Barry Sorkin of Smoque and a hot dog star in the newest Key Ingredient, read it here.
As close to the podium as I thought I was going to get.
Having been nominated in the “Multimedia Feature” category for the James Beard Foundation Awards, I went to New York with a firm conviction that I was not going to win. (And by “I,” I mean “we,” my fellow nominee Julia Thiel who writes Key Ingredient in the Chicago Reader and myself.) Partly this was a defense mechanism— if I actually thought we would win, I’d be nervous; being convinced we would not, I was nonchalant, kind of. But part of it was that I really thought Andrew Zimmern would win, being famous, or Katherine Shilcutt, the lady from the estimable food section of the Houston Chronicle, whose editor is Robb Walsh, famous in his own right for a barbecue book I clutched throughout several trips to Austin. Illustrious company to be nominated in, who the heck are we to really compete with them?
Anyway, so Friday evening comes, my family who traveled with me to New York is off to see a play and I stroll over to the event space in Hell’s Kitchen… and the first thing I see is that animal rights protesters have set up stuffed animals in cages to protest the cruelty of fine dining. I notice that they also have what looks like a spray bottle of fake blood— if you’re going to spray that, I think, it’s going to be on the dress clothes of someone better paid than me.
I check in and get a little badge which says Nominee, which serves as a great icebreaker— throughout, people come up to me, or I to them, and say, so what are you nominated for? I catch the eye of the distinguishedly sturdy fellow on the right with salt and pepper goatee and he introduces himself.
“Robb Walsh,” he says, thrusting a hand at me. I can only repeat, dorkily, “Robb Walsh!” In an instant I realize that the whole evening is going to be like this, meeting people whose names I know, but whose faces are professionally hidden most of the time. It’s an odd social situation, but I make the best of it I can, and I think this is my awkwardness low point, which he handles graciously, wishing me luck even as he acknowledges that he’ll have a grieving reporter on his hands if Katherine Shilcutt loses to us. (Besides being Shilcutt’s editor, Walsh is nominated with two others for a story on oysters which appeared in, of all things, Garden & Gun, whatever that is.)
I’m a little suaver when I spot and zero in on Andrew Zimmern, who has a crowd around him, as most of the recognizable TV celebrities here do. I push my hand forward and say, “Since I’m going to lose to you in about 90 minutes, I figured I should say hi.” That disarms him and we talk for a few minutes about his recent Chicago episode. He manages to combine down to earthness with a celebrity glow and high voltage persona that makes you instantly understand why someone thought he’d be a natural for TV.
We take our seats— Julia, myself, and Mara Shalhoup, the Reader’s new editor, right up front (though my best view of the event will be the projected image on a side wall). More celebrity glow is on hand when Ted Allen and Gail Simmons take the stage; on Top Chef, Gail may play the more approachable Mary Ann to Padma’s exotic fashionista-dominatrix Ginger, but she’s quite glamorous in real life, and that wasn’t a faraway observation since she sat at our table when she wasn’t needed on stage.
The chair of the awards committee comes out and explains the changes in the awards this year, which have greatly expanded the number of categories to reflect the much more varied and, importantly, online basis of the profession of food writing these days. This doesn’t actually affect our category, which has existed for a while (Mike Sula and I were nominated in it two years ago), and I’m sure Beard cynics like Anthony Bourdain would say it’s just to increase the number of people sending in their entry fees, but compared to the way many journalism awards are still hopelessly hidebound (the Pulitzers just gave their first prize for reporting to a purely online story, which to my mind is sort of like giving the first Oscar to a talkie in 1940), it seems to me progressive and smart. Likewise, where the Beards could be awards from New York publishing for New York publishing, the regional sweep of the awards, taking in everywhere from Minneapolis to Seattle, is admirable.
Many, many awards follow— nerve-wrackingly, ours doesn’t come till after the second course— but some particular hero-worship highlights for me included Jonathan Gold winning the M.F.K. Fisher award for distinguished writing. Gold was chronicling grungy taquerias in L.A. before Chowhound was a gleam in Jim Leff’s eye, he’s right up there with Calvin Trillin as far as I’m concerned for the guys who first turned attention from haute to hot-n-greasy cuisine.
The Edible Communities group of publications won a special award for pioneering their model of hyperlocal coverage.
While Wylie Dufresne gave a thoughtful appreciation of a book that has had enormous influence on his generation of molecular gastronomists: Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking. McGee in turn said that he hears all the time from young chefs in culinary school who can’t find out what they want to know from their traditionally-trained teachers, so they go direct to the source— him.
