Sky Full of Bacon

As if that were possible. First up, Cleetus Friedman is the chef in this week’s Key Ingredient, with housecured ham…

While over at, a piece of mine with photographer Huge Galdones is up taking you behind the scenes of the great west side Italian deli Riviera.

I especially like how the author bio line (the only part not by me) sounds…

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:

Eater Chicago

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.

Eater Chicago

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.)

Eater Chicago

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.)

Eater Chicago

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.

Eater Chicago

This week’s Key Ingredient is the most prosaic yet… bananas. But there’s a twist to why that’s our challenging ingredient this week, so watch it above and read it here.

Meanwhile, even I’m sick of reading about me by now, but I should say thanks to Mike Sula for this nice announcement of the Beard award nomination at the Reader, and I turn up quoted extensively in Julia Kramer’s rant on shared plates at Time Out, so check that out too.

In association with the Chicago Reader, I go behind the scenes of the opening of a new restaurant, Leopold. Read the print piece and watch the video.

* * *

As noted earlier in the week, a weird convergence of events means that this week’s Reader has two articles and three video pieces by me. First up, of course, is this week’s Key Ingredient, in which Brian Enyart, chef de cuisine at Rick Bayless’ Topolobampo, wrestles with sticky, icky, very Japanese natto:

Next, a big feature piece on a new Belgian gastropub, Leopold, and since I video’d all my interviews along the way, there’s a 9-minute video attached as well:

Finally, short and sweet in more ways than one, a blurb on a bakery, Chimney Cake Island, offering a unique Romanian treat, and the totally cute couple who run it:

The new edition of “Key Ingredient” is up here and features Curtis Duffy of Avenues, funky Chinese black beans and an absolutely gorgeous dessert. Watch it here:

The first one, with Grant Achatz, got over 1500 views the first week. We’re shooting two this week, and it’s funny what’s different each time (the chefs and their approaches, very different in personality even when, like Achatz and Duffy, they’re similar in approach) and what’s been the same— they each seem to take right around 45 minutes to shoot, and wind up at right around 4 minutes and 50 seconds when they’re done.

Lots of people are thanking me so it’s time I did some thanking about all this: thanks to outgoing Reader editor Kiki Yablon for thinking of me and calling me up for some info even when she couldn’t tell me why yet, to Julia Thiel my writing partner in crime, and to everybody else at the Reader who helped us in the mad scramble to get the first one done (Paul Kate Geoff Mrs. Paul Mike Whet) and going forward. Oh, and to Chicago’s great chefs who are so game for doing this on short notice and no matter how weird it sounds.

Today I am very excited to announce that one of the founding goals of Sky Full of Bacon has been met. No, this is not another setup for a gag like the Mexican April Fool’s prank video. It’s the real thing, which is: the first in a series of videos for the Chicago Reader (who are launching a redesigned food section this week) called Key Ingredient. In the videos and the attached articles (written by Julia Thiel), we will throw a weird ingredient at a Chicago chef, and he or she will invent a dish from it. The opening cheftestant is one Grant Achatz of Alinea, and his ingredient is the kluwak kupa:

You can read the article and get the recipe here. Though the device of challenging a chef with a mystery ingredient is not a new one, I think the way Key Ingredient does it is distinctly different from, oh, say, a TV show with a bombastic pseudo-samurai chef and cooks running around in a panic. The point here is to let the chefs reveal how they think, how they approach an ingredient (even one as out of left field as the kluwak kupa). It’s high on character study, low on screaming. At the same time, the video side is short and sweet, considerably faster-paced than my usual Sky Full of Bacon videos; it’s a quick sketch, not an in-depth portrait.

So that’s why you should watch and read Key Ingredient (and check out everything else happening in the revised Reader food section… which will be news to me too, I had nothing to do with it otherwise). But for me the deeper significance is that, although it’s not the first time I’ve done video for publications, it’s not even the first time I’ve done video for publications and gotten paid, it does represent the first time that I believe a publication has taken on my kind of video as a sustained strategic effort to serve readers in the new online media environment. My hope from the beginning with Sky Full of Bacon was that by demonstrating a capacity to do good journalism, not just slick video, in video form, full of my own passion and knowledge and inquisitiveness about food, somebody would see an opportunity in it to expand their media brand online as video becomes an inevitable part of every journalistic enterprise— not an add-on to print but simply part of how you tell the story. It’s happened a number of times in one-offs, but this is the first one that’s a regular branded feature. (Yes, this probably means regular Sky Full of Bacon videos will be at least as infrequent as they were in 2010, but I promise they won’t halt entirely, when there’s a genuinely great subject for a longer form piece.)

