Ten years ago, when I started doing Sky Full of Bacon videos, it was in the hope that eventually I would get the call—someone would say that they wanted me to do that for them on a regular basis. It took two years but late in 2010, the call came. It was Reader editor Kiki Yablon, who wanted me to shoot a chef challenge video series—not unlike a lot of the food TV shows that were popular then, except it wouldn’t be hypey bullshit; it would be a true account of chefs being given a weird, often unpleasant ingredient (but always something that people somewhere actually ate) and having to make something palatable out of it. That gave it enough of a stunt aspect to make it easy to promote, while still making it about real cooking, the real problem-solving of chefs in kitchens.

We shot a test one with Phillip Foss (which would be integrated into the series later as the fourth episode) and Julia Thiel wrote the print version for each including a recipe, as well as handling setting up the shoots. It went over well (though they didn’t like my suggested title, Stick A Fork In It) and so we went back in time and launched the series with Grant Achatz and Curtis Duffy. Six months after that, we won a James Beard Foundation Award for Key Ingredient.

More than that, I owe so much to the Reader giving me a gig that put me in kitchen after kitchen of top chefs in this city. It introduced me to so many people, and enabled me to quickly earn a reputation as a reporter on food who liked to dig seriously into the viewpoints and realities of cooking in this town. That has been of immense help to, well… everything I’ve done since.

The subjects tended to be people of a certain age (20s and 30s), so we never shot Charlie Trotter or Rick Bayless, but it’s a pretty impressive list of the up and coming chefs of the past eight years—Izard, Conlon, Grueneberg, Wolen, Pandel, Wu-Bower, Posey (both of them) and many more. Mostly when they were still making their names—so it’s Grueneberg at Spiaggia, Noah Sandoval when he was still at Senza, Iliana Regan when she was still cooking out of her apartment. It was also often the only publicity that people working a bit behind the scenes got—where else did you ever read about Ed Sura at Perennial Virant, or Jenner Tomaska at Next, or Aaron McKay at Mercat a la Planxa? Yet you got to know them a little in Key Ingredient videos and print pieces.

We thought it might run a year, 25 or 30 episodes; it’s been eight, and the 177th and final episode, with Joe Frillman of Daisies, will appear in September. Julia pays tribute to the strangest ingredients at the Reader, as well as to the beverage flip side, Cocktail Challenge, which I was not involved with; she includes a standalone version of the video tribute I made to all the chefs, which will be attached to Frillman’s episode. All I can say is thanks to Julia, and to everyone who has been involved with it over the years at the Reader, thanks to all the chefs whose creativity was chronicled, and thanks to the fascinating food scene we’re in that we could do 177 of these and still think of people who hadn’t done it yet.


Mike Sula refused to review Sixteen, the two-Michelin-star restaurant, because of a certain orange-haired fellow currently occupying 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. The first thing he notices is that the crowd has changed with the prices at its replacement, Terrace 16: “There were no red MAGA hats in evidence, just corn-fed families, high-and-tight-headed bros, and Asian twentysomethings grinning and posing against the jaw-dropping panorama presented by the Tribune Tower, the Wrigley Building, the river, and the distant lake. Some, I assume, are good people.”

No one ever doubted the goodness of the well-heeled and well-connected who used to eat there, of course, or at any other high end spot. It’s when Trump’s crowd shows up at Trump’s hotel that populism and elitism get twisted around each other into pretzels—it’s like if you went to a restaurant where white chicken meat was reserved for the masses, and dark meat was unattainable! Oh wait, that’s this one, too: “To the table came a plate holding seven pieces of hacked and battered boneless chicken breast… ‘Yeah, it’s always just white meat,’ she admitted. ‘Even for us servers, we only ever get the white meat.’ Chef, she reported, was using the dark meat for stock.”

Adam Stark, Terrace 16’s manager, responded on Facebook with a view of what it’s like to be working for Trump and to get slammed: “Maybe you feel that we deserve it, and that’s up to you. Maybe you feel like we don’t, and we appreciate it.. but at the end of the day, we are a restaurant, none of us are politicians, none of us consider our jobs to be a political statement, and we aren’t the type of people who will just quit and implode over who owns the building or who doesn’t.”


Mike Sula is impressed by Brian Jupiter’s hand with Cajun food at Ina Mae Tavern, named for his New Orleans grandmother: “Not since the late, great Analogue has a chef with such deep roots in the culture put it all out there. A pair of gumbos—the classic ya-ya and the vegetarian z’herbes—are worthy case studies. The latter, a swamp of savory greens mined with tofu, seems a gratuitous sop to plant eaters, but it’s surprisingly satisfying; meanwhile the former comes correct, thickened with okra and a dark chocolate-colored roux swarming with fat shrimp and hidden deposits of potato salad… Similarly, crab stuffed shrimp pinwheel over a shallow pool of creamed corn, displaying Jupiter’s facility with the food of NOLA’s various class strata, while the dirty rice, its inherent liveriness somewhat restrained, is still on point.”

Michael Nagrant went there too, and is even more rapturous: “Jupiter’s chargrilled oysters bubble with butter and cheese and a haunting richness, one whiff of which could raise the ghosts from New Orleans’ above-ground sepulchres. I remember watching some food television show years ago where the hipster bon vivant Lee Brothers chargrilled a bunch of oysters for their friends at the back of some giant southern mansion, and wished I’d been invited. Chowing down on these smoky numbers, I felt I’d finally made that party.”