Somewhere in there our batch of awards comes up. At some point Julia and I realize there is actually a nonzero chance that we might wind up on stage— we don’t know what to make of the fact that we seem to have been seated quite close to it, for no good reason we can see— and we talk about what we might say if we do. It’ll be short, we agree on that much. Ted announces our category and I start recording video as the computer system slightly botches a clip from our very first Key Ingredient, starring Grant Achatz:
The moment I hear “Mi—” I mutter “oh my god” and flip the camera off. Julia and I look at each other with a bit of shock and she leads the way. There are, thankfully, two medals for us (they got that right in the multimedia category), and Ted Allen, who used to be at the Tribune, warmly says “Welcome, fellow Chicagoans” as he puts them around our necks.
Julia takes the microphone and offers both thanks and a memory of the late Cliff Doerksen, who won a Beard award last year and died a few months later. I’m not expecting this but it’s absolutely the right thing for her to do and she does it beautifully. There’s not a lot more for me to say, so I just make a quip to the effect of “Thank you for supporting regional work from small obscure places like Chicago,” which gets a mood-lightening laugh (but does represent my genuine appreciation that the Beards look beyond New York for great work), and we exit to go have our portraits taken in front of the obligatory wall of logos.
We return to our seats, but two or three times later we will turn to each other and say some variation on the theme of, “Holy shit, we won a Beard award.”
And the awards continue. Ruth Bourdain wins the first one to go to a Twitter account, or to a nonexistent person, leading everyone to immediately start murmuring— will we finally see who Ruth Bourdain is? No such luck, a Beard committee member accepts it (though since it was nominated, it does mean that the person behind it broke character long enough to actually enter it him/herself). Another hero of mine, Southern food writer James Villas, wins for his fine cookbook Pig and says one of the night’s most memorable soundbites: “To quote Dorothy Parker when she received an award late in life, it’s about goddamn time.” The applause indicates general agreement with the sentiment.
Grace Young, author of Stir-Frying to the Sky’s Edge, gives maybe the night’s best speech. As she explained, before her book of family Chinese recipes and lore was published, her father (its inspiration) died, her editor left after 20 years, her agent quit the business, her publicist quit… but she stuck to it and had her reward, in what struck many as a surprise win over Diana Kennedy. (If they put the full video up, you should definitely watch her speech, and Dufresne and Harold McGee.)
A few minutes later, part of the reason for the surprise win over Diana Kennedy was revealed— the committee had decided to create an award honoring one cookbook as best of the year, clearly (given the way it was presented) with an eye toward giving a boost to important, but not entirely commercial, projects. And the inaugural winner was Kennedy’s Oaxaca al Gusto: An Infinite Gastronomy, which even after her pioneering role in all the Baylessian Mexican food that has followed, couldn’t find a commercial publisher and was ultimately put out by the University of Texas.
And so the awards wrap up. Monica Eng, the only other Chicago journalism nominee this year (who totally should have won last year for her series about going to see slaughter), comes by and congratulates us. Julia calls her the Mindy Segal of journalism, in reference to the great Hot Chocolate pastry chef’s perennial also-ran status, but I prefer to think of her as being our Deborah Kerr, eight Oscar nominations, no wins, but always a class act.
Emboldened by the big piece o’ bling hanging around my neck, I decide to go say hi to a couple more of my heroes. Villas is nowhere to be seen, alas, but I do find Jonathan Gold and introduce myself. Looking at my Sky Full of Bacon business card, he says “Oh, I know this blog. I like this blog,” and immediately we go into a discussion of Alinea, where he just ate… and how he wished he’d been off sampling Chicago’s Mexican or Indian food at several points during it. (Let’s just say that he thinks that there’s no injustice in Noma being several rungs above Alinea on the San Pellegrino list.) When I make a witty observation about Alinea from one of my shoots, he says “Oh, I’m so stealing that,” which I can only beam at.
That in turn leads to a discussion of the food scene in Chicago. “Chicago has a great food community, there’s that, what is it, HRM Forum or whatever,” he says. “There’s nothing like that anywhere else.” But the rise of amateur online foodies has made his job harder: “There are so many people who have it in for me now, who’ve drilled so deep into something like Thai food or ramen and they go around saying I don’t know anything.” He just kind of shrugs amusedly at this— after all, he won the M.F.K. Fisher Distinguished Writing award, not just the Distinguished Discovery of Strip-Mall Carnitas award— but of course I know exactly who the Thai food reference is in regards to. “You mean like Erik M.?” He smiles and nods and asks me about him.
