\”There are no two finer words than \’encased meats,\’ my friend.\”
–T-shirt for sale at \”Hot Doug\’s\”, Chicago
In the bad old days of the culture wars, when the \”Forces of Darkness\” had aligned against the \”Forces of Goodness and Light,\” Chicago was a key battleground and an early, crucial loss for the good guys. Foie gras had been declared illegal and the ensuing ripples of fear spread cross country. Gutless, craven punks everywhere deserted their comrades like Vichy shopkeepers while animal \”activists\” terrorized chefs\’ families and children, vandalized businesses, and strong-armed retailers. But even though chefs like Wolfgang Puck — for instance — suddenly discovered their preference for fluffy cute ducks over their fellow chefs or their traditions and headed for the lifeboats, a few lone heroes stood tall, proudly extending a stiff middle finger at the advancing horde.
Doug Sohn, owner/proprietor of Chicago\’s magnificent emporium of all things meat in tube-form (basically a lunchtime freakin\’ Hot Dog joint) was just such a hero. After Chicago alderman Joe Moore slipped his own proverbial weiner into the body politic, ramming through legislation forbidding the sale of foie in the city, Sohn created an homage of sorts, the \”Joe Moore\” dog, a duck, foie gras and Sauternes sausage topped with truffled foie gras and Dijon mustard sauce, selling it in flagrant, open defiance of the law. It was the opening shot of what turned out to be a winning strategy: making the anti-foie gras forces look just so utterly ridiculous that the law was eventually overturned and balance returned to the universe.
(For a detailed account of this epic struggle, with a full accounting of who was good, bad, principled, hypocritical, cowardly or heroic when the chips were down, read Chicago Tribune reporter Mark Caro\’s excellent and illuminating \”The Foie Gras Wars\” (Simon and Schuster 2009).
I\’m ambivelent about a lot of places, but I am unrestrained in my love for Chicago. Only Chicago could convince me that the New York hot dog was not, in fact, anywhere near the apex of the hot dog arts.(The Chicago Red Hot deserves that honor) . Two respectably old school baseball teams, great, great bars, a tradition of unapproachably good and important music, its own, truly imposing style of architecture, an attitude both big city wise-ass and heartland lack of bullshit, a city open to the bestand most excessive/creative of new, experimental cooking styles, loaded with great chefs (many of whom are pals), it\’s simply another place I\’ll use any excuse to visit. Tonight\’s episode was just such an excuse.
And did I mention all the fantastic looking films shot in Chicago? (See Michael Mann\’s \”Thief\”, Haskell Wexler\’s \”Medium Cool\” et al). I suspect I\’ll be hearing the \”But what about…?\” and the \”How could you feature Chicago and not go to….\” complaints from enthusiastic locals. I already received one e-mail, incredulous that I didn\’t go to Pizzeria Uno (!!). To which I replied, \”What show have YOU been watching? Clearly, not mine.\” I guess the best thing I could say is that this show is about a slice or two of MY Chicago. Not yours. And speaking of slices? Sorry, but generally speaking, your pizza blows. The generic \”deep dish\” stuff? At worst, it\’s \”tomato/cheese pie\”–or maybe \”egg-less tomato quiche\”–or \”pizza for people who just aren\’t fat enough\”. But pizza? Deep dish is pizza like Olive Garden is Italian.
But I ate something truly delicious on camera at Burt\’s. I don\’t know that I\’d call it \”pizza\”. Whatever Burt\’s selling? It\’s something…. special. Some kind of crusty, tomatoey, cheesy….casserole or something–with delightfully fresh toppings. The crust is what really sets it apart from the rest. And Burt, of course, is exactly the sort of rugged, go-your own way individual I like to see succeed anywhere. If you\’re planning a visit to Chicago, go buy whatever that stuff is he\’s making. It\’s great.
On NO RESERVATIONS, we try and NOT do a lot of high end, expensive restaurants. Exceptions–generally speaking–are when they\’re just too damn good or unique to ignore. Doing a Napa Valley show, for instance, and NOT visiting the French Laundry would be ignoring the elephant in the room (and one of the best restaurants in the world). Likewise, L20\’s Laurent Gras is a chef of terrifying talent. Every minute of the last couple of years that he\’s been without a base of operations, his fellow chefs have been holding their breath, waiting for him to land somewhere. Let\’s put it this way: When Eric Ripert heard we were going to shoot at Laurent\’s new restaurant in Chicago, he immediately volunteered himself as third wheel at dinner. Flew out and stayed over on his own dime. So when you see the scene at L20 and ask yourself the quite reasonable question, \”What the hell is Eric Ripert doing on a Chicago show?\” the answer is \”eating really, really well.\” And it\’s not just another fancy meal. It\’s something really special.
I\’ve long been a huge fan of Paul Kahan\’s restaurants, Blackbird and Avec. We visited neither on the show, instead dragooning Paul and his whole posse of talented chefs into whipping up a backyard barbeque. We\’d been in danger of being a little light on the \”pork factor\” on this show. Paul set us right.
I do regret all the places I love in Chicago that we didn\’t get to feature on the show. As much as I like the Rainbow Club, Pippin\’s, Matchbox, Green Mill, I don\’t know how interesting it would be watching me just drinking (again) on television. The cost of allowing any recognizable music on the show precludes most live preformances or even ambient jukeboxes. I like and support Ric Tramonto (another hero of the Foie Gras battles) and enjoy his restaurants but he\’s not on the show either. Missed the famous \”Italian Beef\” but we\’ve been on something of a beef sandwich jag lately–in Baltimore and Buffalo and that might have been a beef too far.
In our defense, we have introduced the Southside delicacy, the \”Mother In Law Sandwich\” to the world–something even most Chicagoans I know were completely unaware of. It is a truly magnificent mutation of which the city can be truly proud. Screw Pizzeria Uno. All Hail Fat Johnnie\’s!