Chicago's Chef Mt. Rushmore, Food Media and Digital Creator Edition
Chicago Food Writers and Digital Creators name their all time Mt. Rushmore of Chicago Chefs
Do you know who Joseph Seyl, Carolyn Buster, Chin Foin, and Edna Stewart are? If you do, you win Chicago culinary history bingo!
If you did know, it’s not surprising given that so many of the folks who subscribe to this newsletter are deeply in love with Chicago’s restaurant history.
But, I’m willing to bet you didn’t know at least one of these folks.
I had no idea who Chin Foin was, the OG Chinese restaurant godfather, but I absolutely should have (Thanks Naomi Waxman of Eater Chicago!).
As I said on Friday, I gave vague directions for this exercise, asking chefs and food media and digital creators to name their “Chicago Chef Mt. Rushmore”, 4 names, plus 3 honorable mentions if they like. I deliberately didn’t give direction for the criteria because I suspected that would yield some interesting perspectives.
It turned out even better than I guessed. Consider this quote from alley pizza slinger John Carruthers:
“My girlfriend (now-wife) left to find a bathroom and instead accidentally barged in on well-known Top Chef alum [REDACTED] hitting the holy shit out of an oversized bong.”
Folks came through big time. Below you’ll find the food media and creator selection.
On Wednesday I’m gonna drop the list from Chicago chefs. The Wednesday list is also gonna come with Nate Silver-like graphs and charts breaking down the collective selections of both groups with stats and numbers.
I also suspected a lot of people would name the late Charlie Trotter on their Rushmore (the chefs did a lot more than the writers which is interesting), so as a special surprise, I asked Charlie’s son Dylan Trotter to name his Mt. Rushmore as well.
The chef list with Dylan’s selections is gonna drop Wednesday, and part of it is going to be for paid subscribers only. It’s going to be epic.
You do not want to miss it, and seriously, because I’m running a Black Friday week subscription special (below) it’s only gonna cost you $4 (link below). You’ve already spent that on a bag of Kings Hawaiian Rolls for Thanksgiving dinner. Not only will you get the list, but you’ll get no-holds-barred restaurant media criticism and honest independent restaurant reviews and so much more. C’Mon, join The Hunger!
I want to send a special thank you to everyone who participated in this exercise and even to those who turned me down. As a general note (because I know I’ll get questions in the comment section) if you don’t see a chef or writer’s name here, it’s not because I didn’t ask them to submit their Rushmore. I probably did. Folks are busy. Folks don’t like lists. I admire and appreciate all of this.
Finally, if I asked you and you submitted a list and you don’t see it here (media and creators) or on Wednesday (chefs), let me know. I had a lot of submissions in multiple venues and I’ve triple checked that I didn’t miss anything, but it’s still possible. I want to make sure you are included!
Enjoy the list!
John Carruthers - @nachosandlager, Founder Crust Fund Pizza
As a guy who honks his vowels and pulls the "only WE can make fun of deep dish" card far too often, I'm fiercely loyal to the idea of Chicago as a world-class food city. A destination unto itself for well-heeled travelers specifically seeking out the places we're fortunate enough to have as part of the daily scenery. But as a guy who loves to cook and eat, it's the places that don't stand on ceremony that reside in the deepest chambers of my heart. As a dad of three whose Hawaiian-shirt clad motto is "eh, who am I trying to impress?", my currency as an eater is casual excellence, not hype or theatrics. I want to walk into a place knowing I'll be welcome and that the credit card swipe isn't going to make me inhale through clenched teeth.
Sorry I'm boring, but there are literally millions of us. And these indispensable chefs have figured that out, without compromising or lessening the incredible food they create.