As we’re talking Andrew Zimmern comes over and congratulates me very graciously; he goes home 0-for-2 tonight (though he won last year). And that’s sort of the perfect moment that encapsulates this great journey from early days posting at Chowhound and then helping start LTHForum to this night— Andrew Zimmern congratulating me while I talk with Jonathan Gold about Erik M.
Thanks to the Reader for this great opportunity which I hope did them proud, thanks to Julia, my partner in chef-torment, and thanks to you, dear readers, some of whom I’ve known online or in person since those very first days to now.
I always knew someone would pick Hot Doug, eventually, for Key Ingredient. And I knew it would be one of the funniest episodes ever. They did, and it is. The piece is here.
An old LTH friend tweeted about my Grant Achatz post and video series the week before last that it was a nice tribute to one of his culinary heroes. Yet ironically enough, Achatz wasn’t the biggest culinary hero of mine that I met, listened to or even shot video of that week. (Or, as my wife points out, the only one on the Time 100 released a few days later.)
That title would belong to Temple Grandin, and if you haven’t seen the HBO movie about her starring Claire Danes, which won a small herd of Emmys, you should. I first heard of Grandin from an Oliver Sacks book maybe 15 years ago; a high-functioning autistic with a powerful visual memory but awkward human social skills, she came to realize as a student that her form of autism in many ways mimicked the ways animals experience the world— as visual and aural stimuli which are instinctively processed as threatening or soothing, and just as instinctively reacted to. Over time, despite difficulties with human social situations, by sheer force of will and insight she conquered an ultimate man’s world— the meatpacking industry— devising new ways to handle animals humanely and efficiently on their way to slaughter by creating an environment which directs them to slaughter in a way they find calming and non-frightening. Her ideas and designs are in practice today at more than half of all US slaughterhouses.
Not everyone easily sees her work as a good thing— an anti-meat activist could paint it as deceit to lure animals to death by exploiting their instincts to imply safety ahead, and she apparently gets plenty of those— but Grandin is a powerfully blunt advocate for the notion that we owe the animals we eat a decent experience under our care, and that any notion beyond that (such as that we might all stop eating meat) is simply pie in the sky which would get in the way of being humane here and now. As she said at one point, with characteristic lack of soft-pedaling, getting killed instantly by an electric stun gun is a lot better way to die than wolves dining on live sheep guts. For her, it’s that simple— probably, again, in part because her autism focuses her on immediate, real world responses to events, not utopia.
Grandin was in Chicago for the American Meat Institute conference; she came to Wagner Farm, where my kids are in the 4-H program, for an entirely different set of reasons. Julie Tracy, who runs the 4-H program, is a communications therapist often dealing with autistics, and has an autistic son who has been in 4-H in past years. As she described it in her introductory speech at lunch, at one point when she was having a difficult time, she got to thinking about Grandin’s areas of expertise— animals, autism, communication— and decided that everything in her life coincided with them. So she called Dr. Grandin up in Colorado and left a rambling message, asking for any insight she could offer into the troubles she was experiencing. Grandin called her back within an hour to offer her insights, and was made even more interested in our 4-H program because of the problems we had experienced with animal rights protesters last year. Grandin plainly believes that getting more kids involved in 4-H is the solution, not the problem, to animal rights issues, and that protesters like we had need to be confronted head on with a positive message about the program— and, by extension, the reality of a meat-eating world and how to make it decent toward animals.
The luncheon was a private talk, largely addressed at the farmers and other supporters of our 4-H program, and Dr. Grandin requested that its content be kept private. But I don’t think I’m giving anything away by saying it basically followed her stated philosophy about the meat industry in her books, which in the Facebook and YouTube age basically amounts to— meat’s a necessity and a reality, so don’t be afraid to show the public what you’re doing… and if you are afraid to show it, maybe you need to change what you’re doing so you aren’t. Grandin is, in a sense, an industry insider, but she’s incapable of being co-opted by the industry; she’s the voice for a personal view of the ethics of animal treatment which she has forced on a vast industry by sheer force of will and intellect.
