read the rest of this entry »

Make it Your World: Table Talk with Rising Star Tanya Baker

River North, Trends & Essays No Comments »
Tanya Baker/Photo: David Hammond

Tanya Baker/Photo: David Hammond

By David Hammond

Tanya Baker is the twenty-seven-year-old executive chef at The Boarding House (720 North Wells). This year, she was a finalist for James Beard Rising Star Chef recognition.

Do you remember maybe the first dish you ever made?
Chicken parmesan. Always really simple. Later, in school, they asked me to write an essay. They said “You could get a scholarship!” So I did. But there was also a competition, a kind of mini Iron Chef, and I would never have written the essay if I knew there was a competition, because I’ve always been very shy, very timid. My mom took me, and I remember being in the car, thinking “What am I going to make?” I had no idea. So I made a chicken parmesan. I got the scholarship.

What are the characteristics of a successful chef?
There are those who have really big egos, over-the-top loud personalities, and there are those who are more mellow, quiet, head-down and focused. I’m very quiet when I work. People think I’m mad, but I’m not. I’m just not super-social. In this world, you’re in the kitchen all the time with the same people, and we’re all a little socially awkward. I’m still learning how to do interviews and talk to people. It’s hard. Read the rest of this entry »

Remembrances of Restaurants Past: A Server Laments His Lost Province

Gone but not forgotten, West Loop No Comments »
Randy Zwieban/Photo: Laurie Proffitt

Randy Zwieban/Photo: Laurie Proffitt

By Nicholas Ward

Chef Randy Zweiban spent seventeen years of his cooking career focused on the flavors of Central/South America and the Caribbean islands, first at Norman’s in Florida and then Nacional 27. Province—his first solo venture—sought to focus more on local, seasonal ingredients, though with Latin highlights. The restaurant was located in the West Loop and the menu was intended to be easygoing and casual, a place where guests could grab a burger and a beer, something a little fancier, or a few things to pass around. While the shocking pink walls showcased a boldly designed West Loop restaurant, the food wouldn’t be flashy. It would just be really good.

I remember the first time Chef addressed the entire serving staff. It was October 2008, a perilous time to open a restaurant, as the country was sinking into recession. The price of everything had just gone up and nobody was certain if, in the short term, people were going to dine out. Chef thanked us for taking this risk with him. He told us that the people who helped construct the restaurant—laid floors, built tables,crafted the menu—were family to him. Read the rest of this entry »

Homaru Cantu In Memoriam: Omar Made Us Laugh

News etc. 1 Comment »
Omar and me, photo Derrek Hull

Omar and me, photo Derrek Hull

By David Hammond

I met Homaro “Omar” Cantu in 2004, a few months after he’d opened Moto, when I went there to dinner with some sixteen or so friends. One of those friends, Catherine Lambrecht, brought a container of raccoon meat. Chef Cantu, prankster that he was, got a hold of the meat, minced it with spices (there was juniper in there, and perhaps garlic) and arranged it on a plate that had a dotted yellow line running down the center and a few clusters of unidentifiable though edible debris scattered about. On the mound of raccoon meat, Cantu positioned a picture of a raccoon that he’d downloaded and printed on edible paper with edible ink. It was a roadkill tableau that a few weeks later inspired a totally bullshit Time magazine article about an “avid hunter” who brought in the freshly killed raccoon and challenged Cantu to prepare it. It was one of the most ingenious, entertaining and hilarious meals I’d ever been served, and it goes to show that even Time magazine could be taken in by Cantu’s antics. Read the rest of this entry »

The Big Heat: Chicago’s Food and Drink Fifty 2015

The Big Heat 2 Comments »

joe-mazza-brave-lux-chicago-newcity-big-heat-50-2015-8310

Newcity’s Big Heat 2015 represents a thick slice of Chicago’s culinary culture: butchers and cheese mongers, restaurateurs, critics, even some sommeliers and chefs. This year, however, we’re focusing less on people at the stove and more on the people behind the stove. These are the men and women who set the standard, change the game, initiate food movements, re-imagine what it means to have dinner in Chicago—and perhaps most importantly, help fill our lives with exponentially more deliciousness. Some of their names will be very familiar, others will be entirely unfamiliar, and they’re all just some of the personalities who are critically shaping the way we eat in Chicago. Just some. Just a slice of a large and growing community of leaders in Chicago food culture. Apologies if we missed a few of your favorites, which we undoubtedly have. There are many more who could easily have been on this list, which only overviews the immense range of enthusiasm, creativity and talent that decisively influences the food served to us in restaurants, in retail stores and on the streets of Chicago, which stands among the major food capitals of the world, thanks in good measure to the following fifty. (David Hammond)

Big Heat 2015 was written by David Hammond, J’nai Gaither, Rebecca Holland, Lauren Knight, Rosemary Lane and Anthony Todd

Cover and interior photos by Joe Mazza/Brave Lux on location at Seven Lions Read the rest of this entry »

Restaurateur of the Moment: Alpana Singh of The Boarding House and Seven Lions

News etc., The Big Heat No Comments »

joe-mazza-brave-lux-chicago-newcity-big-heat-50-2015-7932

By David Hammond

Most Chicagoans were introduced to Alpana Singh on “Check, Please!” After hosting this truly ground-breaking restaurant review show for ten seasons, Singh left in 2013. She soon opened her first restaurant, The Boarding House. Earlier this year, her Seven Lions opened on Michigan Avenue across from the Art Institute. Despite those accomplishments, one feels Singh is just starting to make her mark on the Chicago restaurant industry. Certainly, her excitement for the industry remains undiminished, telling us “Every time I walk into a restaurant it’s still magical for me. It’s thrilling and it’s exciting and it transports me.”

This fascination with the restaurant industry goes back to her early years in Monterey, California. “My mom waited tables, and she would let me play restaurant. It was the most exciting thing I’d ever done. I was eight or nine at the time. I’d go to the tables and take their orders. I’d fill the Coca-Cola. I would try on her uniform, always asking ‘Can I do it? Can I do it?’ Restaurant work was all I wanted to do. As soon as I turned fifteen [the age when you can work in a California restaurant], I got my permit and started working as a hostess at Bakers Square. I just could not wait to start working in restaurants.” Read the rest of this entry »

Brains Behind Baconfest: Seth Zurer Discusses the Pork Belly Bonanza

Events No Comments »
Seth Zurer orchestrates Baconfest/Photo: Anne Petersen

Seth Zurer orchestrates Baconfest/Photo: Anne Petersen

By David Hammond

This year’s Baconfest is April 17-18 at UIC Forum. It’s an annual celebration of the cured, smoked belly—usually of the pig. As part of this event, chefs come from all over the Chicago area to show off their skills and bacon’s immense versatility by serving it in highly imaginative compositions on a plate, as dessert, even as drinks.

Baconfest is the realized vision of three men: Andre Pluess, Michael Griggs and Seth Zurer. Baconfest has been a sell-out event for several years now, and we asked Zurer about the history of this event and what’s made it such an incredible success.

Could you describe the moment when you were inspired to hold Baconfest?
It was 11:30pm on a Saturday night in early March 2009.  I was in bed when my cellular telephone rang.  I answer groggily.  Andre says: “Dude, I have an idea. Hear me out, I know it’s late. Just listen:  Baconfest Chicago—the Burning Man of bacon… What do you think?” Art cars? Hallucinogens? I asked. “No, it’ll be like Taste of Chicago but everything has bacon. People will come back every year.” I knew we had something. Read the rest of this entry »