Nagrant told me I couldn't do four Dougs (editor’s note: Nagrant would have accepted 4 Dougs), so I'm at least giving him the Wembanyama slot. While I was not one of the Roscoe Village Firetrap OGs, I do count myself among the pre-Bourdain crowd that ate there dozens of times up until that glorious last day. You'd start to see the patterns in his topping choices for specials, and see the notes he was playing in his ongoing game of texture-and-flavor Jenga. And friends, THAT was the most rewarding thing: when you know how the trick is performed and get wowed every time regardless. I also frequently tell people that his famous personability, his gift of bullshit (game recognize game) was the hidden key to turning over the tables just right and making dining-in a stress-free experience once you'd conquered the Roscoe Gauntlet that was the line.
I categorically hate name-dropping, but if you mention the vague idea of Avondale and/or encased meat, I'll loudly talk about how I had a special on the menu for those heady weeks before and after he announced he was hanging it up. Greatest honor of my cooking career!
A guy doing what he clearly loved (I lost count of the times I saw him give away free food to folks who were short on cash and big on menu ambition) doing it at the top of his game? Best chef in Chicago. Dynamite his head into whatever passes for a hill around this swamp.
I was and remain a big Top Chef fan. But there's a certain reality-warping distortion field that comes with shows like that. When I randomly met Stephanie Izard on the concourse at Wrigley (fairly sure we both needed another Old Style), fresh off her emphatic victory over ... [sigh] ... molecular gastronomy, I'd seen her on my shitty Vizio TV enough to marvel that she wasn't nine feet fall and already a millionaire several times over.
This turned into something constructive when, by luck of the draw and a blessed internet connection, I managed to snag a ticket to one of her Wandering Goat dinners. These were the tune-ups she did while building up to the eventual opening of The Girl and the Goat (when it was still called Drunken Goat and the cheese lawyers hadn't gotten wind). It was in a rehabbing house on the West Side, and Stephanie and her crew, spread out over several spaces and floors, offered incredible bites that showed a piecemeal view of her skills, priorities, and influences as a chef. My girlfriend (now-wife) left to find a bathroom and instead accidentally barged in on well-known Top Chef alum [REDACTED] hitting the holy shit out of an oversized bong.
The food was delicious, the ticket price a value at twice the cost. But the biggest takeaway was in the messy parts. The dropcloths, the friends-lending-a-hand brigade system, the scattershot menu, and that deeply symbolic bong. No one, even with the blessing of the biggest food show of the moment, is ordained success. You build what you become in the messy moments, alongside a couch you scavenged from the alley, some tubs full of beer on gas station ice, and the people who are important to you. And that was just immediately and immensely relatable.
Regardless of what's come since (and it's a lot), I always think back to that afternoon on the West Side when I explain why I like Stephanie's culinary POV.
The danger in celebrating Chicago chiefly as a Michelin-studded jewelbox is we lose that essential community and connection that, to me, is the very best aspect of food in Chicago. I don't necessarily need to get started on how many self-proclaimed Chicago diehards wouldn't be caught dead outside of their 3.5-neighborhood comfort zone, but I suspect there's a lot of folks who never got to eat at Edna's. The biscuits were unforgettable, but it was Edna's willingness to support the causes she believed in that really made her part of Chicago's story. History isn't just things that happened right before getting sanded down to Wikipedia entries. Those folks had to eat too.
My Dennis-Farina-cosplay everyman shtick does indeed have its breaking point. And it's when things get TOO damn good.
Several anniversaries ago, my wife and I pinched pennies to celebrate our anniversary at Alinea. We were ready for the dress code, the prices, the flights of fancy, and everything else that goes with all those Michelin stars. What we weren't ready for was how comfortable they'd make us feel.
I remember a lot from that meal. A lot of it was food (still the best bite of lobster I've ever had), but a lot of it was the space between the courses. An extra splash of wine if they noticed we ran dry on the pairing, a just-as-bemused-as-us explanation of a particularly wild plate, and the general "hey, you came all the way here. Relax and enjoy it!" vibe running throughout.
It's kind of wild when a place can serve you a sugar balloon inflated with scented helium. It's entirely a different thing when they can pull that off and also make you feel like you've had a comfortable evening at your local place. Respect.
A cantankerous pizza weirdo refusing to do things any way but his own? Be still my heart.