And we heard that voice, oh yeah. As good as the HBO movie about her is, just by the nature of the medium, you’re put in her perspective as she fights the industry as a young woman to be heard; you internalize and sympathize with her viewpoint as she harangues stick-in-the-mud dumbasses who screw up her solutions and get animals needlessly killed in a pesticide dip. But when she’s speaking to you directly in real life, my friend, you are the thick-headed one who just doesn’t get it yet. I don’t mean that she’s rude or contemptuous as celebrities can be, not at all— in fact, she’s a surprising advocate for old-fashioned manners and respect, and credits her somewhat strict 1950s upbringing with a big role in helping her function and be successful. (I suspect clear rules of conduct are a help for someone without an intuitive sense for the subtleties of human interaction.) It’s just… she’s the cow and your question is the fencepost that needs knocking down, I think. And she heads straight for it.
Which made her address to the kids (and the general public) afterwards all the more surprising. Having gotten used to the idea that she had one way of interacting, she was suddenly much warmer and friendlier with the kids. Admittedly, on a relative scale I’m sure she’ll seem blunt about certain realities that may seem too harsh for kids to handle (but not 4-H kids); her work, after all, is built on facilitating slaughter, and even though she was talking about how to show your animal at the fair, you didn’t long forget where she got all this insight about how to make animals do what you want them to do. But she presented to kids wanting to know how better to treat their animals in an entirely different way than she had to the adults in the meat business.
And listening to her, there’s something almost magical about her understanding of animals. We’re used to people putting human emotions into animals, every cartoon ever made has done that for us, and even the most serious-minded of animal authors, like Jack London, has been unable to completely escape putting human thoughts and feelings into the animal mind. Grandin does something entirely different— she helps us understand the animal as machine, takes the often puzzling outward signs of animal behavior and explains the syllogisms that produce them. (If A is in my path and reflecting light, I must have response B, flight.) In some ways it strips away the sentimentality of our relations with animals— and as a dog lover secretly convinced that my dog understands English and would express his devotion to me in full sentences if only he could form words with his tongue, this can be a little hard to accept. But it comes with a great gift which these kids, the dedicated and thoughtful kids of 4-H, accepted hungrily— actual insight into your animals’ behaviors and feelings. The cool logic and honesty of her explanation of animal behavior is bracing.
I especially liked what they used to prop up her books at the signing.
Myles gets his copy of Humane Livestock Handling autographed.
A question from the audience.
For nine days, I will be in the enviable position of being both a James Beard nominee and a Saveur Best Food Blogs nominee. (Then odds are I’ll be just the latter and Andrew Zimmern will have a Beard medal…) So if you’re coming here to find out what the heck this nominee Sky Full of Bacon is, well, I do food videos. The one up at the top of the page is the most recent, done in tandem with a print article in the Chicago Reader, but I’d really recommend checking out some of the independently-made ones such as Big Chef Small Farmer, about the chef-farmer relationship:
or The Last Days of Kugelis, the poignant story of the closing of the oldest Lithuanian restaurant in the world:
I also write stuff on this blog; scroll down to see a pair of posts on a recent trip to Detroit and to eat middle-eastern in Dearborn, Michigan.
Meanwhile, the Beard nom is for Key Ingredient, a series done for the Chicago Reader in which we challenge a chef with an oddball ingredient. Here’s the latest one, with Carlos Gaytan of Mexique (read the print piece here):
You can find the whole series here.
Here’s a quick, photo-heavy recap of a couple of more things eaten while on a very short Detroit-area trip.
If Mike’s Famous Ham Place didn’t exist, you’d think the Sterns would have invented it— yet astonishingly, it’s not in their book. It’s hard to think of a place that does a better job of pushing all their Road Food buttons— location on a nothing strip of Michigan Ave. in Detroit, beautiful artwork of ham on the outside, an extremely short menu (ham sandwich, ham and eggs, split pea and bean soup), only a counter to sit at, extremely large portions, and the sweetest, cutest Greek couple running it:
Not to mention the charming touch of sticking a chunk of the glazed crust as a garnish on top of your sandwich. My son and I each ordered one of these— for breakfast— and we each could only eat half. Partly because as soon as I started taking pictures, they wanted me to try the soups, too:
Everything was just as good as it looked, just as good as you could imagine it would be. “There are lot of peectures of us on the eenternet,” the wife said, smiling in a slightly-mystified, but good-natured way. Yes, and now there are five more.
Mike’s Famous Ham Place
3700 Michigan Ave
Detroit, MI 48216
Yes, Chicago, there is an automated parking system even more cumbersome and incomprehensible than yours. Welcome to Ann Arbor, Michigan, where parking near Zingerman’s takes 5 minutes to figure out, even for locals, apparently. Next time, find street parking, is my advice.