But hey, I’ve still got several days a week open, so feel free to email or call me. Yeah, the world is full of people who shoot food video, but if you want video that really has the taste of the world of food and speaks to your foodie readers/viewers/whatevers, the name is Bacon. Sky Full of Bacon. Enjoy The Reader’s Key Ingredient, and there will be a new one in the same place, next week.

P.S. Thanks to those who not only linked it all but mentioned my involvement (more prominent in the print version, by the way, which was kind of them), including Nick, Ari, and many Twitterers including Sula and Sudo. I really appreciate the support and admire that there are so many class acts on our side of the Chicago foodie world, too.

Okay, it’s announcement time. Yeah, that’s what you come to a blog for. But if you came here to read this much, you might as well know where I’ll actually be this week:

• I will be guest-blogging this week at Grub Street Chicago, synthesizing and regurgitating Chicago food news while the regular regurgitator, Nick Kindelsperger, is on vacation. So go there and while it won’t be very much like Sky Full of Bacon, I hope it will be interesting all the same. (UPDATE: For the historical record, this links you to my five days of work: M Tu W Th F)

• I’ll be on vacation the two weeks after that, but I have two book reviews ready to go up during those weeks, so come by to check out those, at least.

• There haven’t been as many Sky Full of Bacon videos this year, it’s true. Partly this has been the busy-ness of life— hey, part of the point was to help get me assignments, and once they come, that eats into videomaking time; and that’s not even counting how time-consuming things like the kids getting into baseball get. Nevertheless, I am happy to say that two are in the works, so there will be at least two more during 2010. I haven’t forgotten video, in fact, I’m kinda raring to get back at it… when I get back.

Have a good summer, eat crazy summer food, read Grub Street, see you soon.

UPDATE: I tweeted this last week, might be worth sharing here.

Three things I learned doing Grub Street: 1. People are still paying for astonishingly bad PR pitches.

2. Meanwhile, contacting restaurant, offering coverage that costs them nothing if they’ll just email their menu results in dead silence.

3. There is basically no way to find anything on a newspaper site that you don’t already know exists.

James Lemons at Lem’s Bar-B-Q.

So I’ve got a couple of things in the new Time Out Chicago, or at their site, that you should check out:

I did interviews with four leading barbecue pitmasters here.

Me being me, I took my video camera along. A fun two-minute video on one topic with those four barbecue pitmasters is here; I’ll be doing more with that material and other BBQ interviews in the next Sky Full of Bacon.

I also wrote a piece, I believe for the same issue, on the “aquarium” smoker seen at most of Chicago’s best BBQ establishments, but I can’t find it online as yet. Here it is. Thanks to Peter “Rene G” Engler for fact-checking that one (since the facts probably came from him as much as anywhere in the first place).

I will be more ubiquitous than Michael Nagrant in local food media over the next week or so.  For starters, on Wednesday at noon I will again be was a participant in one of those Vocalo Lunchbox discussions; the link for the transcript is here.

The next day, I’ll have some items in the Reader’s annual Best of Chicago issue, including Best Macarons.  I’ll link them here when they exist. UPDATE: here are my choices for macarons, cheese and Supermercado Taqueria, and there are plenty more from the likes of Hammond, Sula, Kate Schmidt, Philip Montoro, etc.  But be sure to look for the print issue, where my supermercado and my picture of it get the splash treatment right at the beginning:

You’ve seen that one here.

Speaking of macarons, Sula wrote about these macaroons (the coconut kind) and they’re awesome.

More to come next week…

In this week’s Reader, I have a story on a Korean vegan buffet located in a dive bar.  How did such an improbable thing come to be?  Read it here or pick up a copy at your nearest sandwich shop or coffeehouse.  And savor the picture which somehow manages to make this dingy tavern look like an attractive brunch spot.