By Michael Nagrant
I don’t make New Year’s resolutions, but I’ve got no problem making them for others. Sure it’s already three weeks into the year, but I’m gonna make a resolution for chefs, and as I’ve learned, they’re not always the most scrupulous bunch. It’s a good bet that whatever personal resolutions many local chefs made for 2007, they’ve already been violated like Ned Beatty’s character in “Deliverance.” So I propose a new resolution, which requires no abstinence from sin or substance-I’d like to see local food stars commit to making well-prepared, well-farmed and creative food affordable in 2007.
Chicago may be a town adorned with well-heeled aristocrats, but the core of our heart is still sausage-fingered blue-collar laborers and ethnic itinerants, many who have only cleaned the detritus from the tables that hold $300 meals. These everyday Chicagoans take pride in ingenuity, culinary or otherwise, but they still crave value.
2006 was the year of Chicago food. Chefs Homaro Cantu, Grant Achatz and Graham Elliot Bowles were featured in a trove of magazines from Fast Company to GQ. Achatz’s restaurant was named the best restaurant in America by Gourmet magazine. With that spotlight comes an influx of customers, coffers full of cash and a pretty tall soapbox. I know that food-business margins are thin, and that we’re not minting a cabal of millionaires. Those who were lauded slaved away in hellfire kitchens working ungodly hours. They should certainly bask in whatever spoils come their way, but they shouldn’t get spoiled.
Chefs in other cities have set an example. Thomas Keller, often cited as one of the world’s top chefs and who owns some of the most expensive restaurants in America, is about to roll out his vision for a burger joint in California this year. James Beard award-winner Tom Colicchio opened up fast casual mass-market options like ‘wichcraft in New York, which serves up slow-roasted pork or grilled-cheese sandwiches with black trumpet mushrooms. These sandwiches come at a $9 price tag, which surely isn’t cheap, but it’s a hell of a lot more accessible than the $46 Berkshire rack of pork served at his flagship restaurant Craft.
In Chicago, there have been stirrings. Rick Bayless of Frontera Grill and Topolobampo opened Frontera Fresco at Macy’s, serving rustic tortas and tamales topped with small-batch salsas for $8 or less. Regarding this democratization of food, Bayless recently told me, “I don’t want to turn my back on people who appreciate good food, but can’t afford those $300 meals.”
Stephanie Izard, owner/chef at the acclaimed Bucktown spot Scylla, announced a new menu with entrees priced under $20 and a bevy of $5 side dishes. She says, “I’ve found a way to show my creativity, but to offer things at a lower price point. You don’t need to start with really expensive ingredients to make something good. You should focus on cooking it well, seasoning it well and being creative, so people have access to reasonably priced food.”
Much has been made of Paul Kahan’s (of Blackbird and Avec) forthcoming casual pork- and beer-focused gastropub. This is precisely because, irrespective of the color of our collars, Chicagoans are a hearty lot full of tavern spirit, and given a choice we’d rather come as we are for good food and good beer at attainable prices from a great local chef.
But for every Doug Sohn (of Hot Doug’s) who brings his culinary prowess to the masses with spiffy sausages and duck-fat fries, it seems there are three more chefs contemplating the next $100 prix-fixé meal. Two years ago, Charlie Trotter extended his empire with a posh spot at an exclusive resort in Cabo San Lucas and he now plans a restaurant in a Gold Coast hotel in 2007. The Gold Coast needs another luxury restaurant about as much as Nicole Ritchie needs a Dexatrim tablet.
To be fair, Trotter’s been an incredible philanthropist and he opened Trotter’s To Go, which offers a taste of his skill at attainable prices. Still, I bet a local caterer and relative culinary unknown like Greg Christian, who’s trying to improve lunch for Chicago’s school children (chronicled in last week’s cover story), could use a guy with Trotter’s momentum and might to make the change. At the very least I’d love to see a Trotter tavern.
When I interviewed Chef Bowles last year and asked him about the importance of making cuisine affordable, he said, “If I could fill this dining room with a thousand people who were into what we were doing, why would you want to limit it to twenty people? Not that it’s food for the proletariat or anything, but the more that people understand about food, they’ll pass it on to other people.”
In 2007, I challenge our food stars to pass it on, to take those well-deserved gains and reinvest them in making better food available to many more.