She was a little before my time, but I've always had her story in the back of my mind. No particular training, but the kind of haymaker talent that always seems to pop up around here. Set up in Calumet City in a time before food tv and succeeded beyond any expectation. Some cooks are undeniable.
I cannot even fathom having a bad meal or an off night at Virtue.
Paige Davis, Content Creator, Plates with P (TikTok)
Erick Williams, Virtue
Mona Sang, Khmai Cambodian Fine Dining
Oliver Poilevey, Obelix + Taqueria Chingon
Stephanie Hart, Brown Sugar Bakery
Beverly Kim, Parachute
Dave Park, Jeong
John Lupton, formally Kasama, now Warlord
Samantha Esposito, Chicago Burger Bible
Stephen Gillanders (S.K.Y., Apolonia)
Darnell Reed (Luella’s)
Ian Rusnak (Elina’s)
Jason Hammel (Lula, Marisol)
Mike Gebert, Fooditor
One could put on airs and dig out names from the distant past, but really, who knows what Henri Charpentier was serving at the Cafe de Paris in the 1940s? You can read his book (Life a la Henri, 1934) but you can’t eat his food. So I’m sticking with the period that, by an amazing coincidence, is what my upcoming book is about, which is the last 50 or so years of modern Chicago restaurant history, where you can still find people who ate there. Given a choice of a top four, there are certain obvious names that are bound to come up, but I tried to think hard about the obvious ones and really feel I could justify them to myself. Here goes:
MT. RUSHMORE FOUR:
Louis Szathmary— Earns a place because he was, in a good way, a fraud—he had the mustache and the belly for a great French chef and let people think he was one, but he learned his cooking out of books and engineering food for corporate clients like Stouffer’s, and when he opened his restaurant The Bakery, it grew out of his business making snacks for airlines. He took his invented persona to TV to become Chicago’s first modern celebrity chef, teaching the future yuppies of Lincoln Park how to eat—including a kid named Trotter who went there on prom night (and took notes). Who could be more Chicago?
Jovan Trboyevic— Not a chef, but don’t kid yourself who ran the show at Le Perroquet or Les Nomades; even when there was a heavy hitter like Gabino Sotelino wearing the toque, it was Trboyevic who was trucking calves’ liver and brains back from a farmer in Wisconsin, getting unpasteurized cheese from France, and not least, insisting on fresh vegetables in a time of frozen food from Birds Eye. Banchet îs more famous, but he was a throwback to heavy L’Escoffier cooking; it was Trboyevic who made nouvelle cuisine happen in Chicago.
Rick Bayless— Okay, can’t get much more obvious than this guy, but Chicago is a great city of both fancy-schmancy and immigrant food, and no one has done more to get us to take seriously a cuisine, and a country, that was associated with drinking and greasy carbs, Speedy Gonzalez and the Frito Bandito, and see it in all its diversity and complexity. Education (books and years and years of TV), promoting and supporting farmers and farm to table, spawning countless Mexican restaurants run by his ex-employees, and not least, making airports something to look forward to—it’s a remarkable legacy.
Paul Kahan— It’s long been my contention that the Chicago chef who people outside of Chicago look to is Grant Achatz, but the one who matters within Chicago is Paul Kahan—so many chefs here worked in one of his restaurants, but even more of them absorbed, from Blackbird and The Publican, his farm to table ethos, and his upscale food with one foot in his father’s Jewish deli traditions.
Abby Mandel—again, not a chef, a journalist, but more than that she nagged and harangued the Green City Market into existence, and made every chef worth his or her salt want not just fresh vegetables, but Nichols vegetables, Kinnickinnick arugula, Three Sisters tomatoes and beans.
John Terczak— So much of the modern era begins at Gordon in the mid-70s—River North, see-and-be-seen atmosphere, decor with a gay sensibility. Gordon Sinclair had many chefs, but it was South Side jamoke Terczak who lasted the longest and created what Chicago knew then as American food. It’s quaintly funny, but also kind of great, that when the French chef Jean Troisgros came to Chicago, it was Terczak’s southwestern smoked chicken soup that wowed him as what American chefs were doing that was truly new.
