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.


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.


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 »

The Offal Truth about Haggis: It’s Awfully Good

Oak Park No Comments »
Haggis, neeps, tatties and egg/Photo: David Hammond

Haggis, neeps, tatties and egg/Photo: David Hammond

By David Hammond

Mention “haggis” to a random group of people and the likelihood is high most will screw up their faces and squeal “Eww.” The likelihood is equally high that none of those people have ever actually tasted the stuff. They may not even know what, exactly, it is.

Haggis is a type of sausage, popular in several parts of the U.K., but mostly Scotland. Haggis traditionally contains sheep’s pluck (lungs, liver and heart), onions, oatmeal, spices and mutton fat, boiled in a sheep’s stomach. That’s the real thing, which you may not have in the States because the sale of lung was banned in this country in 1971. Read the rest of this entry »

Chicago’s Classic Restaurants: Schaller’s Pump

American, Bridgeport, Chicago’s Classic Restaurants No Comments »
Photo: David Hammond

Photo: David Hammond

By David Hammond

During Prohibition, beer was allegedly pumped in from a brewery next door to Schaller’s Pump (3714 South Halsted), enabling barkeeps to reduce on-hand inventory (or “evidence,” as it would have been called by law enforcement) and earn its name (“Pump”).

At the back of Schaller’s, there’s a peephole once used for vetting thirsty patriots engaged in heroic acts of civil disobedience against the tyrannical Volstead Act.

The bar, which opened in 1881, is across the street from 11th Ward Democratic Party headquarters. Read the rest of this entry »

Dying for a Meal: Making a Hyde Park Outing of the Oriental Institute’s Exhibition

Events, Hyde Park No Comments »
Stele of Katumuwa/Image: Oriental Institute-Travis Saul

Stele of Katumuwa/Image: Oriental Institute-Travis Saul

When people say they’re going to Hyde Park, they usually mean they’re headed somewhere within a few blocks of the University of Chicago. My reason for recently going to Hyde Park was, of course, a UChicago-related event, an exhibit at the Oriental Institute (1155 East 58th) entitled “In Remembrance of Me: Feasting with the Dead in the Ancient Middle East.”

This exhibit brings together two of our favorite things—food and mortuary rituals—and it focuses on the use of food and drink to care for the dearly departed. At this ancient Turkish ritual, there would have been a stone representation of the deceased, along with directions regarding foods to be set before him. The stone representation, a stele recently discovered in Eastern Turkey, is for a man named Katumuwa. The inscription indicates that Katumuwa expected it to be rather dreary in the afterlife; he thought an annual banquet around his image would make things slightly more tolerable. As part of this exhibit, there are almost sixty artifacts related to comestibles of the ancient Near East.

This exhibit ends January 4, and Christmas break is the perfect time to make the trek to Hyde Park for some culture and some chow at one of the neighborhood’s classic bar/restos.

The Nile (1162 East 55th) complements the “In Remembrance of Me” exhibit. Having been featured on “Check, Please!” The Nile stands apart from just about every other nearby restaurant. Now in a new building, The Nile has served the community for years, with Middle Eastern standards including a much-praised chicken shawarma. The owner is Palestinian, born in the little town of Bethlehem. The food is value-priced: around $15/person. Read the rest of this entry »

Comfort Me: Chef Edward Kim, Mott Street

Comfort Me, Contemporary Comfort, Wicker Park No Comments »

© 2014 Galdones Photography

By David Hammond

“When I was sick,” recalls Chef Edward Kim of Mott Street, “or when I came in from the cold after shoveling snow with my father, I might have a hot porridge of rice with a little soy sauce; chicken soup…or a Japanese curry pork over rice. To me, Japanese curry is synonymous with the colder days of fall and winter; it was a dish my parents would often make for me. Japanese curry evokes memories of the smell of stewed meat with curry in a kitchen comfortably humid in an otherwise brisk house. It reminds me of my childhood.

“From a strictly culinary perspective, Japanese curry is comforting because it’s thick, it sticks to your bones, yet it’s mild in seasoning and has a distinct sweetness to it. While the curry is indeed black pepper-forward, the spiciness is not aggressive. It pairs well with braised meats. To me, braised meats capture comfort because they’re simple to make, yet they take time—and time is important.” Read the rest of this entry »

Chicago’s Classic Restaurants: Won Kow

Chinatown No Comments »
Won Kow, courtesy Curt Teich Postcard Archives Lake County (IL) Discovery Museum

Won Kow/Curt Teich Postcard Archives Lake County (IL) Discovery Museum

By David Hammond

In Chicago’s Chinatown—long before any of us had our first taste of Szechuan, Hunanese or Yunnanese cuisine—there was Won Kow. Since 1928, Won Kow has served what was once known simply as “Chinese food” but is now more likely to be termed “American-Chinese.”

