The Chicago Chefs That Made Me
Vegans are righteous. Not, righteous as in a holier than thou way, but righteous in the surfer lingo way, aka an absolutely incredible thing that one should be stoked about.
Vegans understand that they have no moral right to take the life or work of something without consent. Like a person who’s taken the right amount of psychadelics, vegans also see the connections that bind us all. They recognize the butterfly effect and that even a minute amount of destruction multiplies itself across humanity until humankind and the earth itself die.
Vegans are willing to make tremendous personal sacrifice to see their ideals prevail. They give up things they absolutely love toward achieving a better world. This is why people hate them. The unevolved are threatened and jealous.
Some part of me wishes I could get there, but thus far, I haven’t. I will likely pay for this with a shorter life.
Obviously it’s hard, I mean even Paul McCartney with all the resources in the world available to achieve a vegan transformation is only vegetarian. Then again McCartney’s 81 years look pretty good to me, something to aspire to. So maybe I can at least get there.
This all being expressed, it will come as no surprise that my love of Nueske’s bacon and dry-aged beef is still strong. Thus, the idea of quitting these things is terrifying.
I say this because unlike everyone who responded to the Mt. Rushmore greatest Chicago chefs survey, I have the luxury of seeing everyone else’s answers and I can use that to inform what I write here. I could lie or misrepresent. But I also want to establish that at the threat of forced veganism, my hand to my heart answer before seeing the results likely would have been in line with the results of the whole survey.
I.e. Charlie Trotter, Paul Kahan, Rick Bayless, Grant Achatz, Jason Hammel, etc.
One exception would be Jean Joho, but he got a lot of votes, so it’s not really an exception. I already wrote this story here, but in summary Joho converted a dumb 19 year old who only knew pizza and burgers in to a cauliflower and caviar lover in one bite.
Living in Cleveland after college, I did not know how to cook. I’d eaten probably my 1,023rd Hot Pocket (facsimile ham and cheddar, naturally) and said, well you can eat 1,024 or you can learn to cook. So I made salsa that afternoon from chopped tomato, onion, jalapeno, and cilantro. It was watery. But, it was also far more delicious than anything from Pace or Chi-Chi’s glass jars.
This set off a chain reaction whereby I worked my way through the canon of dishes, mashed potatoes, steak, crème brulee, and ah, yes, souffle.
I watched Food Network and PBS like my life depended on it. Moulton, Lagasse, Tsai, Batali, Ray, and yes, even “open grocery store boxes and dump everything in a bowl” Sandra Lee.
Some of these people are problematic now. But, this was all before Batali was groping unconscious women and sending out recipes for cinnamon rolls to make amends.
I read cookbooks and dined like it was my occupation (not knowing someday it in part would be – just not the way I imagined). No cookbook series inspired me more than Charlie Trotter’s.
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No one had better vision than Charlie. When I got a job offer that suggested I could transfer to Chicago from Cleveland, I said yes, not because I wanted the job but because there were two places in America I desperately needed to dine, one of them was Charlie Trotter’s.
I took that job because I wanted to be in the city where Charlie was. Obviously I was not very bright. I could have just driven the five hours to dine on Armitage and then retained my old job. But with visions of red wine poached pears piped with mascarpone dancing in my head I had to live near the restaurant.
The other restaurant I had to dine at was Blackbird. If Charlie was Elvis, Paul Kahan was John Lennon. Not any John Lennon, but raw-throated Twist and Shout Lennon, a guy willing to risk the very currency he had for authenticity and truth (Lennon basically almost blew his vocal chords to get that raspy guttural sound you hear on the Beatles album).
Blackbird ended up thrilling me more than Trotter’s, but again I would not have discovered Kahan or frankly anything of real culinary importance if it wasn’t for Charlie. Because of that thrill, when I started podcasting in 2005 (yes, 2005, I was way too early – timing is everything) one of my first guests was Paul Kahan.
I sat at the bar at Saltaus (currently Elske) when Paul pulled up on his bicycle, one pant leg rolled up, bag slung over his shoulder. Now I realize most people on Randolph Avenue at that time probably mistook him for a bike messenger. But I was sweating and shaking holding a crinkled two page single-spaced list of questions (I’d prepared for two days, read every single article he’d ever been quoted in) because it wasn’t just Lennon walking up. It was Lennon and Jagger and Biggie and Betty Davis and Dylan and Prince and OMG...well you get it.