And there will be a next time because Zingerman’s is, of course, Zingerman’s— a deli and fine foods shop to make any big city in America jealous, located in a college town in the midwest. Actually Zingerman’s is a complex of shops and bakeries now, but the original deli is still there even as the space in between two of its buildings is being excavated for a third (meaning that you order in one building, and they walk your food over to the other through a construction site, the sort of thing that would appall you in Chicago, but just seems adorable here).
As packed and tiny as it is, the deli was a little overwhelming at first, but I made an instant bond with a young woman at the counter when I ordered a quarter of a pound of something I had never eaten even at La Quercia’s plant or the Eckhouses’ house— La Quercia’s Acorn Edition. (I probably shot some of these very hams, two years ago.) This is their acorn-fed Becker Lane pork, sold only by the half or whole pig and shipped when each different piece is ready (so you get fresh pork right away, but won’t see the prosciutto for a couple of years). It’s madly expensive that way, even moreso sold by the hand-slice (at $125 per lb.) (And because it’s sold by the whole ham, the Eckhouses had no way of tasting it themselves until Zingerman’s let them try some of theirs on a visit.) But I guess I established myself as a big spender with that order, and sending her off to hand-slice $30 worth of prosciutto off the bone gave me time to examine my other choices more carefully:
The rows of cured sausages intrigued me, the fact that many of them were from the supermarket brand Columbus less so (even if they were its higher end line), but when she returned with my prosciutto-more-expensive-than-gold, I asked for some help selecting more unusual things, and wound up with a pretty good Spanish-style chorizo from Fra’ Mani and a really excellent wild boar sausage from Creminelli.
Then on to cheese; having tasted practically every cheese in Wisconsin recently, I wanted to skip past those and look at some of the lesser-known things from Vermont and elsewhere, and I spotted an intriguing name: Twig Farm Fuzzy Wheel. “I can’t believe you spotted that,” she said, pulling a tiny remnant from the shelf. “That’s the last piece, but it’s terrific.” She gave me a tiny piece of the buttery-funky cheese and I cried “Wrap it at once, before it is wasted on these rabble!”
My deli purchases in tow, I examined the bake shop. I’ve only ordered from the bake shop once, to be sent to someone else; the prices are so high once shipping speedy enough to keep things fresh is included. My feeling about the bakery is, well worth picking up if you’re here but not necessarily so great to be worth shipping for someone in Chicago. A nice crusty hunk of brown miche was tasty, but locally you could get better for less at La Farine; likewise a pecan-raisin bread, which was very nice but not better than Fox & Obel’s. What was really excellent was the hot cross buns made for Easter, which had real brioche-like texture and tooth. In the end we checked out with $200 of fine stuff and a picnic which would keep us from stopping at some fast food joint on the way back, plus new deli T-shirts for the kids; a stop well spent.
And how was the $125/lb. Acorn Edition prosciutto? Well, it’s pretty wonderful, but I’ll tell you. From ordinary mass-produced prosciutto to La Quercia is a leap in complexity and subtlety, you feel like doors have been opened and your prosciutto palate has been expanded in all directions. From La Quercia’s standard product to the organic green label is another such leap, introducing a cheesy funkiness that’s rich and profound. And from the organic green label to the Acorn Edition is even more of that cheesy funkiness, that lactic bite dialed up to 11— but it’s not a qualitatively different or more complex experience. So for me, as much as I enjoyed finally tasting the Acorn Edition, the organic green label, which you can buy a whole ham of (around 15 lbs.) for $270, is the best deal and the one that gives you the greatest experience for the price. Not that I regret my $30 package of ham one bit— in fact, I may go have to have one of the few remaining slices right now.
422 Detroit Street
Ann Arbor, MI 48103
ANNOUNCEMENT FIRST: I will be giving a talk on food as depicted in films of the Depression as part of the Greater Midwest Foodways Association’s Foodways of the Great Depression conference, Friday at 4 at Kendall College. More information here.
I have a certain knack for blundering into trouble spots— I managed to have business in LA for both O.J. verdicts, and don’t even get me started about the vacation we took when I was a kid to the Bay of Pigs— so it’s not surprising that my first trip to Dearborn, Michigan that paid any attention to the town itself (I’d been to the Henry Ford Museum/Greenfield Village before, but ignored its surroundings) should occur on the very same day as a supposed preacher threatening to burn Korans (thus torching Christianity), Muslims threatening to riot (thus torching their own community), and a prosecutor and judge enforcing a blatantly illegal example of prior restraint (thus torching the U.S. Constitution). As a result, the Dearborn I visited was a powderkeg about to explode.
