Dining and food culture in Chicago

Gardens in the Desert: Trying Fresh Moves to improve the equitable distribution of food in the city

Trends & Essays No Comments »

By Giovanni Wrobel

When consultant Mari Gallagher began her study of food access in Chicago neighborhoods, her objective was clear: to demonstrate how simple statistical information about food availability can improve community health by highlighting specific areas for local action. In 2006, when she began her study, there were well over 600,000 people living in food deserts, exposing residents to a statistically significant probability that they would die prematurely from diabetes and other health-related diseases. Gallagher has updated her study annually, and the results demonstrate signs of progress. In the five years that have passed, there was a nine-square-mile decrease in the size of the food deserts and a thirty-percent decrease in the number of people who live in the food deserts, but has the reality of food availability truly improved in Chicago? Read the rest of this entry »

Waste Not: How Markethouse and other Chicago places are bringing the local food movement full circle

Near North, River North, Trends & Essays 3 Comments »

Scott Walton

By Veronica Hinke

There’s no way the unsuspecting vandal on the fifth-floor roof of the DoubleTree Hotel in Streeterville could have known what he was about to expose when he kicked a hole in the wooden box as he walked by.

“I’ll bet he had to throw those shoes away,” Scott Walton, the executive chef of DoubleTree’s Markethouse Restaurant and Bar, says cheekily.

He’s recalling the scene last summer, when he found a stinking, slimy slop pile baking under an eighty-five-degree sun on the roof of the building where he works. It was a hot mess of coffee grounds, sections of rotting fish skeletons and decaying egg shells. The pile wasn’t a failed entree for his restaurant; it was a successful experiment in which the food that never made it to the plate would go here. Scattered in heaps on the ground, the pile was the remains of the upturned project he had christened three weeks before the vandal unwittingly stumbled upon it: a compost pile.

“It was really nasty,” Walton gloats, smirking at the prospect of his only revenge for the unnecessary kick-and-run destruction: the vandal’s unpleasantly smelly, soggy surprise.

Unfazed by the setback, Walton found himself increasingly more committed to the project. Today, fertilizing his garden with leftovers from the kitchen and dining tables is as important to Walton as growing, from seed, much of the food he cooks at Markethouse.

“There’s a little more pride involved when you grow something from seed and serve it on your restaurant table,” he says. Read the rest of this entry »

I ’Que: The education of a Smoque master

Barbecue, Irving Park No Comments »

By Michael Nagrant

Despite the apparent liability of being a skinny Jewish kid from Evanston, Barry Sorkin is one of the smoked-pork (and beef) kings of Chicago. In just a few short years, Sorkin and his BBQ joint Smoque in Irving Park have proven you don’t have to be a grizzled soul man or a beer-bellied Nascar, Jesus-lovin’ southerner to make good ‘que. Some would-be haters, however, contend that Sorkin’s only successful because he’s a white dude who opened a good rib shack in the relatively affluent North Side of the city where the media pays attention. Read the rest of this entry »

I ’Que: The education of a Smoque master

Barbecue, Irving Park No Comments »

By Michael Nagrant

Despite the apparent liability of being a skinny Jewish kid from Evanston, Barry Sorkin is one of the smoked-pork (and beef) kings of Chicago. In just a few short years, Sorkin and his BBQ joint Smoque in Irving Park have proven you don’t have to be a grizzled soul man or a beer-bellied Nascar, Jesus-lovin’ southerner to make good ‘que. Some would-be haters, however, contend that Sorkin’s only successful because he’s a white dude who opened a good rib shack in the relatively affluent North Side of the city where the media pays attention.

I can’t tell you about the lust in other journalist’s hearts. But know, when I laud Sorkin, that I’ve forded almost every rib shack from Evanston to Orland Park and eaten ‘que off an environmental-nightmare’s worth of Styrofoam clamshell boxes.

