Dining and food culture in Chicago

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

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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

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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 »

Brains Behind Baconfest: Seth Zurer Discusses the Pork Belly Bonanza

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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

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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.

Read the rest of this entry »

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

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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 »

The Offal Truth about Haggis: It’s Awfully Good

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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

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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 »