Sky Full of Bacon

It’s ten best list time, so here (according to my personal rules) are the top ten things that were new to me this year, never had ‘em before, along with whatever other things I manage to sneak into the discussion to allow myself more than ten. A cynical person would note that many of them relate to my Sky Full of Bacon podcasts, and might ascribe sinister motives to my blowing their collective horn, but of course 1) I tend to make the podcasts about things I’m already enthusiastic about, and 2) spending so much time with something is likely to increase the meaning it holds for you, so it seems unsurprising to me that those subjects should figure prominently here. Anyway, here’s the list:

10. Cherry doughnut hole from Sweetwater’s in Kalamazoo, eaten (two or three of them, actually) at the Greater Midwest Foodways Alliance program on desserts, with a nod to the peach donut from Mel-O-Cream in Springfield, Illinois.

9. Beans at Mercat a la Planxa. What beans? Any beans, apparently— both times I went, I had a dish in which ham and beans had combined into something intense and magical, rich with deeply comfy porky flavor. The first time it was a side with the suckling pig; the second time it was a warm bean salad. Either way, wonderful, and hardly the most expensive thing on the menu, but certainly the most comforting.

8. Copa, with a side of raw beets in a kind of mustardy sauce, at Mado. Yeah, I made a podcast about their headcheese, but this is the housecured meat that wowed me, and so did those crunchy-fresh oh-so-local beets.

7. Great Lake pizzeria calls it by its ingredients— prosciutto, onion, some cheese, I forget what all— but to me it’s a tarte flambee, the best one since the lost lamented Alsatian stand at the Christkindlmarkt a few years back, which arrives trailing a cloud of miraculous flavor hot from the oven.

6. Grapes from Klug Farms, Green City Market. There was that whole silly debate about local eating last fall, pose or pretension, and all you would have needed to get past it was one taste of the amazing tiny gooey wine-like, no, first-growth-Bordeaux-level, grape varieties they were selling, which were all the justification local eating could ever need, and made further argument superfluous.  Oh, and hey, as long as we’re talking locally grown, how about that arugula I grew in my Earthboxes? That was pretty wonderful too, delicately peppery, it grew like mad and we ate it with joy as long as it lasted.

5. The uchepos gratinados at Mixteco Grill, the dish we’ve ordered more than any other there, with its delicious combination of comfy cornmeal and sharp roasted corn…

And as long as we’re talking tamales, would it really be fair to let this list go by without mention of the fantastic ones, creamy and rich and delicious, served at Chuck’s BBQ during his monthlong Cinco de Mayo fest, which remains one of the greatest, least heralded culinary events of the year in Chicago?

4. Sauerkraut pierogi at Smak Tak, and the whole terrific feast that went with it and pleased my mom no end with its authentic evocation of the tart, comfy Ukrainian varenyky dished up by our Mennonite forebears in Kansas.

3. Peking duck at Sun Wah, the dish that heralded the ascension of an old favorite to new heights under the second generation.

 Photo by Eatchicago

2. Pulled pork at Neely’s in Memphis, the meal where I finally got why Memphis barbecue isn’t about unvarnished hunks o’ meat, like Texas barbecue, but about the interplay of pork, sweet cole slaw, fluffy bread, all playing off each other like the Guarneri String Quartet or Messrs. Howard, Howard and Fine.

And hey, while we’re talking my Tennessee trip, how about those amazing greens at Arnold’s in Nashville, huh?  What was it I said about them here— “it was the threes that made the leap toward greatness— especially the greens, whose pot likker was Bordeaux-complex in its depth of flavor, smoky, porky, cognac-y.”  (Whoops, I already used that analogy in this ten best.)

But as long as I’m saluting the greens at Arnold’s, fairness insists that I also mention the incredible greens at our own Chuck’s BBQ at the LTHForum holiday party, even at the risk of mentioning one amazingly versatile place twice.

1. The mulefoot pig dinner at Blackbird, particularly two outstanding dishes, Vie’s cotechino full of gamey meatiness, and Justin Large of Avec’s headcheese ravioli in an amazingly porky and lemony consomme, though that’s not at all to slight a meal that was absolutely top-notch all the way.  Obviously I had a somewhat unique perspective on this meal (well, unique to me and Sula), given the days and days I spent chronicling it and seeing it all behind the scenes, but besides being boundlessly impressed by the chefs I watched in action (and not a little jealous, frankly— I sure never saw people work together so well and at such a high level in any ad agency I was in), I came away convinced that for all that Chicago is a world capitol of conceptual dining and foams and gels, its real distinction is in a small collection of superb restaurants who source carefully and prepare in an Italian-inflected modern style that brings out the flavor inherent in a dish and then some.