He is truly the Eminem of Chicago BBQ, i.e., though Sorkin’s a white dude in an African-American-dominated industry, he’s successful because he’s got mad skills, not because of the color of his skin. Like Eminem, who earned his way to the top, not as a record-industry-driven construct (can you say Vanilla Ice?), but by toppling a series of MCs in underground battles, Sorkin has silenced his critics with lacquered spicy bark ribs and moist, tender and delightfully piquant pulled pork.

And if they start talking smack after chewing through that, all they have to do is wolf down the best brisket maybe this side of Austin: meltingly tender chunks of beef mixed with deep caramelized molasses-rich burnt ends kissed with a tinge of tomato and sweet aromatic spice. The thing about BBQ is if you slide a slab of ribs with the wrong kind of rub down the wrong side of a picnic table in the wrong city, you could start WWIII. In these circumstances Sorkin’s brisket would broker the peace treaty. (It must be noted though that Robert Adams of Honey 1 is the Jay Z to Sorkin’s Eminem and smokes maybe the best ribs in the city.)

What makes all of this success crazy is that Sorkin was a career changer, an account executive for an IT Firm that supported restaurant point-of-sale computer systems. As a weekend warrior, a backyard-kettle-smoker prince, he’d always had it in the back of his mind he wanted to open a restaurant.

So, while he was still working in corporate America he entered the cooking certificate program at Kendall College. He says he’d work ten-hour days at his job, hop on the Kennedy, and like Clark Kent in the phone booth, would change into his chef’s whites while driving down to class. Ironically, he could never get into the BBQ class at Kendall, because it was one of the first to fill up.

He says culinary school gave him the confidence to operate in a commercial kitchen, how to make food not just for seven or eight people in the backyard, but to prepare food for hundreds. That confidence was key to persevering through a process that was ready to break him down. Sorkin says that when he approached various business advisors about opening up a BBQ joint, they all laughed and told him not to, that the restaurant business was a surefire way to fail.

Now that his restaurant is successful, Sorkin still looks to culinary-school grads because more often than not they have the fortitude working the line and don’t get freaked out about the velocity of a busy night.

Sorkin says, however, that you don’t have to go to culinary school. He’d rather have someone who pays attention to how things taste and look, and folks who are willing to speak up when something seems out of whack, which has more to do with personality than schooling. He says that when people ask for career advice, he suggests that working in a restaurant might be the way to get better experience sometimes.

But, that aside, going to culinary school may have provided the biggest boost to face down the biggest critic of all: his wife. When asked how he really got in to the BBQ business, Sorkin says, “You sit down with your wife and you say, ‘What do you think about me quitting my cushy high-paying job and going in the world’s riskiest business?’” Thankfully she believed.

Smoque BBQ, 3800 North Pulaski, (773)545-7427

Reinventing Breakfast: Local chefs dish on morning matters

Breakfast/Brunch No Comments »

By Michael Nagrant

In Chicago you can score foie gras milkshakes and edible seaweed-flavored paper for dinner. Breakfast, though, has remained a relatively familiar selection of eggs, pancakes and bacon. Innovation usually comes in the form of sickeningly sweet towers of chocolate and fruit-infused pancakes or savory breakfast burritos as big as Jay Leno’s head. Breakfast is really one of the last frontiers for culinary innovation. There’s really no master of the flat-top, no diner designer kicking out orange-juice bubbles and French-toast snow to the morning masses. To find out why, I checked in with John Bubala, former chef/owner of Timo, who now teaches classic-breakfast cooking at Kendall College culinary school, as well as Chicago’s top dinner dramatists, Grant Achatz of Alinea, Homaro Cantu of Moto and Graham Elliot Bowles of Graham Elliot restaurant to see why innovation has been slow and what their visions of breakfast look like.
Read the rest of this entry »

Just Ducky: Sun Wah and the art of Chinese BBQ

Chinese, Uptown No Comments »

chow7By Michael Nagrant

When you see a gaggle of glistening glazed ducks hanging sentry over hotel pans full of steaming tripe and bell jars filled with fried chicken skin, you know you’ve found a good Chinese BBQ spot. Actually, I know I’m probably in the minority on this one. It’s more likely most folks, who’ve come to believe their meat is born in Cryovac plastic or waxed-butcher-paper-wrapped bundles, would more likely see this scene at Sun Wah BBQ as an outtake from a Wes Craven horror flick.