Paul probably just saw a kid living in his parent’s basement coding a dumb website. That he even gave me the time is extraordinary and says a lot about Paul. I know this isn’t just hyperbole, because in those days breaking news was the currency of all food journalism. People protected scoops like the original recipe for Kentucky Fried Chicken. Paul, though, just tossed out the breaking news to me about a beer, pork and oyster spot he was opening called The Publican.
This single moment allowed me to break news which led to work with Time Out and Chicago magazine which ultimately led to you reading me (I can’t thank you enough) whinge about food like I am right now.
Not long after interviewing Kahan, someone told me about a former TGI Friday’s line cook who was making pasta with cinnamon and butter and buying a lot of his stuff from local farms cooking in some far off land called Logan Square. I couldn’t afford to go to Chez Panisse then, but I could go to Lula Cafe. Hammel’s example meant that in the future I could also go to Mado and The Bristol and Daisies.
I was then as I am now, a white boy from the white boy suburbs of Detroit. I didn’t eat Thai until I was 20 or sushi until I was 23. Of course I was gonna gravitate to white boy food and white boy icons.
But, also I was learning. I’d had a bunch of BIPOC friends in high school and college and I knew from my best friend Srinivas’s mom who made us samosas for our college apartment freezer that there was more.
I still chose a white boy to get me there, aka Rick Bayless, who Kahan had worked for. Kahan’s first major job before Bayless was with a guy named Erwin Drechsler, who made an incredible calf’s liver with bacon and onion that still haunts my offal dreams.
But, I digress...raised on Chi-Chi’s, Bayless’s sermons on mole and the wonders of regional Mexican food as told on his Mexico One Plate at a Time on PBS was more “must see’ for me than Friends. I fanboyed at the Printer’s Row book fair when I brought my copy of Rick Bayless’s Mexican kitchen to get autographed by the yoga master himself.
Bayless turned me on to mole master Geno Bahena which led to me experiencing modern greats like Enrique Olvera and locally Diana Davila of Mi Tocaya (who notably mentioned Rick on her Rushmore).
Those guys cooked in modernity and the moment, but there was one guy who somehow was already living in the future, aka Grant Achatz of Alinea. A lot of folks got blinded by the molecular gastronomy, the smokescreen of liquid nitrogen, but what moved me was something rare, but ultimately as old as time. Achatz’s secret to success was not in reinvention or creativity (although these helped) but rather a true discipline, a refusal to accept that anything was impossible, and the discipline to find the path to that possibility.
It was very Steve Jobsian, and I think Charlie too had a lot of that in him. What we hear about those kind of leaders is that that vision comes with a price often borne on the backs of those who work for them. These were also different times, where unpaid internships and work/life balance was not even a phrase. I am not absolving the practices of course, but promulgating some empathy and context.
I also say this because while I knew it would spur debate, I didn’t expect how divisive the Rushmore project would be. I designed a t-shirt to reflect the vote and there were a lot of comments about how the t-shirt was racist, sexist, etc. Some folks straight up said some horrific things about the chefs themselves. I am tolerant in internet debates, but frankly I had to delete some comments because they were personal attacks not grounded in any reality.
These comments however, even the bad ones, come from a place of real pain and struggle and they do highlight that the current Rushmore vote choice does reflect an era when white men dominated every space. Arguably even with progress they still do.
That’s why it’s also important to understand that Charlie Trotter for example does not achieve what he achieved without inspiration and help. Charlie would tell anyone who listened that Yoshi Katsumura, the Japanese-born chef, and once apprentice to Iron Chef Hiroyuki Sakai, was a shoulder he stood upon.
Charlie’s kitchen was built with the help of Reggie Watkins, an African American, and Guillermo Tellez, a Latino, and a woman, Sari Zernich Worsham who helmed the cookbook production (honestly, it’s probably Sari’s work that had the most impact on me when I think about it).
Rick Bayless’s opening and long time general manager was Carlos Alferez a Mexican American who just happened to be my next-door neighbor many years later.
Carrie Nahabedian, who once told me she’d love to eat with Babe Ruth when I asked her who she’d have dinner with if she could dine with anyone living or dead, a giant in her own right, mentored Charlie.
Nahabedian told me that Charlie was originally working in the front of the house at the legendary Gordon’s, but every time he cut bread table-side, he’d get crumbs on the guests, so she and Norman Van Aken (though he’s mostly in Florida these days Norman should honestly be somewhere around Rushmore too) yanked him back in the kitchen.
No Carrie. No Charlie.
Erick Williams of Virtue and Daisy’s Po Boys etc. almost made Rushmore, deservedly so. No one has championed BIPOC chefs more supportively in modern times. Williams was as much responsible for the success of Chicago’s seminal restaurant MK as its namesake Michael Kornick. Mindy Segal, Todd Stein, and all the great folks who came out of that kitchen can attest to that.