I don’t have a worst this year; I don’t remember anything that really irritated me (well, other than the meal where my window was bashed in and my iPod stolen), indeed why dwell on mediocrity as if it were at all hard to find without my help?  (Thus no comment on the rash of outta-town burger chains which have opened in Chicago this year, and which uniformly underwhelmed.)  Let us salute the good things, which beyond the above would include another cotechino at Riccardo Trattoria, one bite of duck at Boka, the pork chop at Sepia, the deconstructed Caesar salad at Graham Elliott, the birria at Zaragoza, lamb rib from Southside Market, Elgin, Texas, grabbed between morning shoot at Louie Mueller’s and afternoon shoot at Taylor Cafe, the biscuits I learned to make for my Southern party, Tupelo honey picked up at Katzinger’s in Columbus, OH, the ginger vanilla ice cream I’ve been making (inspired by the one good part, dessert, of a lunch at Shikago), the intriguing lemon grass and clove cookies at Kan Pou, a root beer float at Scooter’s (such an obvious idea, lifted into the stratosphere by the combo of their custard and Sprecher’s Root Beer), tomato-goat cheese quiche and vanilla cannele from Floriole Bakery at the Green City Market, and the garlicky eggplant dip at Albawadi in Bridgeview— a suburb I will have more to say about shortly.

Finally, let me end the year with thanks to you, dear Blog-Reader and Podcast-Viewer, whomever you are.  My exit from my previous primary role in shaping and managing LTHForum left me determined to use the opportunity— of a little name within the food community, of the videomaking technology I would have killed for when I was making super 8 movies when I was 15, of this perilous but pregnant moment in media history— to invent something new, to approach the subject of food in this great city in new ways and not just write about going to Khan BBQ or Burt’s Pizza for the umpteenth time (much as they are justly loved).  I’m just beginning to make that happen on the level of print media— let’s hope there are still print media this time next year— but the thousands of views my podcasts have enjoyed at Vimeo and iTunes has been greatly encouraging and gratifying. Thanks for that, and see you next year.

Ten best for: 2007 2006 2005 2004 2003

A month ago Menu Pages reported on a StoveTop Stuffing promotion in which hot, steaming samples of stuffing would be stuck in your face at bus stops, the assumption being that Prohibition is still on and therefore no one is going to be so hung over that they will immediately coat the interior of their bus shelter with puke at the sight of mealy, chewed-looking hot stuffing at 8 am.

Now The New York Times has inexplicably declared this promotion one of the best things Madison Avenue did all year.  Let’s think for a minute about what this promotion involves.  A cup of hot stuffing, a spoon, and someone passing it out.  (Okay, and some cooks somewhere in a rented banquet kitchen.)  And here is how the New York Times describes the collection of great powers necessary to pull off this feat:

Agencies: Draft FCB, part of the Interpublic Group of Companies; JCDecaux North America, part of JCDecaux; and MediaVest, part of the Starcom MediaVest Group division of the Publicis Groupe.

Does this sound like an industry that could turn on a dime, get some people out on the street, and boost your sales pronto? Or does it sound like one that started planning this work of genius in 2005, and still wasn’t sure if they were ready to hit the street this year or needed to do some more focus group testing of the concept and some more drawings of the cup design and some more work on the tagline and some more Powerpoints about overall stuffing consumption trends?  Don’t answer that.  And don’t shove stuffing in my face at bus stops.

Almost four years ago, I had a stunningly good meal at Avenues under its then-chef Graham Elliott Bowles (two-thirds of whom is now his own restaurant). And as was my wont then, I posted a course-by-course description of the meal with pictures.

Well, it’s a different world now.  Avenues has a new chef, Curtis Duffy late of Alinea, who has had some raves and some pans.  I don’t feel like taking picture by picture accounts of dinners, or writing plate by plate ones; in fact I often don’t feel like reading such things, for fear of losing the novelty which is certainly a big part of what you’re paying for in a “conceptual dining” restaurant (as I called them the other day).

