Dining and food culture in Chicago

Big Heat: Chicago’s Food & Drink Fifty 2016

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Manny Hernandez, Sarah Grueneberg, Tom Van Lente/ Photo: Joe Mazza/Brave Lux

Manny Hernandez, Sarah Grueneberg, Tom Van Lente/ Photo: Joe Mazza/Brave Lux

Big Heat, 2016, is Newcity’s list of chefs, bartenders, bakers and other food producers who are, undeniably, very good and sometimes great. The best? YMMV.

Lists are fundamentally flawed in that they suggest an objectivity impossible to attain because, you know, we’re talking about taste, which is individual, subjective, difficult-to-impossible to verify.

To compile our list, we took input from leaders in Chicago food culture, people who’ve been on the list before and others in the industry. We based our decisions on those recommendations as well as upon the performance and promise of candidates. Throughout, we kept thinking of other names we wanted to include, names that one could argue should be included; yet we have space for only fifty. Some omissions may be obvious and some, arguable. Why, for instance, isn’t Grant Achatz on the list? Because Alinea is closed for re-concepting. Why aren’t dozens of other worthy men and women on this list? Because tough decisions had to be made.

A particularly painful omission was that of Jean-Claude Poilevey, chef/restaurateur of Le Bouchon and La Sardine; Poilevey died in a traffic accident shortly before we went to press. Long a member and mover of Chicago’s restaurant community, Poilevey was so much a part of the local culinary landscape that we, admittedly, lost sight of him, as did many who in the last decade or so compiled such lists. We’re not seeking forgiveness for such omissions; simply understanding.

Although you may disagree with a call this way or that, we hope that, for the most part, you agree that all the people listed here should be on the list—and, no doubt, many more. (David Hammond)

Big Heat was written by John Carruthers, Sarah Conway, Robert Gardner, David Hammond, Rebecca Holland, Monica Kass Rogers, Lauren Knight, Rosemary Lane.

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Restaurateurs of the Moment: The Family Zaragoza

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The Zaragoza family–Jonathan, John-Juan and Norma/ Photo: Joe Mazza/Brave Lux

The Zaragoza family–Jonathan, John-Juan and Norma/ Photo: Joe Mazza/Brave Lux

By David Hammond

Driving south on Pulaski, between 48th and 49th, even if you’re looking hard for Birrieria Zaragoza, even if you’ve been there before, you might drive right past it. It’s a small, family-run restaurant, seating around twenty. This well-kept, humble place doesn’t have any flashy signage. It probably doesn’t need it, judging by the crowds inside who regularly chow down, elbow-to-elbow, on what might be the finest birria tatemada you’ll find anywhere (except, perhaps, Jalisco, Mexico).

The birria is prepared and served up by John-Juan, his wife Norma, and their children Jonathan, Erik, Tony and daughter Andie.

The hungry horde that comes to eat at Birrieria Zaragoza is frequently so large that a storefront next door is opened up for people to sit in several rows of chairs, like at the DMV, patiently waiting for a table or take-out.

In early 2016, the Zaragozas accepted the Jean Banchet award for “Best Ethnic Restaurant,” the first time this award was given to anyone. We strongly suspect this category was created specifically to honor the family’s work in perfecting birria tatemada in Chicago. Birria tatemada is goat meat, steamed for hours, slathered with mole sauce, and then roasted to create a beautiful blend of textures, crunchy crisp in places, lushly soft in others, with good spice but not so much that the goodness of the goat is obscured.

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

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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

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

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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 »

The Big Heat: Chicago’s Food & Drink Fifty 2014

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Photo: Joe Mazza/BraveLux

Photo: Joe Mazza/BraveLux

This year’s selection of Chicago’s dining and drinking leadership focuses on the artists behind the beautiful and delicious compositions on our plates and in our glasses. A few on our list may be celebrities, at least in the food community, but that’s not why they got into this business, with its long hours, burnt fingers and demanding customers. Whether it’s food or drink, fine dining or pizza, salumi or chocolate, these chefs, mixologists and artisans toil behind the scenes so that we can enjoy some of the finest and most innovative food and drink in the country. It’s thanks to this impressive group—and the hundreds right behind them on our ever-growing short list—that Chicago is considered a national culinary treasure. It’s unquestionable that we lost one of our giants this past year with the passing of Charlie Trotter, but his legacy is carried forward in the artistry of the many who served under him. And they, in turn, are inspiring the next generation to learn classic cooking techniques, respect the work of legends past and dare to innovate. Oui, Chef. (Amber Gibson)

Big Heat was written by Brendan Buck, Stefan Castellanos, Amber Gibson, Veronica Hinke, Ben Kramer,  Marla Seidell and Sara Tenenbaum

All photos taken on location at the Arts Club of Chicago by Joe Mazza of BraveLux.

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The Big Heat: Chicago’s Food & Drink Fifty 2013

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Illustration by Pam Wishbow

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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The Big Heat #1: Rick Bayless

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Rick Bayless
King of the Frontera Empire (Topolobampo, Frontera Grill, Xoco, Frontera Foods etc.)
He brought “real” regional Mexican food to the American table. He made gardening look cool again. He’s done as much as anyone to promote local farms and farmers through his foundation and restaurant work. Through Xoco, he’s found a way to serve locally farmed, consciously raised foods to thousands of people a day without making any major compromises. He’s even made it almost fun to fly again with his Tortas Frontera kiosks at O’Hare. But, none of this probably means as much as the fact that the dude won the inaugural Top Chef Masters TV competition, which means millions more know these good deeds and better ways of eating.

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The Big Heat #2: Stephanie Izard

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Stephanie Izard
Chef/Partner, Girl & the Goat
Last time we did this list, the queen of all food media and “Top Chef” 2008 winner was a line cook at Vong’s Thai Kitchen and Spring, neither of which are around anymore. But, Izard, a curly head Energizer Bunny just keeps on ticking. Her Girl & the Goat is the hottest ticket in town and she’s also working on a new diner and a cookbook. Grant Achatz might be on the Time 100 Most Influential People List, but if Izard was walking next to him in a shopping mall, he’d be one lonely dude.

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The Big Heat #3: Grant Achatz

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Photo: Lara Kastner

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Grant Achatz
Chef/Owner, Alinea, Aviary and Next
A member of Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People List. While Achatz has pushed the emotional boundaries of the dining experience more than anyone, his immediate legacy is training cooks to be better versions of their forebears. He’s the torchbearer of the legacy handed down from Escoffier to the great French Brigades through to Thomas Keller. As a result guys like Curtis Duffy (Avenues), Jeff Pikus (Maude’s) and David Carrier (ex-Kith & Kin) are bringing a new level to every restaurant they touch and improving how we eat. If that weren’t enough, Achatz’s cancer survival and push to be the best at all costs is a comic book-like hero mythology that inspires us all.

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The Big Heat #4: Rich Melman

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Rich Melman
Founder, Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises
The dude basically invented the salad bar at his inaugural restaurant R.J. Grunts. Forty years and more than forty-plus restaurants later, he was recently named Outstanding Restaurateur of the Year by the James Beard Foundation, his L20 restaurant garnered three Michelin stars, and he continues to open and develop cutting edge concepts that command the attention of Chicago and the world.

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