And even then, no Rufus Estes, probably no Erick. I.e. everyone stands on someone else’s work and progress. You likely don’t know Estes, but he was born into slavery in 1857. Freed, he worked as a cook’s assistant in Nashville. He moved to Chicago in 1881 where he worked in restaurants. In 1883 he went to work for the Pullman company where he managed private cars for Presidents Benjamin Harrison and Grover Cleveland. In 1907 he became the executive chef at the Chicago subsidiary of US Steel. In 1911 he wrote Good Things to Eat, one of the first cookbooks by an African American chef and Chicagoan.
One contemporary of Estes was the white dude Charles E. Rector, the owner and operator of Rector’s Oyster House in the 1890s located at 35 E. Adams and Wabash, a block East of the Berghoff. While this Rushmore is for chefs, and there will eventually be one for restaurant owners, I have made an exception for Rector, who was an operator, because Rector’s is generally regarded as maybe the first truly influential local restaurant in the modern era in Chicago. Rich Melman, Kevin Boehm, Rob Katz, Donnie Madia etc. stand on his shoulders for sure, but ultimately so does every chef, because without the example of the restaurant that Rector established, there would be no kitchens for the modern greats.
The problem here is I could do this for weeks. I could write a book on how many people belong on my Rushmore. I know too much. The good news is my colleague Mike Gebert of Fooditor is in the middle of just doing that, so I will leave it up to him.
Just as with pursuing veganism, I don’t yet quite have the discipline and resolve to write a book. This is why for now, you will have to settle for this newsletter, The Hunger.
Last week I asked readers to contribute their Mt. Rushmore list. Here are some highlights..
Chef Mt. Rushmore Reader Highlights
I moved to Chicago from Ohio in April 2006, so I am only going to include chefs where I was actually able to eat and experience their restaurants., and the overall influence they have had on the dining scene.
In no order... 1. Charlie Trotter - put Chicago on the international food stage. Also, the amount of chefs today who have worked for him and/or inspired by him. (even though not all in the best methods)
2. Grant Achatz - Took the mantle from Trotter and elevated the fine dining experience even further
3. Rick Bayless - Told Chicago and the world for that matter how awesome Mexican food can be and is. Also a launched is own food empire.
4. Paul Kahan - The West Loop restaurant row would not be would it is today without him. Blackbird was also the restaurant we went to after I proposed to my wife.
Honorable mentions A. Curtis Duffy - Two different multiple Michelin starred restaurants
B. Jackie Shen - A sentimental pick, When I first moved to Chicago, Red Light was a block from apartment, and instantly became my favorite place to eat. I would kill for one more bowl of her Fisherman's stew.
C. Tony Mantuano - Similar to Bayless and how he made Italian dining upscale. Love this idea and can't wait to see the results. Brian Hunter @U2hunter on the platform formally called Twitte
-- Brian Hunter, @U2hunter on X (Twitter)
This is a fun exercise. Here's mine. Mostly done tongue in cheek. But I don't want my list too influenced by who had the best PR teams over the past 15 yrs. Pick 1 fine dining chef. Don't care if it's Banchet, Trotter, Achatz, etc but shouldn't be more than 1. I feel very strongly about that. Jason Hammel. So many chefs from Lula have gone onto open restaurants that I love in Chicago. It's the exact opposite of the Belichick coaching tree Bob Chinn. I thought this was the fanciest restaurant of all time when we moved to the burbs in the mid 90s. While it's probably not true, I give him credit for spawning giant dining rooms! :) Whoever invented the Italian beef. Is it the Al's beef family? Forget it, just put an Italian beef up there! More deserving than the goat lady.
Grant Achatz, Charlie Trotter, Curtis Duffy, Stephanie Izard
Charlie Trotter, Rick Bayless, Ina Pinkney, and Phil Vettel. I realize the latter is not a professional chef (and, naturally, his face would have to be blurred out on the mountainside). But in my pantheon of Chicago food influence, he ranks up there.
Trotter/Achatz are first-round locks. Beyond that, I'd say Kahan and Banchet. The history lover in me has to include Louis Szathmary and Don Roth in there too, but I think Doug Sohn deserves some love as well.
Karl of Guys Drinking Beer
Virant, Kahan, McClain, Bayless
HM: Kornick, Crofton, Joho
Ina [Pinkney] !! Because Rushmore isn't just about dinner.
Thanks to all readers for their Mt. Rushmore comments. The Alinea cookbok winner is... Keri Roth!
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