But if I can find a treatise on Communism in a place that simply hadn’t gotten up to speed one Sunday morning, surely I can find some big picture thoughts on a meal this elaborate, right?  Let’s scan our experience for a theme:

1) The tasting course menu is so over. Well, the novelty is somewhat gone, but the basic Thomas Keller theory behind it— that you only really enjoy 1 or 2 bites of something, so why serve more— still holds true for this kind of food (I’d like to see him sell that idea in a Texas bbq joint, though).  I have to say I enjoyed the progression of things (which, incidentally, came fast and furious, good for them)…

2) The tasting menu is the dominant paradigm for chefs today. Maybe.  But after having 20-some things at Avenues, a certain sameness crept in.  Nearly every plate involved little dabs of this which looked like one thing but turned out to be another (eg, “wasabi” made out of some green, pureed), and least appealingly, something turned into a sandy powder.  Looking back it’s hard to remember specific things that stood out because there were just so many flavors in such tiny quantities.  In fact…

3. Molecular gastronomy may aim too low. I felt like too often, dishes had gone below the integrity of the ingredient, I wanted more things to be enhanced by the dibs and dabs around them, and fewer deconstructed.  The best things I had were anchored in some ingredient that delivered lushness and delight on its own— Faroe Island salmon belly, golden osetra caviar, a simple carrot (below)— and could just be flavored or filigreed a little by the powders and goos on the plate.

Looking back on this menu after two weeks— and even with a printed menu in my hand— it has all blurred together in a way that makes it hard for me to remember individual dishes; my memory, somewhat unfairly, is more of grit on a plate than of something that opened my eyes to new wonders.  I definitely came away with less of a sense of a few marvels, a few wonderfully new combinations, than I did from Duffy’s old boss Achatz’s meal at Trio or even from a rather mixed meal at Bowles’ Graham Elliott.  Now, I should point out that one of our dining companions found the meal more appealing than his recent meal at Alinea, precisely because it didn’t seem to be working him over so hard to make him go “Wow!”  In general we were reasonably satisfied with things, liked things pretty well as they happened, but it’s taken me two weeks to post about this meal because the more I think about it, the less I know what I think.

Service was extremely friendly and conscientious; bread service is excellent, but a champagne offering early on, though generous with tastes, proved really to me to be a chance for them to add a substantial amount to the bill while proving that if there’s a difference between pretty good and great champagne, I don’t know what it is.  (Somebody here tasted all kinds of notes that flew by me.)  We had a very pleasant evening with our fellow diners, and that may have contributed to my not examining this meal with the microattention I have devoted to others in the past, but as capable as Curtis Duffy clearly is— and much of this stuff is the kind of thing only someone with remarkable skills can pull off— I can’t say I feel like he’s yet capable of conceptualizing from beginning to end a 20-course meal on quite the auteurist level that other top directors, I mean chefs, like Achatz or Michael Carlson have achieved.

Tags: , , ,

You read a million things on a subject and then you finally read the one that explains it all. Michael Barone, veteran political analyst, explains why GM and its unions have become a marriage made in Hell:

Unionism as established by the Wagner Act is inherently adversarial. The union once certified as bargaining agent has a duty not only to negotiate wages and fringe benefits but also to negotiate work rules and to represent workers in constant disputes about work procedures.

The plight of the Detroit Three auto companies raises the question of why people ever thought this was a good idea. The answer, I think, is that unionism was seen as the necessary antidote to Taylorism. That’s not a familiar term today, but it was when the Wagner Act was passed in 1935. Frederick Winslow Taylor was a Philadelphia businessman who pioneered time and motion studies. As Robert Kanigal sets out in The One Best Way, his biography of Taylor, he believed that there was “one best way” to do every job. Industrial workers, he believed, should be required to do their job in this one best way, over and over again. He believed workers should be treated like dumb animals and should be allowed no initiative whatever, lest they perform with less than perfect efficiency.

Taylor’s work was regarded as gospel by many industrial managers in the 1910s, 1920s, and 1930s, a time when many factory workers were recent immigrants, often with a less than perfect command of English. Auto assembly lines were organized on Taylorite principles to squeeze the last bit of efficiency out of low-skill workers. And squeeze some more…

Interestingly, management often sought to deny that things were run this way at all— hence the video clip at the top of the page, from a 1936 industrial film called Master Hands, which seeks to show that GM workers (right at the moment of the violent strikes in the late 30s) were not interchangeable automatons but skilled artisans, like sculptors or bootmakers.  (The conclusion naturally being that Michelangelo didn’t need a union.)  (Note the additional irony that Master Hands, beautifully made corporate propaganda, shows so much influence of Soviet filmmaking.)

