Buzz List for June 11, 2018

Chicagoans remember Anthony Bourdain, loving lunch at Frunchroom, Mordecai may singlehandedly make Rickettsville respectable, and a book tells the rise and fall of independent craft beer.

Bourdain at Hot Doug's on his first Chicago show.

1. BOURDAIN

The awful news about Anthony Bourdain’s death prompted such a rush of remembrances that I can’t even begin to link to all of the ones that said something I felt, too. And of course it challenges me to say something that can claim to be something not said yet. Hard when he has been such a dominant figure in our world for so long—the man whose voice, in both print and television, became a part of all our voices on this subject.

For someone who makes food videos, in an age when there is so much commercial food TV, I watch surprisingly little myself. My family went through a Top Chef phase, but the manufactured challenges and controversies got old; I’ll flip on other shows from time to time, but I have a problem with the way they’re made, which is, the editor usually isn’t part of the shoot. That may seem a pretty esoteric concern, but because the editor isn’t there during shooting, the cameramen have a standard package of what they need to bring back from each shoot. And so the editor kind of winds up with the same footage for every location… and winds up making the same film, pretty much, about each one. They never feel like a specific place; you could turn on a show and until a clue in the recipe gives it away, have no idea if you’re in Portsmouth, Portland or Pueblo.

Bourdain’s shows were never like that. They might follow a format—any series will to some extent—but the engagement with the location and the local culture was unique in every place. His show about Lyon and the influence of Paul Bocuse is a million miles from his show about the creepy nightlife of Tokyo, and you certainly couldn’t mistake either of them for his Chicago shows. Nobody called him a “documentary filmmaker”—he was a TV producer-host—yet to me he’s rooted in one of the earliest impulses of cinema, which was, to show us how other people lived, literally show us their lives and homes and traditions, in a more immediate way than painting or writing could. (If you really want to see Bourdain before Bourdain, watch the French filmmaker Chris Marker on the creepier parts of Japanese pop culture in his 1983 Sans Soleil.) Bourdain kept a TV food and travel show as honest and clear-eyed as any classic documentary filmmaker’s work, a pretty unique achievement in that mostly low-aiming, fakey genre.

The reason he could do that is because Bourdain had such a powerful internal sense of the fact that food is culture—the first and easiest gateway into anybody else’s world. Show me how you sustain yourself three times a day, and I begin to understand who you are. The first thing I do when I plan a trip somewhere new is see if he did a show about it. I’m not looking for places to eat yet; I just know that I’ll get the feel of what it’s really like there, open-minded and unvarnished, from him.

Anyone whose influence is so big will not have it be wholly positive. Bourdain was an effective “MeToo” voice in the industry, but he also recognized that he helped give us much of the chef-bro bad boy attitude that made dining a macho subculture. His snark and beat cop cynicism about what really happens in kitchens gave way on his shows to a warmer, more generous appreciation of world food cultures, but many only adopted the first part. To me the challenge in Bourdain’s work is ultimately not about being as funny as he was, or as gonzo and edgy as he could be, not about putting your own name in lights, but about being the guy who goes back in the kitchen and talks to the old woman stirring the pot and asks her about her food. The true dare Bourdain offers food writers is not to wanna-be a star and chucka-chucka for the laughs, but to self-effacingly be the writer who made connections in kitchens around the world.

I only met him once, briefly during a photo op on a tour gig sponsored by a scotch brand, but there he spoke as he often did about how lucky he felt he was stumbling into celebrity after so many years doing hard labor (and hard drugs) in kitchens. In retrospect maybe the person he was trying to convince the most was himself, which is sad; and the dream life (travel! celebrity!) may also have been a source of his alienation. All the same, he set forth an ideal of what food journalism could be that will remain worth following, even if he himself chose to step off of it.

Anyway, some links of remembrances from people from Chicago:

Louisa Chu.