And I’m Queen Noor of Jordan.
Seriously, it was impossible to reconcile what the nervous nellies on TV were saying with the place that I was actually in. I ate dinner twice on the Arab-American commercial strip along Warren Ave., and it was many things— booming, thriving, vibrant, lively— but likely to explode in trouble was not one of them. Dearborn’s middle-eastern strip is inspiring, it makes Chicago’s look like a strip mall with a 7-11 and a Family Pride cleaners. There are literally dozens of places, from little holes in the wall to lavishly glitzy spots that look like they belong in a mall in the Emirates or Dubai, and to judge by the signage, more are opening all the time. And they were full of life and activity, families dressed up and out for dinner or ice cream, women in headscarves shouting over countertops to clamoring customers. The funny thing to think is that, most likely, much of the non-Arab population barely knows this all exists; straight west of where we stayed, on Michigan Avenue, there’s a standard suburban strip with things like Buddy’s Pizza, which may have been good Sicilian-style square pizza in 1946 but is mall-standard Pizza Hut-style pan today. Warren Ave.’s ferment of middle eastern entrepreneurial activity was as much an alternative universe to that generic present day reality as Henry Ford’s idealized 1900s small town full of inventors is.
Peter Engler, who’s made some study of Detroit (but leaning more toward coneydogology), advised me that there were a number of older Chowhound threads about the area, and that led me to our first stop, a bakery and deli called New Yasmeen, which had been recommended in a Saveur article c. 2004 for offering Iraqi stews not otherwise seen in North America.
I’m intrigued by any dish at a middle eastern place that is outside the ordinary and universal menu of shish kabob-shish taouk-hummus, so I zeroed in on some stews toward the end and started asking about them, one in particular with a whitish cast which I suspected, correctly, to be a yogurt base. I tried to order it, the guy helping me hesitated, I insisted— and then a manager who looked like Armin Mueller-Stahl came over and pronounced: “It is not good.”
I haven’t been whited like that in years, so when I still appeared undaunted, the first guy finally offered me a (quite generous) taste. It was fine! It tasted tart, like yogurt. On behalf of my fellow Nordic European-Americans, I’m sorry if any of my fellows came in here, tried these more exotic dishes, and bitched about them. We ordered a wide variety of things and they were all perfectly decent examples of their types, good spinach pie, nice lemony hummus light on the tahini, though really, the only reason to make a special trip here is if you want to try things you won’t see anywhere else.
Afterwards we went a few doors down to a place Peter had mentioned— or rather, the much glitzier new home of Shatila Bakery:
This was like a food court of middle eastern goodies, with separate counters for middle eastern pastries like baklava, French pastries (including a few hybrids like zatar-flavored croissants), ice cream and even a counter devoted entirely to knafeh, the dessert of gooey white cheese covered with orange-dyed shredded wheat, then doused with a sugary syrup:
While my wife got us the coconut ice cream (which came highly recommended and was, indeed, wonderful, jam-packed full of coconut), I went to get a few of the middle eastern pastries to try. But I was quickly advised that at the per-piece price, I’d spend a fortune, and so the headscarf-clad young lady spent ten minutes assembling me a beautiful boxed assortment of the good stuff for about the same price. They were delicate and fresh, far better than the musty old examples you often find here. While all around us, families laughed and ate ice cream and baklava. I wanted to wake Henry Ford from his eternal rest and tell him— “Here! This is the ice cream parlor your perfect small American town needs now! It will fit right in!”
On my way out I did a little scouting for the next day but in the end, the kids rebelled against middle eastern two nights in a row and I sent the rest of the family off to Buddy’s Pizza (which is why I can have an opinion on it). Instead, I beelined for a place advertising meat grilled over live coals, something I’ve seen only once in Chicago, at Al-Bawadi:
The place was called Assayad, it had touches of a curiously nautical theme, and everything I had, from the pickles
to the fattoush salad and hummus
was unusually bright and freshly-flavored, probably better than their equivalents anywhere in Chicago.
But what about the charcoal-grilled meats? I ordered kufta kebab (getting whited again, with the waiter saying “Shish kebab?” and me having to reply, firmly, “No, kufta kebab”) and it was kufta kebab kissed with a little of the smokiness of a Polish sausage. Even better, it was laying on a piece of very thin flatbread shmeared with muhammara, red pepper puree. It was great. If I’d had more people than myself, I’d have explored more of the menu— a section on fish casseroles looks intriguing— but for a first visit, this left me completely happy for a total that returned change from a $20.