Barone draws the expected conclusion that the unions are what keeps the automakers from changing:

Japanese automakers… managed their plants not according to Taylorism but by giving their workers more autonomy and more responsibility—by treating them like sentient human beings and not like dumb animals as Frederick Taylor taught. The Detroit Three by all accounts I have seen were slow to learn from this—and were even slower to apply the lessons the Japanese taught—because of Wagnerism. Japanese management required cooperation between managers and workers. Wagnerism insisted that all interaction between managers and workers be conducted on an adversarial basis. The 5,000 pages of work rules mean that GM can’t manage the way Toyota does…

Taylorism is pretty much dead in our society; no automaker free to make a choice chooses it as a way to manage its workforce. But its antidote, Wagnerism, remains.

I’m not so sure this is true— that Taylorism is dead.  Watch the Discovery Channel’s “How It’s Made” and you’ll see an awful lot of conveyor-belt, repetitive-motion production that sure doesn’t look like kaizen management in action.  But let’s accept that cars are not made in quite such a robotic function (except for the parts made by actual robots).

Nevertheless, there is clearly at least one industry that still has Taylor’s fingerprints all over it—one which a high percentage of Americans will have had some experience with, mostly in their youth.  Fast food.  I worked at McDonald’s in high school and my freshman year of college (the sum total of my professional culinary experience, incidentally, in case anyone was wondering).  And the whole secret of McDonald’s processes was that they were broken down into such simplified, repetitive processes that even a slackjawed, inattentive teenager could be instructed how to turn out perfectly average Quarter Pounders in about a half hour of training. And once learned, the processes were indelible— almost 30 years later, I could walk into a McD’s during lunch rush today and take over the Quarter Pounder grill without a hitch.

That this was something less than really learning to cook was a lesson driven home to me when I tried to get a summer job the next year at a Denny’s-type coffeeshop— and it was explained to me that by the time I was trained to be even a barely competent grillman, I’d be leaving to go back to school. Ironically, though I had to recognize the truth of what he said— I hadn’t learned to cook, I’d learned to cook Quarter Pounders— there was one part of McD’s menu where the desire to impose Taylorist processes had run into the customer’s expectations, and real cooking was required.

Breakfast. Sure, the Egg McMuffin might have been a pure McD’s automa-food invention— eggs cooked to unnatural circles, each yolk broken on purpose so that there will never be an issue of customers wanting it runny in the middle or not. But the pancakes are pretty much pancakes, like at any other place; the scrambled eggs are pretty much scrambled eggs, and not screwing them up means exercising a grillman’s judgement as to when things are done and how to arrange them on the styrofoam plate. We might have been Taylor-trained baboons in every other area of the menu, but at least in this one small corner of the menu, we were Master Hands.

One thing that’s cool about doing these podcasts is that you never know where they might get some attention. It doesn’t surprise me that the one about Texas barbecue has gotten more views than any other, because there are plenty of barbecue fanatics out there, and it got a fair amount of linkage.  But I found one BBQ board where it hadn’t been mentioned yet, and posted about it there a couple of weeks ago.  A small bump in viewership, maybe 20 or so, resulted.

Then suddenly yesterday it shot up— and 145 people watched it in one day.  37 more have watched it today— as of about 7:30 AM.  The result is that it’s been pushed over 2000 Vimeo views, a first-time milestone for Sky Full of Bacon. (It’s actually at 2100 right now.) UPDATE: Over 200 today.

The thing is, I have no idea where this traffic came from.  Vimeo will show you referrers (where the person watching it arrived from) but these viewings haven’t registered yet.  And a Google search didn’t turn up any link I didn’t already know about. I’m guessing it’s from somewhere that picked up on it at that most recent BBQ board, but I don’t really know.

So a few hundred new strangers will have watched it this week, and I have no idea who they are.  Cool.

And if you haven’t watched it… watch it!

Sky Full of Bacon 03: The Last Brisket Show from Michael Gebert on Vimeo.

UPDATE: The answer, apparently, was posted by mistake in the Shokolad thread below by one “G Smithey”: “A University of Texas fans website that talks about Barbecue often, more than it does women, posted the link.”

One of the lasting testaments to the awfulness of the Soviet system is the fact that so many countries in that part of the world are now identified with a gray, cheerless inhospitality. If you want to describe the experience somewhere as being utterly without charm, grace or initiative, as truly not caring whether the customer lived or died, few adjectives can improve on “East German” or “Bulgarian” or “Albanian.”

