Guests mingling at The Octagon Mode/Photo: Amber Gibson
By Amber Gibson
From the moment you step into the nondescript West Lawrence storefront, you know you’re in for a treat. The soulful live music, elegant plate ware and romantic lighting make it clear this isn’t any haphazard dinner hosted in somebody’s apartment. And owner Erika Stone-Miller is the quintessential hostess. Bubbly and vivacious, with a genuine love of people, she makes even the shyest guests feel at home at The Octagon Mode (Newcity’s pick for Best Underground Dinner in 2013). After greeting everyone like old friends, she’ll change from a chic black cocktail dress to an apron and bright orange Crocs. It’s time to get in the kitchen and start whipping up beef wellington and champagne jelly. Stone-Miller looks a decade younger than her forty-seven years, hasn’t owned a TV in twenty years, and her story is one of following your heart and the pursuit of happiness.
Stone-Miller attended Wellesley College, a women’s college in Massachusetts, graduating in 1988 with a bachelor’s degree in architecture. The name “The Octagon Mode” is a nod to her academic career, inspired by an obscure mid-nineteenth-century architectural movement. She’d always worked as a hostess or waitress, starting in Boston while she was in college. After school, she took an architectural job, but continued to work in restaurants and soon found that a career in architecture was not for her. “I really liked it, but I sucked,” she readily admits. “I was never going to be a great architect.” Read the rest of this entry »
Drying room at West Loop Salumi
By Amber Gibson
Krug salami, anyone? It may be a little early to start planning holiday parties but soon you’ll be able to get some bubbly and Krug-flavored salami from West Loop Salumi to ring in the New Year. This will be a new flavor and recipe for Greg Laketek, who opened Illinois’ only USDA-certified salumeria in July and has been doing brisk business since. West Loop Salumi is already available at restaurants and retail locations including Benny’s Chop House, G.E.B., Travelle, Lush Wine & Spirits, TWO and House of Glunz.
Laketek’s Krug-flavored salami, which will be released in December, is a project with Moët Hennessy and Plum Market, with whom he’ll also be making Numanthia Termanthia and Numanthia Termes Chorizo for a November release. Most of the salumi at Plum Market is refrigerated, but Laketek’s salumi comes straight from his West Loop drying chambers and no refrigeration is necessary. The meat is good for up to a year, “but it’s at its best straight from the chamber,” Laketek says.
As a kid, Laketek spent summer in Italy with his extended family in Centobuchi, Italy, a hundred miles east of Rome. “All their friends owned farms,” he says. “They would make their own wine, bread, pasta and salumi.” Laketek went back to study in Italy as an undergraduate, and after spending two years running his own construction consulting firm, he says he was burnt out doing something he didn’t love. In a sharp twist, Laketek attended Kendall College and decided to open a salumeria, spotting an opportunity to add something new to Chicago’s already vibrant culinary scene. Read the rest of this entry »
By Matt Kirouac
There are few things as soul-soothing as pie, which explains the adoration for Hoosier Mama Pie Co., and the chief Hoosier behind it all, Paula Haney. From coffee shops to fine dining institutions, Haney has proven her pastry prestige, but what really set her apart from the dessert posse was her decision to break away from the trendy and return to her roots making pie. Now four years in with her first pie shop, fresh off the debut of her own pie cookbook, and on the verge of opening her second shop, Haney is a true pie-oneer in Chicago.
Pie was the first thing Haney learned how to make at home in the Hoosier State. They were the go-to dessert in her family, and by the age of eight, she was making apple pie with her mom. It was love at first bite. “It was amazing how good just the apples and the cinnamon and the sugar were together,” she recalls. Although her passion for pie was there from the get-go, the road to Hoosier Mama was a long one.
Haney studied journalism at Indiana University, but wound up working at a coffee shop in Bloomington called The Runcible Spoon. She dabbled at a couple other places in town getting a taste for the baking life before moving to Chicago and working at The Hilton on Michigan Avenue. Although separating eggs for hours on end was tedious, she chocks it up as good mental exercise and practice, preparing her for her pastry-assistant position at Trio under Della Gossett. She calls the kitchen intense yet supportive, fostering growth in her pastry skills. “I was making stuff I had never made before,” she says. It was here where she felt she really learned and grew during her three years as an assistant and three as pastry chef, curating elaborate dishes using candied seaweed tuiles and foie gras as part of twenty-course tasting menus. Read the rest of this entry »
By Amber Gibson
You’d be forgiven for thinking otherwise, but Next is not the only restaurant in town overhauling its entire menu and theme every three months. Every self-respecting foodie in town knows that Next recently changed its menu from a vegan theme to one inspired by the Bocuse d’Or culinary championship. However, the launch of Sixteen’s fall menu doesn’t require a mad rush to buy tickets. The dining room at the Trump might not adopt the exotic themes of Grant Achatz’s restaurant, but its ambitions are equally high. “We’re trying to redefine ourselves on a quarterly basis,” says executive chef Thomas Lents. “It’s a lot of work. It’s work I love but it’s not easy.” The seasonality of his menus is obvious, but the underlying story shifts dramatically.
