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

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 »

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

News etc., Trends & Essays No Comments »
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 »

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 »

Passion’s Fruits: Local Holiday Gifts for Food Lovers

Guides & Lists, News etc. No Comments »

CH Distillery Artist BottleBy Amber Gibson

Food lovers will enjoy these delicious treats, all made locally by passionate culinary artisans.

CH Distillery and West Loop Salumi join forces to offer a holiday booze box ($85 and up) with your choice of a locally distilled CH Spirit, customized stainless steel CH flask and West Loop Salumi’s finnochionna salami. Beverage director Krissy Schutte recommends CH’s peppercorn vodka as her preferred pairing. “The Tellicherry peppercorns that we use pair beautifully with the Berkshire pork and fennel pollen,” she says. After the one-hundred-percent Heritage Berkshire pork salami is cured and seasoned with fresh fennel pollen, it’s slowly fermented and dried for at least a month. CH is also offering 210 limited-edition bottles of CH Center 100 Vodka ($150), a premium version of their signature spirit. Each bottle is decorated by one of ten local Chicago artists and a portion of the proceeds goes toward Un86’d, a local charity for restaurant professionals in need. chdistillery.com, 564 West Randolph, (312)707-8780. 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 »

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 »