So now I’ve definitely got a recommendation for travelers in Assayad that’s newer than a Saveur article in 2004. But even moreso, my recommendation would be to keep exploring, the scene is so big and varied and vibrant that I have no doubt there are many more exceptional things to be discovered here, and together they constitute a booming commercial sector that leaves Chicago’s small pockets of middle-eastern in the dust (even though Dearborn’s total Arab-American population of around 30,000 is less than a quarter of Chicago’s). There’s nothing like it here— although, curiously, I notice that Assayad’s menu claims that it has a few other outposts including in Clifton, New Jersey, Houston… and Chicago. I can’t find any trace of an Assayad branch here, and so far as I know Al-Bawadi remains the only charcoal-grill middle-eastern restaurant in town. But who knows?
New Yasmeen Bakery
13900 W Warren Ave
Dearborn, MI 48126
14300 W. Warren Ave
Dearborn, MI 48126
14246 W Warren
Dearborn, MI 48126
I’m with Michael McDonald, who posed this challenge– I’ve seen aloe vera at Whole Foods, but haven’t the foggiest idea what you do with it if you want to eat it. So Bill Kim found out for all of us; watch it and then read it here.
Did I say that I was tired of Next/Aviary coverage? I meant, bring it on! All week long!
Okay, I think I said I was tired of people going nuts and acting badly in response to all the ticketing-mania. It was kind of good to have a week off from stories of people obsessively refreshing their browsers to go eat 100-year-old French food. But there’s still a great story or two in this culinarily ambitious new venture for one of the best chefs in [insert geographic level of choice here], and so I jumped like someone who just got their Next password when Ari Bendersky of Eater recruited me to film him getting a tour of everything— and it really was everything— in the Next/Aviary complex last Friday. Here was a chance to dig at least a little deeper than just stories about what a hot ticket Next was and to get beyond treating it like a culinary Justin Bieber. (All kudos to Ari for his cultivation of Achatz et al. as sources and for his ongoing first-in-line coverage of the openings; I’m just the camera guy he dragged along.)
Although we were there for barely two hours total, as usual with Achatz (notice how casually I worked that in) it was a whirlwind two hours so mentally and conceptually packed that you can barely keep up, and me-the-editor is left cursing me-the-cameraman for not getting a shot of this, or this, or one of those. We went in planning to make three short segments about Next and Aviary to run this week at Eater; we came out with clear ideas for five (and a weekend for me to cut as much final material as a full Sky Full of Bacon podcast). The first ran yesterday and was Achatz giving us the visual and atmospheric inspiration behind Next:
Today’s takes us inside the kitchen with executive chef Dave Beran. If you have any doubts about whether they’ve made a complete commitment to 1906-era L’Escoffier-style cooking, you won’t after seeing the full Gallic culinary-barbarity of the duck press and the rows of seafood and brigades of cooks breaking it down for cooking, which could have walked right out of a Parisian scullery… save for the multiethnic staff and the fluorescent lighting. And to think that they’ll spin on a dime in a few months and be making Thai street food— it’s either madness or a tribute to their astonishing discipline and thoroughness, in a few months we shall see. (Well, a small fraction of us will see.) As for what the rest of the week holds… come back to Eater each day for more, that’s my advice.
Not that I’m an expert Achatzologist, by any means, but having been behind the scenes now at both Alinea and Next/Aviary, there’s no question that this is not one of those examples of a chef downscaling his product for today’s more casual way of dining. Though in some small ways Next is less luxe than Alinea, everything about the operation bespeaks Achatz’s commitment to ordering his universe just so— and to hiring people who think like he does, in terms of the self-chosen paradox of achieving perfection in a profession that’s all about variation in product and pulling your butt out of the fire at the last minute. Talking to Dave Beran, for instance, he was constantly adjusting things— you’ll see him unconsciously straightening the spice rack twice as he speaks to us— and he interrupts a discussion of the crayfish they buy to zero in on and remove, in an instant, the one crayfish in an army of a hundred that isn’t quite up to the standard set by the other 99. (Why? I couldn’t begin to tell you how it fell short.)