This may not seem as terrible a charge to lay at Communism’s feet as, say, the gulags, but I would argue that destroying the natural impulse toward hospitality in the peoples who wound up under Soviet domination is as striking an example of the soul-killing aspect of totalitarianism as anything you could name. Consider some of the countries not far beyond the USSR’s borders—Sweden, Austria, Italy, Turkey, Lebanon, India, Thailand, Japan; nations where the pleasures of the table and the profession of hospitality have been raised to the highest level of warmth and conviviality. And then there’s Albania. A country that ought to be a second Italy spent half a century eating gray mystery meat in sullen silence, and its natural tendencies toward producing good food and good times were wrecked.

All this is rather a heavy and possibly unkind way of setting up some comments about a new bakery and cafe in the Ukrainian Village neighborhood, a rare example of an actual Ukrainian business opening new in a neighborhood otherwise turning hipster-generic. There are clearly some good things happening here—desserts in the case looked innovative and interesting, and the list of Ukrainian specialties would excite my mom’s Mennonite-heritage-bug (our branch, though German in origin, lived in the Ukraine before coming to the US and picked up a lot of dishes like pelmeny and varenyky, basically pierogi). There aren’t many cafes advertising both free wifi, and a roasted goose leg dinner special.

But at the same time, breakfast on Sunday morning was a frustrating experience because the service just didn’t have the warmth and consideration that comes naturally to non-Soviet peoples. It’s a little thing to have to ask for coffee, after a life spent watching waitresses at breakfast come at you coffee pot in hand or at least asking you first, but add an item never arriving despite two requests, having to shut the ajar front door ourselves several times, watching the waitress catch up on the things that should have been done before opening before she takes our order, and dealing with blank-stared mutual incomprehension over a simple matter of ordering a side of hash browns (we nearly ended up with potatoes in my son’s chocolate-banana crepes, I’m certain), and, well, let’s just say it wasn’t exactly like our breakfast at this place.

Still, it’s an ambitious place, as new ethnic joints go, and breakfast was, if a little monotonously sweet, reasonably tasty and well-prepared. I will probably give Shokolad another chance, and hope that this Sunday morning was just an unfortunate reversion to Soviet type, in an atmosphere otherwise of unbridled, customer-pleasing American entrepreneurship.

2524 W Chicago Ave
Chicago, IL 60622
(773) 276-6402

UPDATE: Shokolad is featured in the “Save This Restaurant” column in this week’s Time Out.

Way back when I reviewed Cemitas China Poblana in my series of restaurants not yet talked about on LTHForum or elsewhere, I made note of a roasted chicken place across the street…

Now, just the other day I had fantastic grilled chicken, one of the best things I ate all year, at a place I will write about shortly, so I had high hopes that lightning might strike again.  Did it?  It did not.  The first time what strikes you may be lightning, but the second time it’s usually just an ’88 Pontiac with a lot of rust damage.

Restaurante El Campestre is a spiffy looking place, almost chain-like in its bright, clean interior and slick signage.  (Nevertheless, there only seems to be the one.)  It has one dish, roasted chicken, which you can have plain or adobado, that is, marinated in a bright red adobo.  Sides are, well, what you’d expect— beans, rice, fries, cole slaw (clearly aiming beyond the Mexican crowd alone), mashed potatoes, etc.

For about $9 I got a half a chicken with two sides, plus chips, salsa, and tortillas.  A moment later, another $2 got me a limeade; there’s a nice-looking fruit stand in the back where they make jugos, although as I would later note, probably the one they don’t make out of fresh fruit is the limeade.  (So of course they’re promoting it.)

The salsas were a bit odd; the one in front was almost bubbly, like it’d just been pureed at a very high speed, sort of applesauce texture.  The one in back, a little better, had a slight citrusy tang to it.  Not sure what style either was aiming for, they were okay.  (A lot of the population in this area seems to be from Zacatecas, maybe this is one of their styles.)

Got my chicken.  It was cooked decently— white meat a little dry, but dark meat dead on, which is pretty much how you usually get chicken like this.  But it didn’t sing.  It didn’t have that fresh-off-the-grill charcoaly sharpness, the adobo didn’t have the zing of fresh spices.  It immediately brought to mind a picture of a 10-gallon drum of institutional adobo sauce.  No freshness, no life.  Washed out.

The limeade was a refreshing choice, but it too had the flattened flavor profile of something from a jug, not a living fruit or vegetable.