Even if you get past the Sun Wah window and walk into the lobby lined with flattened corrugated boxes for wiping your feet, turn the corner into the utilitarian dining room featuring flat grayish-blue-painted walls and checkered vinyl tile and see a host of Chinese regulars spinning lazy Susans and stuffing their faces with smoky flesh, you’ll still likely want to head to the nearest P.F. Chang’s. Read the rest of this entry »

Green-Market Dorks: mado and the making of a neighborhood restaurant

Bucktown, New American 1 Comment »

By Michael Nagrant

“We’re the green-market dorks,” says Allison Levitt, chef and co-owner with her husband Rob of the just-opened Bucktown restaurant, mado. Levitt’s referring to the band of chefs who get up at dawn most every Wednesday and Saturday to scour the Green City Market looking for the best responsibly grown food for their restaurant kitchens.

These chefs aren’t who you think they are. There are very few big-time local chefs. Most of those guys drop by occasionally, but usually only for a photo-op. The real “green-market dorks” are more likely line cooks, sous chefs and young restaurateurs, a group of inspired, hungry unknowns.

What these folks do is generally unsung. The expectation these days is that all good restaurants operate on a farm-to-table principle, and the idea of a chef going down to a green market is given. This is a mythology. Read the rest of this entry »

Back to the Blackstone: Opening Night at Mercat a la Planxa

South Loop, Spanish No Comments »
Rabbit

Rabbit Agnoloti

By Michael Nagrant

I was not a precocious genius, like, say, a 2-year-old Tiger Woods ripping a tee shot on “The Mike Douglas Show.” There was no crème brulee epiphany at the foot of my grandmother. It took me twenty-eight years of school and aimless work to discover food writing.

Though my mother was a fine scratch cook, I ate quite a bit of Hamburger Helper, SpaghettiO’s and Campbell’s Soup. My only culinary experience was making pizza alongside a crew of shaggy-haired, though engaging, stoners in high school. Luxury dining meant the Admiral’s Feast at Red Lobster.

I really owe my interest in food to the Blackstone Hotel on Michigan Avenue. In 1997, while most of our college friends headed for the drunken shenanigans of Florida or Cancun, my girlfriend and I headed to Chicago for spring break. Having scored bargain-basement hotel rates, a frigid destination in the middle of February sounded good. Read the rest of this entry »

The joy of Sausage: The mad genius of Hot Doug’s

Hot Dogs/Sausages, Roscoe Village No Comments »

By Christine Badger

Back in the nineties, Doug Sohn and three of his friends went seeking the truth. A truth that many of us have pondered—what makes a good hot dog? Over the span of two years, Doug and his cohorts ventured to a little over forty hot dog places. “It became very self-involved,” Sohn says. “You know, we’d grade it and write a little review and it was funny to us, referencing other places, referencing what happened at lunch and so forth.” Out of this wiener madness, a light bulb went off in Doug’s head. He knew what worked. He knew what didn’t. Bing! Why not open his own place? Thus begot Hot Doug’s, his two-year-old gourmet hot dog stand.

Nestled in the Roscoe Village neighborhood, Sohn’s shop appears small and unassuming. But when you enter his world. the yellow-, red- and blue-painted walls strike you. The pictures of Elvis—young Elvis mainly, Britney Spears, Madonna, Cubs memorabilia, and the Morrocan tiled tabletops reel you in. There’s a fun, almost carnival feel to the place, like you’ve just entered summer. Toss the ball and you win a prize. Read the rest of this entry »