Dining and food culture in Chicago

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.

Is there anything amiss in the way cooking schools are turning out students?
Yes. When I was in school, I had no knowledge of the business of cooking. When you’re in class, you have teams, and you have an hour and a half to make two dishes, and you have every single item you need, every piece of equipment, right there in front of you. It’s not like that in the real world. You have issues with deliveries, products not available, parties that pop up randomly, people calling in sick, all the time, it’s this and that. I don’t want to say that students are babied in school, but I think they need a little more tough love. Media create this idea that you start working in a kitchen and you’re a “chef,” right away. On television, competitions make it very glamorous. Once you get into restaurants, you see it’s not that way.

2

Are there any consistent problems you see with young chefs?
A lack of self-discipline. I try to have very high standards, that’s how I was brought up and taught. My band instructor had this thing, PRIDE—Personal Responsibility in Daily Effort—and that’s something that stuck with me. You have to hold yourself accountable in what you’re doing; that’s always in the back of my head. Even when people aren’t watching, you take responsibility in your actions. Not a lot of people do that. They do things when they’re told, but they have to be told, and I think you should just do things passionately, and take pride in what you’re doing, because you want to.

Are there any customer requests that drive you absolutely crazy?
I don’t mind catering to guests. We’re here for the guests and we’re here to help them have a great time. I don’t usually get bothered by requests…but the one request I don’t really understand is when people kind of build their own plate. They pick and choose and create their own dish. For instance, someone might say, “Well, we want the chicken, but we don’t want anything on it, nothing that’s in the composed dish, but we want some starch and carrots cut up and cooked with olive oil and no salt.” Sometimes maybe people just need attention, but they’re paying for their food and they should have it the way they want it, so we do our best. We do it with what we have on hand, but I think it defeats the purpose of going out to eat.

What kind of customer do you love?
I love customers who are open-minded and eat a lot. Sometimes we’ll get a table of two and they’ll have six courses, a little bit of everything. I like to see people enjoying themselves. When I go out to eat, that’s definitely our style. That’s fun for servers, too.

4

Commercial kitchens are traditionally a man’s world. Has that been challenging for you?
Obviously, when it comes to physical strength, well, you can’t compete with the men there, but women have certain strengths, like empathy and patience. You have to be strong, though, and I don’t think it matters too much if you’re a man or a woman. If you’re a strong enough person, whether you’re male or female, you make it your world.

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

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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 »

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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 »

Rustic Sexy Glam: Jose Garces and Alpana Singh Dish About Their Just-Opened Rural Society and Seven Lions

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Jose Garces/Photo: Jason Varney

Jose Garces/Photo: Jason Varney

By David Hammond

Earlier this month, two new restaurants opened in Chicago: Rural Society (455 North Park), under the direction of chef Jose Garces, and Seven Lions (130 South Michigan), the latest restaurant from Alpana Singh.

Garces and I grew up in the same Chicago area, and we both played in Portage Park as kids. He went to Chicago’s Kendall College and later went on to win the second season of “The Next Iron Chef.” Now operating a number of East Coast restaurants—including seven in Philadelphia and three in Atlantic City—for which he received a James Beard award, Best Chef, Mid-Atlantic Region. Garces had been executive chef at Chicago’s Mercat a la Planxa before opening Rural Society.

Singh was the host for ten seasons of “Check, Please!” on PBS, and before that worked as sommelier at Jean Joho’s Everest. At twenty-one, she was the youngest woman to ever be awarded Master Sommelier certification, and later became beverage director for Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises. She opened her first restaurant, The Boarding House, in 2012 and the following year received the Sommelier of the Year 2013 Wine Star award from Wine Enthusiast magazine.

While visiting their respective restaurants, we sat down with Garces and Singh to hear them explain why their new places are worthy additions to the Chicago dining scene. Read the rest of this entry »

Dining Destinations: Door County

Road Trips No Comments »
Ice breaker at Death's Door/Photo: David Hammond

Ice breaker at Death’s Door/Photo: David Hammond

By David Hammond

Colder than a landlord’s heart, a well-digger’s rear-end, or Jack Nicholson at the end of “The Shining,” Wisconsin’s Door County is colder than many places. But facing frigidity is only part of the equation in Door County; the other part of the deal is getting cozy. And that’s the cycle: freeze down, cozy up, repeat.

First, the frigid options.

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Turning the Tables: When Patrons Serve the Restaurant

Thai 1 Comment »
Pramote Rukprueksachart and Wanpen Phosawang/Photo Matt Zatkoff

Pramote Rukprueksachart and Wanpen Phosawang/Photo: Matt Zatkoff

 By David Hammond

“Why is my lawyer sweeping the floor?”

That’s the question gasped by Pramote Rukprueksachart of Rainbow Thai Cuisine (4825 North Western) when he saw attorney Teresa Becvar cleaning up his currently-under-construction new dining room.

To answer Pramote’s question, let’s flashback to May, 2013, when Matt Zatkoff, Becvar’s husband, posted on LTHForum.com, the Chicago culinary chat site, that “I was walking down Western north of Lawrence and passed the nondescript location where Snow Spice used to be. I kept walking but something about the place caught my attention, so I decided to back up and grab a menu. I can’t believe I almost missed this place, which is called Rainbow Thai Cuisine. Later at home, looking at the menu I noticed a few things that got my interest, one of them being the house-made I-san style sausage. That was all it took.” Read the rest of this entry »

Huckabee’s Bubble, Eastwood’s BBQ and Eating Otherness: A Taste of Goat, Brains and Brazil

African, Brazilian, Pakistani No Comments »
Feijoada at Taste of Brasil/Photo: David Hammond

Feijoada at Taste of Brasil/Photo: David Hammond

By David Hammond

In “God, Guns, Grits and Gravy,” the most recent book by presidential wannabe Mike Huckabee, the pundit-author posits a country of opposing camps: Bubba-villes and Bubble-villes. The Bubba-villes are where you’ll find the author’s favorite things—like God, guns, grits and gravy—and the Bubble-villes are big cities—specifically NYC, DC and Hollywood—populated by left-leaning pointy-headed intellectual power-brokers. Chicago might likely qualify. As the name implies, dwellers in bubbles are disconnected from “reality” as defined by Comrade Huckabee.

It’s in the cities, of course, that people are most likely to be yanked out of their bubbles, confronted by otherness, compelled to deal with those people who don’t share their own inevitably limited perspectives. Read the rest of this entry »