Incidentally, I noticed a sign on Cemitas China Poblana that it had moved as of the end of November— it’s now, apparently, at 3138 W. 47th St.  Maybe someday someone else will check it out— for all the crowds now visiting Cemitas Puebla, no one seems to be burning to try another example.  There’s still a lot happening on this block— a carne en su jugo place, a store window full of boxers’ photos, an old nickelodeon becoming a massage parlor.  A colorful slice of the city, worth checking out— though I can’t really recommend the chicken.

Restaurante El Campestre
4226 S Archer Ave.
Chicago, IL 60632
(773) 927-1333

Tags: , ,

Note: I’m often aware, as I film these podcasts, that there are aspects of the story that I can’t easily work into a finished video; they need to be told in words, not images (and certainly not in words yakking over images). In the case of my most recent podcasts, I thought it would be interesting to zero in on one or two of the chefs I observed at work and offer some observations beyond what made the final cut. Here’s a little portrait of one, Paul Kahan, chef-owner of Blackbird, Avec and The Publican.  The videos this goes with, of course, are There Will Be Pork parts 1 and 2.)

Paul Kahan is trying to explain how a chef from another restaurant botched the preparation of some meat from a farmer who supplies Kahan’s restaurant, Blackbird. The first problem is that he’s aware that I’m capturing the conversation on video, so he doesn’t want to say something that the other chef might take too much offense at. Kahan is a savvy operator in Chicago’s restaurant world, he knows better than to tick off, even in my obscure form of media, someone you’re bound to run into again.

But the other problem is, the person he’s telling the story to is also a chef, Jason Hammel of Lula Cafe, his guest in the basement of Blackbird as the two of them butcher a trio of heritage breed mulefoot pigs for a dinner later in the week. And so it’s important to Kahan to get this point across to Hammel in a truthful and exact way. It would have been easy to just say anything, to bullshit slightly in a way that would have saved the other chef’s face but allowed Hammel to read between the lines. But Kahan is not a bullshitter. He’s a joker; he laid in a special supply of camo-design Miller High Life for tonight’s butchering party, clearly tickled at the idea of turning the basement of one of America’s chicest restaurants into a Wisconsin lodge party after a day of hunting. But it is important to him, you can see him struggling with the self-imposed responsibility of it, to find the right word that somehow skates the line between mortally offending that other chef and being truthful to Jason Hammel about what was done to the meat. It is important to be precise about food. To tell the truth of it. It’s food, you owe it honesty.

“He overmanipulated it,” Kahan finally says.

* * *

At this culinary moment, Chicago is very close to being the global capitol of overmanipulation. The hot cookbook of this Christmas season is a gorgeously thick tribute to what’s often called molecular gastronomy, but might better be called conceptual dining. Or simply: art food.

But Kahan has carved out a place at the very top of Chicago’s dining, with Blackbird and its siblings Avec and The Publican, while rejecting that kind of food for art’s sake. Rejecting the idea of treating an ingredient as mere paint on some larger canvas that exists in your mind.

Kahan’s father owned a smokehouse and a delicatessen, so quality ingredients have never had the sort of theoretical nature for him that would allow you to treat them with such abstraction. He grew up among the kind of customers who gave each piece of meat or fish the gimlet eye before begrudgingly accepting it, and he still has relationships with some of his father’s contemporaries that are rooted not in being a James Beard Award-winning, Food & Wine 10 Best chef, but in being “Bobby Kahan’s kid.”

When he first started offering pork belly, the dish he’s most associated with, it was the kind of cut you wouldn’t have even thought of offering in a high end restaurant unless you had his comfort level with the gritty reality of the wholesale meat business. Now it’s trendy, and Kahan will talk the same environmental-local-family farm talk that other chefs do when they talk about using the “whole animal.” He’s obviously sincere about it (the dinner he’s preparing the mulefoots for is a benefit for Slow Food he’s arranged); but all the same, when other chefs talk about this stuff, they can sound like they’re auditioning to be the next Dalai Lama. When Kahan talks about it, you hear, somewhere in the background, a guy from Randolph Street who can’t believe what these schmuck chefs are paying for loin when pork belly is such a deal.

“Pork belly is something that we’ve always served here. I don’t think I invented serving it, obviously I didn’t,” he says. But he’s proud that he’s served nearly every part of the animal on his regular menu, and that his newly opened The Publican is doing so right now, when playing it safer might have been a smart opening gambit. “I think we’ve educated people, and we’ve never shied away from doing exactly the food we wanted to do.”