Jeff Ruby hates the name but admits “I can’t think of much else to ding Pacific Standard Time for.” The relaxed California vibe and focus on produce delights him: “The menu’s veggie-forward slant comes across loud and clear in the starters. Think avocado salads with summer squash. Think beet salad with blueberries and yogurt. Think wood-roasted broccoli with oyster mushrooms. Actually, don’t think. If you pause to ponder, say, the bursting-fresh English peas studded with farro verde and walnuts and flanked by mounds of Burrata, your companions will make them disappear before you’ve picked up your fork.” (Chicago)


“If there’s a hotter restaurant this summer than Aba, I must have missed it,” says Phil Vettel, and you can see why it’s packing them in—a rooftop patio, trendy middle eastern food and a menu that’s half steakhouse. Interestingly, it shares with another hot ticket, Pacific Standard Time, a star attraction in pitas and spreads: “Spreads are a must, if only to get one’s hands on the warm, puffy house bread, brushed with butter and dusted with za’atar. There are the aforementioned hummus varieties and labneh, and a particularly nice artichoke spread with sunflower-seed tahini and sprouts, but make room on the table for the muhammara, a sweet red-pepper spread with chile, walnut, tomato and pomegranate molasses.”


Maggie Hennessy feels protective of little sparrow Passerotto, giving it five stars: “Jennifer Kim’s (Snaggletooth) charming new restaurant is at once breezy and intensely felt, comfy yet dressed up. The Italian-influenced Korean-American cuisine is unique and wholly delicious, and the wine somehow elevates it further.”


Anthony Todd talks to Tim and Rebekah Graham, Tru and Publican vets respectively now opening a place rooted in classic midwestern foods, Twain: “They were finally inspired by both an extraordinary meal at Joe Beef in Montreal and a eureka moment on the couch one night. ‘On our second or third date, he pulled down this 1950s cookbook from an oven company, with a note on the cover saying ‘Almost anything can be wrapped in bacon and enjoyed,’ ’ Rebekah says.”


Titus Ruscitti goes to Mini Mott for the burger: “It’s made with two fresh patties of beef, American cheese, hoisin aioli, crunchy sweet potato sticks, pickled jalapenos, pickles, miso butter, and onions. I liked it. More than I thought I would actually. I’m a simple man when it comes to my cheeseburgers. I don’t like a ton of stuff on them other than the usual suspects such as mustard, pickles, onion. But this was a well put together burger where everything just worked in one.”


Louisa Chu tells the story of an unheralded Chicago original, the sweet steak sandwich—imagine a Philly cheese steak crossed with Chicago BBQ sauce and a few other things. Which comes out of Taurus Flavors, an ice cream stand run by a vegetarian.


“A Californian, vegetable-forward selection of salads, sandwiches, sharable appetizers and a few hot entrees…” Pacific Standard Time again? Nope, it’s Lunchroom at Space 519, a lunch spot in an interior decor store in Streeterville, Crain’s latest business lunch find.


Ina Pinkney’s latest breakfast column includes two spots in the burbs, Western Springs’ Salty Fig and Northfield’s Three Tarts, as well as Alma in the Hotel Zachary.


My kids did 4-H for a few years despite living deep in the city, so I’m good for never needing to go to the Lake County Fair ever again, but good news—Cook County is getting its own next year in the Portage Park Binny’s parking lot! Anyway, Louisa Chu talks to the folks behind several popular fare foods, and answers the burning question of the difference between funnel cake and elephant ears.


If you’ve been wondering what the Asian-ingredient-influenced beers at BiXi are like, Chicago mag has a rundown of three of them (but if there are eight, why didn’t they do all eight?)


A guy with a site devoted to storytelling talks to Dave Park of now-closed Hanbun about storytelling via food: “I try to get it as close as possible [to childhood memories] because I know I could never recreate that.  Or when people complain that this is not my grandma’s food or this is not my mom’s food, I have to remind them, I am not your mom.  I am not your grandma.  It will never taste like that.”


Doing wine pairings for plebeian foods is a hoary old joke (and we’re not above it!), but the pairings in this Reader piece from the Cherry Circle Room’s Andrew Algren actually seem well thought-out—fizzy, grapey Lambrusco with Al’s Italian beef seems perfect, for instance.


The Sun-Times’ obituary for the legendary Aretha Franklin comes complete with restaurant recommendations: “Whenever Ms. Franklin came to Chicago, she loved to shop. And though she loved visiting upscale Tiffany’s and dining on French cuisine, Waldron said she remained a ‘real down-to-earth, simple kind of person,’ just as happy eating gumbo delivered to Ravinia from Capt.’s Hard Time Dining on 79th Street. Waldron said he’d hear her express her appreciation for Lem’s Bar-B-Que by declaring, ‘I’m going down to Lem’s to get me some ribs, y’all!’”


Someone wrote a eulogy poem for Jonathan Gold made of phrases from his writings.


Not much new, as I’ve been racing around getting ready for last week’s and this week’s Fooditor South Side Food-I-Tours (big hit, people especially loved the barbecue from Honey 1 and getting to see the big smoker with its fire roaring away). I did go to Ina Mae Tavern and must admit that after the raves linked above, I was expecting a little more. I mean, the po-boy was fine, the gumbo ya-ya was quite good (though carelessly had a couple of prominent chicken bones in it), but I wanted something bigger and more ambitious than such standard Cajun classics, or more accomplished in some way, like the really silky and lovely catfish at The Delta nearby. I think it’s a decent start for a Cajun restaurant, now wow me with something I haven’t had before.

Also, I’ve been stopping too often at Ava’s Italian Ice, and suggest you do too. Right now peach and canteloupe are great; I loved apricot recently as well.