Won Kow, Chinatown’s oldest Chinese restaurant, is on the second floor of an old building designed, general manager David Hoy told us, by “the same Norwegian architects behind the old Leong Chinese Merchants Association almost directly across the street.” The two big brick buildings with covered balconies and Asian ornamentation are Chinatown’s twin anchors.

Walking into the Won Kow building, you’re confronted by a long flight of stairs ascending to the second floor restaurant. There’s a printout, taped to the wall at the bottom of the stairs, assuring potential customers that takeout orders can be brought down to them. Such notice would have been unnecessary when Won Kow opened, shortly after the first electric elevator was patented, long before we acquired a fear of walking up a flight of stairs.

The stairs open onto a big wood-paneled dining room. Al Capone’s table was once in the northwest corner, and two of his boys would usually be stationed at the doorway to stand guard over Chicago’s OG. The menu has changed some since those days: Big Al surely never sampled Won Kow’s tempura or sushi…which, of course, are Japanese. And that’s the thing about American-Chinese places today: they frequently serve a pan-Asian variety of chow rather than “authentic” Szechuan or even Cantonese cuisine. Read the rest of this entry »

Things to Do with Your Tongue: Speaking and Eating Chinese with Professor James McCawley

Chinatown, Chinese, Trends & Essays No Comments »
Photo: David Hammond

Photo: David Hammond

By David Hammond

When I studied literature and linguistics at the University of Chicago in the mid-1970s, I knew of James McCawley but never had him as a prof. He worked in generative semantics, and his work, focusing upon how meaning and logic affect syntax, created a well-known rift with followers of Chomskyan generative grammar.

I’d read a paper or two of McCawley’s in Joe Williams’ linguistics classes, but later in life the work of his I found most useful was “The Eater’s Guide to Chinese Characters,” a still-in-print handbook (University of Chicago Press) for deciphering Chinese restaurant menus. About this guide, Calvin Trillin wrote in the New Yorker:

“Unlike some of the rest of us, McCawley can enter a Chinese restaurant secure in the knowledge that his digestion will not be impaired by the frustration of watching Chinese customers enjoy some succulent marvel whose name the management has not bothered to translate… .McCawley does not spend half the meal staring at his neighbor’s bean curd with that particularly ugly combination of greed and envy so familiar to—well, to some of the rest of us… . McCawley endeavors to free the non-Chinese-speaking eater forever from the wretched constriction of the English menu.” Read the rest of this entry »

Comfort Me: Jon Keeley of Gemini Bistro

Comfort Me, Lakeview 1 Comment »
Jon Keeley/Photo: Neil Burger

Jon Keeley/Photo: Neil Burger

By David Hammond

For Chef Jon Keeley of Gemini Bistro (2075 North Lincoln), comfort food “warms the heart. When you take that first bite, you’re instantly transported back to a time of good memories. When you’re done eating, you have that feeling of ‘Wow, that’s good for the soul (and now it’s time for a nap).’ Comfort food for me takes you home. It transports you to a different time and place. You close your eyes and just fall back.”

Comfort food is often high in carbohydrates, so it’s not surprising that Keeley’s favorite comfort food is “Pasta, pasta, pasta—any way you can put it in front of me.”

Keeley’s Gemini Bistro, which for the past three years has received Michelin Bib Gourmand recognition, serves from a big menu that includes several pasta-based dishes. Read the rest of this entry »

Comfort Me: Tom Van Lente of Two Restaurant and Bar

Comfort Me, West Town No Comments »
Photo: Shannon Marie Braniff

Photo: Shannon Marie Braniff

By David Hammond

One of the most adventurous and memorable meals I’ve ever had was at Alinea, Chicago’s only Michelin three-star restaurant. Chef Grant Achatz is a culinary artist of major significance, challenging diners and pushing into new frontiers of food experimentation.

The food of Achatz is almost as much about the mind as it is about the stomach. One thing you would not say about his food, however, is that it “sticks to your ribs.” It doesn’t, and it wasn’t meant to.

For Tom Van Lente of Two Restaurant and Bar (1132 West Grand), however, that’s what comfort food is all about.

“To me,” Van Lente says, “comfort food is rib-sticking good, with lots of fat and butter (that’s not a bad thing!). Comfort food has to be something that’s going to weigh you down—and keep you satiated—for hours afterwards.” Read the rest of this entry »