I tried to think, who has been everywhere? Who worked for all the chefs who mattered and synthesized that into their own cuisine? I could think of several possibilities—Michael Kornick, Don Yamauchi, even Paul Kahan (who worked for Bayless and Erwin Drechsler before Blackbird)—but the winner, it seems to me, is Carrie Nahabedian. She talked her way as a teenager into Fernand Gutierrez’s Dining Room at the Ritz Carlton, and then worked for Jean Banchet, but also at Gordon to learn American food—hiring a kid named Chuck Trotter along the way. She’s owned her own places for decades since, all of them living links to the French food she was trained in, and the era that created modern Chicago food
Grimod - Understanding Hospitality
Agnes Moody (Maryland-born slave turned caterer in Chicago from 1866-1903): appointed to present traditional American corn dishes at the 1900 Paris Exposition; baking 2,500 corn cakes a day, she transformed French public opinion on corn’s suitability for human consumption while acting as an ambassador for African American and indigenous foodways as well as Midwestern farmers.
Joseph Seyl (Prussian-born chef of The Palmer House from 1871-1917): “dean of hotel chefs in America” who witnessed the transition from coal to gas ranges, the introduction of electricity to the kitchen, and the delocalization of Chicago’s food system by the railroads but remained successful by ignoring “the culinary fashions that roiled Paris and New York” and staying true to hearty fare served family style.
Louis Szathmary (Hungarian-born chef-proprietor of The Bakery from 1963-1989): one of the earliest celebrity chefs, who transcended the imposing fine dining of the period through a comfortable and creative atmosphere with no written menu, a BYOB policy, mismatched plates, and secondhand silverware (all of which still seem trendy today).
Jovan Trboyevic (Yugoslavian-born chef-proprietor of Jovan from 1967-1977, Le Perroquet from 1972-1984, Les Nomades from 1978-1993): practitioner of vegetable-forward nouvelle cuisine who detested “dining room show biz”; he was known for meticulously procuring his own ingredients at the market, composing new menus every day, owning the city’s first espresso machine, and enforcing the strictest standards of behavior on his guests.
Alex Jewell -digital creator, @bestfoodalex
This ended up being harder than I was expecting. I ended up refocusing my “short” list by a certain set of priorities (innovation, community impact, mentorship, my own culinary journey, and other fun things like sustainability).
Won Kim (Kimski): his food, mentorship, and influence in Bridgeport stands out as both innovative and community-driven. He’s given so many other talented chefs a place to start, as well, which means his impact extends well beyond just Kimski.
Devon Quinn (Eden): his dedication to sustainability by growing food and maintaining greenhouses, while serving accessible fine dining to the front of the house, sets a precedent in the culinary industry and pioneers what sustainable food can look like in our city.
Dave Park (Jeong): Park’s modern interpretation of Korean cuisine has not only garnered acclaim but also added to the rich tapestry of Chicago’s food scene. Jeong introduces Chicago to what Korean fine dining can taste and feel like, and that’s something the city hasn’t really seen before, executed at this level.
Margaret Pak (Thattu): Bringing Kerala cuisine to Chicago and receiving national acclaim despite her unconventional path into the culinary world demonstrates how dynamic our food scene is, how poised and welcome it is to firsts and change, and how much room there is for remarkable talent to make an impact.
Tim Flores / Genie Kwon (Kasama): being the first Filipino restaurant to earn a Michelin star represents a significant milestone for Chicago, but Kasama showcases even more than just raw “Michelin” talent. Tim and Genie are articulately combining fine dining Filipino menus with casual, yet mind-blowing daytime pastry and dishes that never miss - setting a high bar that hasn’t really been set this way before, on multiple fronts.