Likewise, Craig Schoettler, the chef of Aviary (that title in itself is a typical Achatzian touch; no mere bartenders making mere drinks here) seems almost enraptured by the industrial sleekness of Aviary’s work stations, the sharp angles of its perfectly cubic ice cubes. (Will that translate into better cocktails? That question has to wait for Aviary to open, maybe later this week.) As with Walt Disney, would you want to be the worker who has to realize such a vision of ordered perfection on earth every day? I wouldn’t; I’m not that type. As with Disney, is it worth spending a fortune to experience such a vision a few times in your life as a customer? Surely. (The Disney comparison is a problematic one for Next— it would be easy to push the evoking-another-time-and-place side of Next too far and make Next feel like its version of Paris 1906 comes from Epcot’s mall of nations. If anything Next lands on the side of minimalism to avoid that comparison, as you’ll hear Achatz explain in the first video. But the comparison to another visionary trying to bring the totality of the idealized world in his head to paying guests is entirely complimentary— Achatz only creates E-tickets.)
As for Achatz the individual— I don’t know him, I’ve just had a chance to point a camera at him a couple of times. But to paraphrase the Wine Spectator, video’d twice with consistent notes. I was thinking about him when I shot with Jared Van Camp at Old Town Social; Jared’s smart as a whip, he’s opening restaurants at a plainly ambitious clip, and his outstanding charcuterie is a reflection of how hard he’s thought about how to improve it. In its own way, he’s approached it as scientifically as Achatz has anything at Alinea, because you really have to with charcuterie, bad charcuterie can kill you. But at the same time— he’s a let’s-have-a-good-time guy like his old boss Paul Kahan; his idea of a restaurant from 100 years ago would be a gemütlichkeit German place, not an exacting French one. Where Achatz has a relentless drive in him that you don’t see much in life, except at the top of anything. At one point we asked him how the dishes at Next were being received and he made a special point of saying that other chefs had praised a certain dish—the one dish that has often been reviewed as just being okay. But Achatz wasn’t going to give an inch; if he has to he’ll will it into being just as great a dish as everything else on the menu.
I was a little startled when I first encountered him this time; his voice was ragged and he looked tired and not especially happy to have to talk to two more journalists. He looked like what he obviously is, someone’s who’s been working 20 hour days since he can’t remember when to make a new business perfect. But it’s amazing how quickly that sensation went away; in seconds he got into the subject of his restaurant and I had a palpable sense of color flowing back into his face, energy rising through his body, even delight twinkling around his edges. Okay, that sounds like something writers just say to get flowery, but dammit, I have video of it as it happens. You can see him recharging himself as he turns to his subject, the only subject that matters, the absolute and total vision of your dining enjoyment as a paying guest in the environment conceived at every possible level by Grant Achatz.
My favorite part of this week’s challenge was seeing where One Sixty Blue grows herbs and even some vegetables in the summer— its parking lot. It gave me an excuse to do black and white again (a parking lot in color is urban blight; a parking lot in black and white is the gritty romance of the big city). Otherwise, check out what chef Michael McDonald does with two colors of miso, here and in the print piece:
This being Key Ingredient #20, I’ll recap how the last ten dishes were, as I did after #10:
McLeod/Asafetida: very lush, I think I knew what the asafetida was contributing (a mouth-filling umami), a delicate and expertly made seafood dish
Pandel/Jujube: a little strong for a servable dish (maybe not at The Bristol, though!), but the citrus-bitter jujube balance was dead-on as a solution
Biggers/Beef tendon: I loved the smoked duck salad half, and the tendon soaked up lots of flavor even if I’m still not sure why you want to eat something like a rubber band
Van Camp/Red bean paste: with bacon and an egg on top, totally robust and comfy, like a Longman & Eagle dish (but that’s a different Jared)
Taylor/Fish eyeballs: Hard to say what the fish eyeballs added that oyster liquor, say, didn’t, but it was a good southern-style curry
Segal/Sorghum syrup: Not a carrot cake fan, but this was really a great dessert, and I really liked how sorghum was subtler than molasses in it
Steuer/Banana: good flavor, though rare duck wouldn’t be my choice for a jibarito, which to me wants greasy, slightly crispy meat. Also, banana softens up instead of stiffening like plantains.
Izard/Confectioners Sugar: Totally a Girl & The Goat dish, big hearty flavor with a lot of sweet and savory happening at once.
Zweiban/Tamarind: as I wrote at the time, the first one I’ve really thought of making. Simple roast chicken with a slightly bitter/orange marinade, what’s not to love?
McDonald/Miso: I liked the spring roll a lot, charred shrimp with a little Asian tinge, but I thought the dipping sauce was overkill.