Founder, Strange Foods Chicago Festival
Sisouk (or Keng, as he’s known) Sisavath is the man behind Strange Foods Chicago Festival. During past festivals, Sisavath has brought in performers to pair music and dance from the countries that produce foods that could seem strange to Western eaters. Silk worms with kaffir lime leaves, cricket tacos, boiled chicken embryo, you get the idea. “I started Strange Food Festival,” says Sisavath, “because I wanted to give an opportunity for the restaurants to share the food of their motherland. For 2019, I have plans for doing the festival outside, mixing small restaurants with bigger-name restaurants.”
Founder-CEO, Sparrow Coffee
With the advent of “third wave” coffee and the rise of specialty roasters, coffee has moved in the general consciousness from commodity to a recognized craft product. Chris Chacko and his Sparrow Coffee roastery embody this shift. A veteran coffee roaster, Chacko founded Sparrow in 2012 to showcase his skills and knowledge and Sparrow Coffee has since become an exclusive and sought-after supplier. Beyond challenging the status quo of conventional roasting with methods like a sous-vide of beans, Chacko also recognizes the environmental change that affects his industry: he employs a smokeless roaster and uses only sustainably sourced beans.
‘Nduja Artisan and Co-Founder, Tempesta Market
‘Nduja is a sweetheart of the Chicago dining scene, found on charcuterie plates, pizzas, and pastas. The spicy, spreadable salumi owes much of its Chicago popularity to Antonio Fiasche. Working alongside his father Agostino, Fiasche tapped into family traditions and quality ingredients to create ‘nduja so good that it racked up accolades and launched an entire salumi business. Marketed under the name Tempesta and accompanied by a brick-and-mortar deli, Fiasche’s company serves up a wide selection of artisan meats that continue to win awards and wow eaters.
Breakfast Queen of Chicago
Even after feeding Chicago for thirty-three years, right up until she served her final breakfast at Ina’s in 2013, Pinkney remains a force in the dining scene. Most recently, she’s hit the breakfast beat, introducing readers of the Tribune to little-known spots to fill up on that most important meal of the day. “Because my standards are really high, I like to think my readers will come to expect more and better,” says Pinkney. She is particularly adamant about the need for hospitality, which she credits as the secret to her long-running restaurant. “We’re missing that kindness today, and I worry about it,” she says. “But I’ll be around to remind [the restaurant community] what it should be and what it can be. I have respect for innovation; I have more respect for tradition and consistency.”
Michael Griggs, Andre Vonbaconvitch and Seth Zurer
Baconfest—the brainchild of pork belly brothers Griggs, Vonbaconvitch and Zurer—is revving up for its second decade, more bacon-y than ever. “Every year,” says Zurer, “we pull in new restaurants from every corner of Chicago foodie firmament. Thirty Baconfest first-timers join the lineup, including NoMI, About Last Knife, Blue Door Kitchen & Garden and Steingold’s of Chicago. But Baconfest does more than fill us with delicious pork. “Our grand total of financial support for the Greater Chicago Food Depository grows every year,” Zurer says. “We’ve surpassed $440,000 in support over the last ten years. That translates to more than 1.3 million meals for hungry Chicagoans.”
Co-Founder-Principal, Grip Design
Kevin McConkey’s Grip Design has worked for places like Bellemore and Swift & Sons, and he says it’s all about conveying the feel of a restaurant before diners even step foot in it. “Long before a diner decides where to spend their time and money, what do they do? They go online,” he says. Grip Design helps restaurants represent their vision online and elsewhere. “Dining out is perhaps the most consistent entertainment people leave their homes for, and we believe it should be more than food on a plate,” McConkey says, noting the importance of loyalty programs, behind-the-scenes offerings, and the importance of a stellar front-of-house. While personal service is important, he’s willing to innovate to please younger customers. Think cashier-less ordering systems and more mobile app features.
Mitch and Cliff Einhorn
Owners, Twisted Spoke, Lush Wine & Spirits
When Twisted Spoke opened twenty-five years ago, it was at the forefront of the gastropub trend, and when Lush Wine & Spirits opened in 2005, it was a leader in wine. “It seemed like the hospitality aspect of wine was lost in Chicago,” Mitch Einhorn says, so he created a shop where people could linger and taste wines before buying. This turned into a wine bar, and the newest Lush location in Evanston will build further upon the concept, thanks to a full-size kitchen and flavor profiles from places like India and Japan. Despite new openings, Einhorn notes Chicago’s restaurants are in a tricky spot. “The pool of talent is really small,” he says, and “minimum wage is making everything more expensive.” He’s looking at ways to maintain standards without burdening the customer. “I’m just trying to make good food at a reasonable price that people can appreciate every day.”
No one we know seeks out and eats more regional chow than Titus Ruscitti. Appearing frequently in Thrillist with articles like “Why Chicago is America’s Top Taco Town” and “Chicago’s Ten Best Under-the-Radar Sandwiches,” Ruscitti believes “regional American food is taken seriously now more than ever.” Sometimes the deliciousness is found in unexpected places: “Taco Bell and their factory-made shells gave the crispy taco a bad rap. But if you dig deep enough, you’ll find that the crispy taco is alive and well across America.” Ruscitti travels around, chows down and writes about it in “Smokin’ Chokin’ and Chowing with the King” (chibbqking.blogspot.com/), although he says he’s no influencer. “The only people I try to influence,” he says, “are local food folks interested in the same things as me and maybe the local media by sharing whatever it is I find out there.”
Owner-Principal Photographer, Galdones Photography
Today, everyone is a photographer, though few get close to the level of photos that come from the lens of Huge Galdones, who has shot pix for such well-regarded names as Elske, Smyth and The Loyalist, Boka Restaurant Group, James Beard Foundation and Chicago Gourmet. Still, the tsunami of amateur photographers must have an impact on his business, right? “While the abundance of food photographers does affect business from a client-pool standpoint,” Galdones says, “it’s made me reassess how I operate as a business. It used to be a volume game where I’d try to shoot as much as I could. Now, it’s more about fostering and maintaining relationships with clients who understand and trust the style of photography I provide.” Asked whether he’d rather shoot food or people, Galdones says that he would rather photograph “people engaging with food.” This aesthetic attitude enables him to highlight a “side of the industry that the consumer doesn’t usually get to see, the stories of how food gets to the plate.”
Host, Jean Banchet Awards Committee
2018 was a year unlike any other for Michael Muser. After Grace, where Muser was General Manager, closed at the end of 2017 and the resulting legal snarls, Muser, a self-professed “dude who does eighteen-hour days just because,” had to hit the pause button on his industry endeavors. Yet this sabbatical has not stopped him being a cheerleader for the Chicago dining scene. “Every few years, Chicago sends up a flare and makes other cities talk—not just about fine dining, but burgers, hot dogs,” he says. “That’s Chicago. That’s what we do. That’s why we’re amazing.” His enthusiasm makes him a seamless fit as the face of the Jean Banchet Awards, turning a little-known event into the dining community’s own mini-Oscars. “I’m so proud it’s its own thing—a show for restaurant kids written by restaurant kids.” As for 2019, Muser can say only, “Chicago’s got a lot to look forward to.”
Dining and Drinking Editor for Newcity, David also writes a weekly food column for Wednesday Journal in Oak Park and is a frequent contributor of food/drink and travel pieces to the Chicago Tribune, Plate Magazine and other publications. David has also contributed chapters to several books, including Street Food Around the World, Street Food, and The Chicago Food Encyclopedia. Contact: email@example.com