Guy Meikle (Heritage Restaurant and Caviar Bar): Heritage is the epitome of what approachable, local fine dining looks like, with the eclectic influences and “supper club” casual environment you’d want to broach boujee in. Guy has pulled off a microcosm of what makes Chicago food amazing, with the midwestern comfort level that makes caviar a joyful, delicious thing and not a frivolous flex.
John / Karen Shields (Smyth + the Loyalist): the Shields have managed to reduce some of my favorite things from different corners of fine dining into cohesive tasting menus with Smyth, but let’s be real: I’m most impressed with The Loyalist. As chefs, they’ve made a dark, basement restaurant where chefs want to eat - and, without getting into burger debates, the entire menu is comprised of things that make all of us so incredibly happy.
Honorable Honorable Mentions:
Stephen Gillanders (S.K.Y.): His creative comfort food elevations have left a lasting impression on me, and contribute to the city’s diverse culinary offerings. From earlier days at INTRO, to bites at S.K.Y. and Apolonia now, some of my favorite bites of all time have been thanks to Stephen.
Thai Dang (HaiSous): Dang has carved out a niche for fine dining Vietnamese cuisine, enriching Chicago’s culinary diversity. And it’s notable that he and Danielle pulled it off from ashes and adversity.
Philip Foss (EL Ideas): His approach to interactive and unpretentious fine dining has introduced a new dimension to the Chicago fine dining scene that hasn’t really been matched.
Iliana Regan (former Elizabeth): Regan’s thematic and storytelling approach to dining had not only been innovative but also deeply influential in setting new trends in the city. She did this across categories with Elizabeth, Kitsune, and Bunny Bakery - all of which had a profound impact on my own view of food.
As you can tell, even the listicles at The Hunger are truly different. Do you like different? Join me at The Hunger!
Andrew “Kappy” Kaplan - Host, Beyond the Plate Podcast and VP of Culinary Operations for Rachel Ray, Director of Yum-O
Charlie Trotter - Every single line cook should be aware of the impact he made on the culinary world along with the incredible list of alumni from his kitchen.
Carrie Nahabedian - I worked in Carrie's kitchen at Naha and her knowledge, experience, and talents are top notch. If Paul Bocuse (RIP) made it a point to visit her kitchen when he was in Chicago, that says something.
Rick Bayless - The impact he has had on midwestern farmers and Mexican cuisine across the country alone is extraordinary.
Grant Achatz - As it relates to Chicago (and beyond), his culinary mind and execution are second to none.
Lee Wolen - Not many chefs are as consistent, talented and have been keeping Chicago dining exciting for over 10 years.
Doug Psaltis - He's laid a foundation/creation of so many successful concepts- and has continued that with Andros Taverna and Asador Bastian- and if he keeps it up, the Chicago dining scene is in for a treat.
MindySegalHsingChenSarahGruenebergTimFloresGenieKwonZachEngel - I cheated, but come on!
John Lenart, Chicago Wine Writer
Seth Marcus, @chicityfoodie
I based primarily on national impact, connection to Chicago, and how they will be remembered!
I think the first 2-3 are undisputed - Grant Achatz and Charlie Trotter are two of the most influential chefs in chicago fine dining and have had so many chefs learn under them. Rick Bayless has to be one of the most famous with name recognition and I would give him a spot.
The 4th spot is where things get more debatable - so many chefs who have made an impact on this city but I would go a bit more ‘new school’ and give the spot to Stephanie Izard for the impact of Girl and the Goat and notoriety she has had on Chicago in the last decade.
Helen Rosner, Chicago food journalist emeritus, contributor, The New Yorker
Robert Adams Sr.
Adam Rothbarth - Food Writer, Vice, Chicago Magazine and more
Here is my “Mount Rushmore” of Chicago chefs, which is based in equal parts on personal dining experience and chefs that I think of as being important to the local restaurant culture and history. In no particular order:
John Shields and Karen Urie Shields. I ate at Smyth this summer, and it was just so unbelievably good—even better than I thought it would be. From the culinary creativity and stellar hospitality to the vibes of the restaurants (where else can you listen to 80s pop hits while eating bone marrow doughnuts and lobster custard?), Smyth and The Loyalist are both perfection.