“It was an especially hard loss for the immigrant pot washers, ex-con line cooks with nowhere else to work, and the burnt out and unappreciated sous chefs of the world. They (we) have lost one of our best and most eloquent advocates.” Rob Levitt.

“I don’t think fame did him any favors. I don’t think it does most people any favors, becoming more and more isolated from everyone else, breathing that rarefied air of celebrity… Perhaps that is why he stuck to that grueling travel schedule, looking for those elusive moments of connection that were becoming more and more rare?” Scott Worsham.

Dan Salls.

Darren McCowan.

“I’m sad he’s gone, but if not for the circumstances I’d be more upbeat about it. It’s part of life and I think he lived a good one. This is endemic to our field and our lifestyle. It’s not new, it’s not a canary and it angers the crap out of me.” Scott Manley.

Mark Caro.

Michael Nagrant.

Jeff Ruby.

“Just last week I was explaining to an associate what a Mother-In-Law sandwich is here in Chicago… I couldn’t find a post of mine so instead I showed him the video of when Anthony Bourdain came to Chicago and tried one for his TV show.” Titus Ruscitti.

Jay Martini.

“I was new to the museum, ended up lost somewhere, and had stumbled upon a sign advertising a somewhat expensive lunch with him…” Jennifer Breckner.

Alain Harvey.

“One of my favorite moments from Parts Unknown was his most recent visit to Laos. There’s a 5 min. segment there with no dialogue, just sound and music. That part gave me goose bumps.” Keng Sisavath.

2. MORDECAI’S TRIPLE

Could Mordecai win Jared Wentworth—and the Wrigleyville Orlando-on-Clark development—a Michelin star, wonders Phil Vettel? He gives it three of his stars, anyway: “Wentworth, as he has so often before, produces approachable-sounding dishes that wow you with sophistication; Matthias [Merges] has assembled a whip-smart front-of-the-house staff… the entrees take Mordecai’s game to another level. Beautiful-quality halibut pairs with delicate shrimp agnolotti and a medley of spring vegetables. Vivid-green arugula pappardelle with porcini mushrooms is centered amid Parmesan foam and a buttery puree of charred asparagus. And when I dug into the delicious porchetta, on a bed of English-pea risotto, garnished with crispy chicharron and barbecue carrots (roasted in dry-rub spices), I had to remind myself where I was (which, given the window views, was easy).”

3. LADIES WHO FRUNCH

Frunchroom is one of my favorite new spots and to judge by the 50 Shades of Gravlax-level descriptions in Mike Sula’s review, his too: “It’s a 27-seat counter-service cafe that incorporates elements of both Italian and Jewish deli traditions… [breakfast] features doughnuts and pastries and a handful of breakfast sandwiches, plus bagels from the Bagel Chef (one of the few items, along with the bread, made off the premises), with any of the cured fish, such as gravlax, oozing with salmon oil, just salty enough to be like cured sashimi; smoked salmon done pastrami style, with a crust of pepper and herbs; beautiful cured sardine fillets; and a shrimp terrine embedded with huge prawn chunks.”

4. MARIANAO’S TRENCHANT

Cafe Marianao was a very traditional Cuban sandwich and coffee joint that closed up in 2016. Bia’s Cafe Marianao is its descendant, as Mike Sula explains at the Reader: “Gone are the stern, all-male counter workers. There’s table seating and music and churros, flan, bread pudding, empanadas, pastelitos, and a guava chicken barbecue sandwich that might raise the old timers’ eyebrows.”

5. SQUIRREL HEAD SOUP

On Dining Out Loud, Michael Nagrant makes the interesting observation that Sean Brock of Husk benefited from “the law firm of Bourdain and Chang” promoting him as the Southern revival chef, and argues that Paul Fehribach of Big Jones deserves more credit than he’s gotten nationally for exploring Southern food history intellectually as a chef. (It also, for me, puts the self-destruction of Lucky Peach in a grimmer light now.) Anyway, the key quote is: “Squirrel’s fantastic. It does not like chicken… these things forage in the back alleys of Chicago, so the terroir’s a little oily.”