What Kahan wants to do is serve food that tastes like the best example of that food you’ve ever had, and his restaurants aren’t shy about using every trick in the professional chef’s handbook to make that happen. Dishes are heavily salted (though rarely obviously salty), and you often hear the chefs talking about adding acid to a dish, both techniques for delivering a trumpet blast of flavor in your mouth that seems more intense and dramatic than you could produce at home. Still, there’s a line they don’t cross, the point at which a flavorful meat ceases to be itself; dishes are never dressed up with extraneous flavors, weird combinations for combination’s sake.

Rather than the chef as artist, Kahan is the chef as showman, delivering all the surefire elements of blockbuster entertainment that the dining public wants and that he knows work. This has become especially clear with the opening of The Publican, the most obviously concepted of Kahan’s restaurants to date, an American beer hall that tries (not entirely successfully, to judge by the reviews to date) to combine Blackbird’s chic minimalism with old world gemütlichkeit. But all of his restaurants, in retrospect, had a high concept; as in Hollywood, it’s the quality of the execution that makes you forget the concoctedness of the concept and get lost in the story.

*  *  *

I see this executional prowess at work in the last few hours before the mulefoot dinner. Kahan has chosen and trained his people well, and though he probes here and there, he’s not going to tear down their six-course meal and remake it in his image at the last minute (as a creative director in advertising might do). When Justin Large of Avec, who’s preparing ravioli, announces his intention to pan-fry them, Kahan pushes back a little, but when Large seems confident in his decision, he lets him go ahead without further question. (He was right to do so; Large’s dish was possibly the best of a stellar night.)

But without ever appearing anxious, Kahan steadily ramps up his level of activity, coordinating the choice of glassware from storage across the street, the description of wines on the menu, the arrangement of tables, the placement of dessert on the plate, making sure everyone had a chance to grab a bite of staff meal before the night ahead. By the end he’s so active he seems capable of turning up in multiple places at once, yet he never raises his voice, he never has to tell someone how to do their job. Kahan can be street-kid blunt— when I asked him a deliberately unspecific question, “What does pork mean to you?”, the first response out of his mouth was “That’s a really stupid question”— but he isn’t like that with his people tonight, because his approach, his commitment to honest flavor, is something they already share and believe in.  They have his principles to follow, and if they’re true to them, the truth of the food will come out.

So I found a source within the Obama campaign— I know this sounds like more tongue in cheek, but this is on the level— and mentioned that my Obama-foodie post had turned up at the HuffPo.  Here’s what my source (let’s call them “Deep Dish”) said:

“He’s so not a foodie. All he eats is salmon. He’s a boring eater, he’s so disciplined. That’s why he stayed so trim while David [Axelrod] gained [number of pounds redacted] during the campaign.”

So there we have it. Not a foodie, an Omega-3-powered salmon eating health fanatic. Foodies, just another group who projected their hopes onto Obama….

“Who’s ready for a hot dog?  Mister President?  Madame Secretary?”

UPDATE: Michelle Obama goes to Blackbird! And a reader of these posts who apparently has an office overlooking it snaps some very paparazzi photos. And look what I won at the LTHForum Christmas party raffle…

Presidents are not, generally, noted for what they eat. President Bush is, so far as I can recall, associated with exactly one pretzel, lodged in the presidential throat; President Clinton was known to have a weakness for junk food, but never from anywhere distinguished enough that he made it nationally famous; Bush senior ate pork rinds and disdained broccoli, although it later turned out he didn’t and that was just his advisers trying to make him look average-joeish (“Pork rinds, can’t get enough, ate ’em all the time in Skull & Bones”).  Before that—hard to imagine Nixon, Eisenhower, Hoover as anything but steak and potato guys, though Taft looked like a guy who could down two dozen oysters as prelude to a rack of lamb.  And, of course, Martin Van Buren made a mean huevos rancheros.

But then there’s Barack Obama, who is rapidly becoming the Calvin Trillin of presidents, to judge by his alleged love for various local Chicago joints, often obscure. (This despite the fact that he has the physique of a tofu-eatin’ sprouts-lover.) His Hyde Park home is supposed to have a 1000-bottle wine cellar (no reports on how full it is), and his globetrotting childhood could make a Travel Channel show, since he admits in Dreams From My Father to having eaten dog, snake and grasshoppers as a boy in Indonesia. (Where was the attack ad on that one? “Barack Obama says he wants a dog for his family… but is it to play catch with, or to braise in a burgundy cream sauce?”) He can pronounce “arugula,” and “nuclear” so it doesn’t rhyme with it. Forget the race barrier… have we elected our first foodie president?