Lents’ fall menu, debuting September 23, celebrates the bountiful autumn harvest. “With this menu we’re going to bring out more items that are meant to be shared,” Lents says. “I’m trying to get rid of the hegemony of the plate. The idea that it’s one plate for one diner.” Read the rest of this entry »
Illustration by Pam Wishbow
Many things come to mind when contemplating Chicago’s culinary and cocktail culture: farm-to-table, molecular gastronomy, why Charlie Trotter hung it up, and so on. But what struck us when working on this year’s Big Heat list, which, as is our tradition, is more focused this year on the behind-the-scenes business of food and drink than its artistry on the plate and in the glass, is the power of collaboration. Perhaps inspired by Rich Melman’s pioneering partnership model of organizing the restaurant business, this town’s now full of groups launching one great new place after another. Keeping track of who’s opening what-where-when has become a sport in and of itself. And beyond those formal business partnerships is the spirit of community that pervades the entire thing, with chefs and sommeliers and mixologists and butchers all teaming up on a regular basis, not always to make money, but always to make great flavors. And our palates swoon appreciatively. (Brian Hieggelke)
Big Heat was written by Amber Gibson, Brian Hieggelke, Matt Kirouac, Sara Tenenbaum and Walter Burns
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Photo: Michael Silberman
By Amber Gibson
Chef Homaro Cantu can make cheesecake without sugar, fat or cheese. Instead, all he needs is a spoonful of non-fat sour cream, a lemon wedge and a miracle berry tablet. Lemon and sour cream might not sound like dessert, but the miracle of the berry is that it makes these two ingredients taste better than Eli’s Cheesecake.
Cantu, a molecular gastronomer, among other things, has spent more than eight years researching the rare miracle berry, which temporarily makes sour things taste sweet. At a recent cooking class at his Michelin-starred Moto restaurant, he demonstrated to wide-eyed guests how easy miracle berries are to use.
“You just made cheesecake in a split second,” Cantu tells his class of fourteen students, after they diligently squeeze several drops of lemon juice over their servings of non-fat sour cream. After exchanging incredulous looks, one by one each person eats a miracle berry, then tries the sour cream. It’s unanimous. This stuff tastes good. Read the rest of this entry »
Photo: Anthony Tahlier Photography
By Eric Lutz
I should admit, before we proceed, that I was one of the many Chicagoans who dropped their forks in sadness when I learned Alpana Singh was leaving “Check, Please!”—the show she’s hosted for the last ten years—to open her own restaurant.
I’m a professional journalist in my mid-twenties, so you can guess what my annual income is. Suffice it to say, after rent and groceries and gas and a couple nights at the local watering hole, there’s not much left to be a serious foodie. But you didn’t have to be to love watching “Check, Please!”—alongside the four-star restaurants most of us could only dream of affording, there were BYOs and greasy spoons and food trucks much more in the financial wheelhouse of those of us making hourly.
As Singh will tell you, a big part of the show’s populist appeal were the people themselves. Each week, three random Chicagoans got together to talk about their favorite restaurants—that’s going to bring about populism the same way sitting three random movie goers down to review the latest releases at the multiplex would.
But as the knowing yet hugely accessible host, Singh granted the reviewers legitimacy. She gave meaning and weight to the criticisms and compliments the three guests each week served the restaurants. It’s one thing for three regular Chicagoans to sit around and opine about food, but it’s another thing entirely for the youngest woman to ever be a Master Sommelier and the former director of wine and spirits for Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises and all-around restaurant expert to present those opinions as valid and important and even prescient. Read the rest of this entry »
Paul Virant’s dream career?
By Matt Kirouac
When I was young, I wanted to grow up to be a marine biologist, mostly because I assumed it involved swimming in tanks at aquariums and bonding with animals that wouldn’t bite my leg off. Then “Jaws” ruined my life, and I decided I wanted to be a boat salesman, because I would be safe from a watery massacre, yet still sort of involved in marine life. I liked water. So it makes complete sense that I am a writer today. At least there is no threat of sharks. I suppose we all go through drastic changes of job dreams. For some, we aspire to different things at young ages, and others go so far as to pursue different careers before changing tracks down the road. This is true of plenty of chefs, who either dreamed of different careers or actually achieved them before veering down the culinary path.
The Dream Chasers
Joshua Kulp, chef/partner of Sunday Dinner Club and forthcoming Honey Butter Fried Chicken, has seemingly lived the lives of several different people. It’s remarkable that he has already managed to have a full-fledged teaching career, and then shifted to become a chef. His reasoning behind the two seemingly divergent routes makes sense, though. For him, it’s all about making an impact in the world, be it by educating youth or changing people’s perceptions about food. When he was younger, he thought jobs had to make an impact, and he didn’t know he could do this with something creative (e.g. a chef). Though he loved cooking, it wasn’t initially a career option. While attending school in Madison, Wisconsin, he ran a coffee shop using fair trade coffee and local, sustainable products, and he even spent four years in a nursing home with Alzheimer’s patients. This made him realize how important and life-changing one single moment could be. This ideology parlays to cooking, as one special bite can change someone’s thinking about food forever. But first came teaching. Read the rest of this entry »