Grant Achatz. Whether I’m at Alinea or The Aviary (or any of his other spots), I love how his restaurants inspire diners to think philosophically about food and drink—how we experience and interact with them, how we collectively define ingredients and dishes—while also being extremely fun.
Jason Hammel. Lula Cafe is just excellent, and has been for so long. I eat there a ton, probably more than anywhere else in town. The list of chefs both in town and around the country who have worked with and learned from Hammel is vast.
Paul Kahan. I don't know that much about Paul Kahan, but I know that Avec is one of my most recommended restaurants to people, and that whenever I have incredible bread on a sandwich or with a dip at a restaurant, I’ll inevitably find out that it’s from Publican Quality Bread. Dove’s Luncheonette totally rocks. I could list more spots here (and the many essential chefs and bakers who work at them), but I won’t.
It’s hard to whittle honorable mentions down to three, but I’d say Erick Williams, Stephanie Izard, Rick Bayless.
Titus Ruscitti, aka @chibbking, purveyor of Smokin’ Chokin’ and Chowin’ with the King
This proved harder to complete than I thought it would be. But in the end my list was made by simply picking the four names I believe anyone with an interest in food and restaurants in the city would and should know. I wanted to make a list that would’ve been a bit more surprising but I felt like leaving any of these four off would be a mistake based on what the four of them have accomplished. Not necessarily my four favorite chefs but four chefs who have shaped the way Chicago eats and also how its food scene is viewed nationally. My honorable mentions are a bit more interesting but also deserved, IMO.
I chose Poilevey and Bannos not just for their contributions but also their children who continue their legacies and put their own stamps on the city’s dining scene. Paul Kahan is a little younger but def part of the current generation of notable Chicago chefs and Don Cesar is the city’s best taquero and he could be the country’s best so I had to give him a shoutout.
Mike Sula - Staff Writer - Chicago Reader
Sure I can tick off a bunch of obvious heads, but together they kinda resemble the actual Mt. Rushmore: dead white guys with complicated legacies, including a couple slave owners and a racist, genocidal imperialist. In my darkest moments I argued with myself that a few obvious Chicago Chefmore faces could be compared similarly, given the way they treated the folks whose backs they built their legends on.
Also it just didn’t interest me much. Most of my work these past three years has been covering young, mostly unknown chefs trying to make their way through a radically altered industry. So instead I’m given you the most influential chefs today in terms of the ways they’re bringing along the next generation.
Lorraine Nguyen, Culinary Program Manager, IMPACT Culinary Training , The Hatchery
Won Kim, Kimski
Jennifer Kim, cdc at Proxi, alteconomy , former Kendall College instructor
Christine Cikowksi and Josh Kulp, Honey Butter Fried Chicken
Erick Williams, Virtue, Daisy’s Po-Boy and Tavern, Mustard Seed Kitchen, Top This Mac and Cheese
Naomi Waxman - Reporter, Eater Chicago
Chin Foin (I know he was a restaurateur and not a chef, but in this case, I believe his enormous influence merits recognition.)
Billy Zureikat, aka @therealbillyz, master of giardiniera stuffing
Jason Hammel-Literally never had a bad dish in my countless visits to Lula. He created a local landmark in my neighborhood.
Mindy Segal- The Queen
Stephanie Izard-Is she the GOAT of the GOATS?
Grant Achatz-Disclaimer. I've never been to Alinea or the Aviary but you have to respect the impact he has had on not only the Chicago food scene but the fine dining world as a whole.
Paul Kahan- Big Star, Publican, Blackbird...can't miss
Sarah Grueneberg-Unreal pasta dishes but how she can showcase veggies is unreal.
Jonathan Zaragoza- He's a young GOAT already but his star continues to rise.
Don’t miss this Wednesday’s list for paid subscribers where Chicago Chefs name their Mt. Rushmore!