After seeing “Obama Eats Here” T-shirts on the staff at Hyde Park’s Medici Bakery, I’ve decided to keep a running tally of Obama-approved foods and food establishments, on the theory that it won’t take long for it to be longer than the LTHForum Great Neighborhood Restaurants award list, and to use them plus my Foodar to determine the pressing question of the day: Obama, First Foodie or Mere Expense Account Forkpusher?

Medici Bakery. T-shirts say “Obama Eats Here,” though no confirmation from press reports or the transition team.  On the foodie side, a wide array of Frenchy baked goods.  On the non-foodie side, when I pronounced “Levain” in the French manner (“leuhrrvehhnhhh”), they didn’t know what I meant until I finally gave in and said “Luh-vane,” like it was the name of the woman who does your perm.  Non-foodie.

Spiaggia. Chicago’s priciest Italian restaurant is, at least lately, Obama’s favorite for date night with the future first lady; they’ve been there at least three times this year, for Valentine’s Day, back in June, and in early November. Sure, it’s a great restaurant, but liking Italian isn’t exactly staking out a bold new position away from the other candidates.  If he was eating offal at Riccardo Trattoria or Mado, that’d be another matter, but lots of high-priced Loop attorneys eat at Spiaggia.  Non-foodie.

Topolobampo. Alleged to be another longtime favorite, though there are no press reports of them actually going there lately. Okay, so that makes two restaurants where they choose the more expensive half of a two-part restaurant. Did I mention that both Obamas have been high-priced Loop attorneys?  Still, admiring Bayless’s nuevo Mex is a cut above liking Italian food.  Foodie.

Sepia. The same article says Michelle likes Sepia these days.  Lots of people do.  Not foodie.

Italian Fiesta Pizzeria. Kenwood area pizza joint is apparently the Obama’s go-to delivery pizza place. Like good Chicagoans, they know that the okay delivery pizza that’s five minutes away is better than the great delivery pizza that’s twenty minutes away.  Foodie, because true foodies know when not to insist on foodieism.

Kua ‘Aina. Hawaiian burger joint where Pico Iyer of Time (who didn’t name it, but Serious Eats figured out what it had to be) had lunch with Obama… and they ate avocado burgers. (“Barack Obama says he can relate to the problems of ordinary Americans. But when he eats a hamburger, he puts an avocado on it. We can’t afford a president who puts something where you can’t even tell if it’s a fruit or a vegetable on his hamburger…”) Desecrating an American classic is very non-foodie, except when it works.  I can’t see this working if you’re not already lulled into a persistent vegetative state by being in the tropics.  In the cold gray of a Chicago winter, this would look ridiculous.  Non-foodie.

Manny’s. You’re not going to get very far in Chicago politics not eating at Manny’s Coffee Shop aka deli; I’ve never gone there and not seen either a pol I recognized, or someone I recognized had to be a pol (you can tell, believe me). Obama’s recent appearance was quite an event. This is the kind of place that brings out the inner foodie in non-foodies, so foodie.

Macarthur’s. Soul food cafeteria on the west side is talked about in The Audacity of Hope. So, Mr. President-Elect, you live near Army & Lou’s and Cafe Valois, yet you trek all the way over to the west side for your collard greens and smothered pork chops? That’s so totally foodie.

No doubt about it.  Dude’s a foodie.  We will follow this story as it develops.

UPDATE: Welcome, Huffington Post readers and other link-followers. Check out the main purpose of Sky Full of Bacon by clicking on “Video Podcasts” in the “Categories” menu at right.

So lots of updates from readers (hey, I didn’t miss Italian Fiesta, and note the reference to Cafe Valois as well).  Here’s what more we know:

Harold’s Chicken Shack (as pointed out by its primary chronicler).  A very Trillinesque choice.  Totally foodie.

Roy’s. I suppose it’s inevitable that someone born in Hawaii (and yes, my comment about eligibility is a joke, as is my dogmatic anti-avocado stand, though I still wouldn’t put one of them things on mah burger) would go for the only upscale Hawaiian in the universe.  Not foodie.

12 Bones, Asheville, NC.:

At 12 Bones, he greeted diners and took ribs, brisket, pulled pork, corn pudding and sweet tea back to his motorcade.

“That’s a lot of food. That’s not all for me,” he told staff.

Oh sure. Not all for me. Buddy, I been there, don’t kid a kidder. Foodie!

Bentoh’s. Having recently been to Springfield, I wondered if he’d have a favorite spot. I don’t know Bentoh’s, though. Judgement pending.