6. ALINEIL

Sun-Times columnist Neil Steinberg went to Alinea, so why not write a restaurant review? “The next course — three of 14 — is the one I’ll remember most. ‘Wet Snow.’ The waiter spoke some verbiage about the end of winter in Chicago. The menu we were given later described it as ‘Asian Pear, Roe, Shiso’ but that isn’t helpful. It was a bowl of slush so good I felt a tingle, a shudder, that I really can’t recall ever feeling, the dish reaching into my brain, grabbing whatever gland produces dopamine and twisting. I held the bowl in both hands, hunched over, furtive.”

7. LONELY MARCHESA

Marchesa offers a classy alternative to casual lunch, says Joanne Trestrail at Crain’s. The problem is, “On both of our visits—one on a Tuesday, the other a Friday—there were fewer than eight diners lunching. Underpopulation can lead to all sorts of execution problems in both kitchen and dining room, including (paradoxically) slow service and (perhaps) dry chicken. It’s not clear what Marchesa’s lunch service, which started in April, needs. Fine-tuning? A total rethinking? Or, perhaps, just signage.”

8. WILLOW TALK

Maggie Hennessy likes the treehouse look and the kind service at Fort Willow, but the food hits and misses: “Fort Willow’s food menu spans continents, albeit with mixed success. A double dredging of batter weighed down delicate cauliflower florets, though a bracing serrano-poblano hot sauce delivered an addictive, slow-burning heat. Korean beef ribs verged on chewy, slicked with bulgogi that offered little depth to counter its sweet, caramel top notes.”

9. BEER FOR SALE

Two reviews for Josh Noel’s book about Goose Island’s absorption into the Anheuser-Busch Borg, Barrel-Aged Stout and Selling Out. At the Reader, Julia Thiel says “The question at the core of the debate—and the book—is whether it matters who owns craft breweries. Once they cease to operate independently, do they still count as craft?… Noel’s focus is Goose Island, but he provides a broad and meticulously researched look at the big picture, including a history of Anheuser-Busch and its gradually evolving attitude toward craft beer.”

At Chicago mag, Karl Klockars says, “Most beer writing today extends to rehashing press releases and gushing over the latest beer fest; that an objective, warts-and-all retelling of a beer-business tale exists at all warms my heart. Anecdotes as simple as an employee pitching a Goose-branded cell phone case into the trash on the day of the sale speak to the heart of Noel’s book.”

10. PASS THE DDUKBOKKI ON THE LEFT HAND SIDE

Chicago mag takes a crack at telling the story of Jennifer Kim’s Korean-meets-Italian Passerotto: “She recalls, as a student at UIC, eating at Italian restaurants on Taylor Street when Korean bites weren’t available. ‘That’s when I pinpointed that there is a significance to this cuisine that is vastly different than Korean food but still elicits the same emotions when I eat it,’ she says.”

11. 26TH & CALL ME

I was on Outside the Loop on WGN Saturday, talking Mexican food on 26th street and C-CAP, the program in the public schools for training cooks.

12. GREAT MOMENTS IN GOVERNMENT

A small town has a local business that draws tourists—and produces waste. The small town’s answer: hey Journeyman Distillery, stop distilling anything!

13. FIND SPARKLES

Off Color Brewing featured a kitty on one of its beers—four and a half years ago. Now they hope to find Sparkles, wherever she is, and give her family some beer. Read the story here.

14. KENNYZ

Friend of Fooditor Kenny Zuckerberg is moving to Boston, which may be greeted with cheers by those who have been the recipient of his sharp tongued and sardonic criticism at times. I’ve always treasured his observations, one, for being completely unconcerned about keeping anyone happy, and two because when he loves something, he loves it strongly. Find me a review this week that is as observant or enthused as this series of tweets about a dish he had at Boeufhaus. Good dining, Kenny.

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