Sky Full of Bacon

Two weeks before closing for good, Charlie Trotter held a $2500-a-plate blowout for longtime customers, and I was invited to record it (and dine there) and interview guest chefs Sean Brock and Nathan Myhrvold. (Here’s more about the night at Grub Street Chicago.)

Last Night at Charlie’s from Michael Gebert on Vimeo.

So how was it? I hadn’t been to Trotter’s since 1988 (it was already famous though only less than a year old) and so I have no real standard of comparison for his food. The star, undoubtedly, was Myhrvold, whose tricks of transformation like the centrifuged pea flavor or the liquid caprese salad were stunning, injections of pure flavor almost freed of their corporeal form. I don’t necessarily think that’s entirely a good thing— we’re getting close to the old jokes about futuristic steak dinner in a pill form— but as magic tricks and thought provokers these were astoundingly good, and also satisfying as dishes (he’s not just capturing flavor but also body, form, in different form). Brock’s best dish (he also did a pleasant but unsurprising chocolate dessert) was sous-vided catfish, amazingly clean and silky, with butter beans and lovage puree, but it needed a little twist of pepper or something— and that’s what a number of people have said about his food, that it often isn’t sharpened up to as fine a point as is typical in Chicago kitchens. Tetsuya Wakuda did a crab salad that was, as I think I said in the article, like the best takeout Chinese you ever tasted, but both his and Trotter’s (or chef de cuisine Michael Rotunno’s) dishes seemed on the subtler side, until we got to Trotter’s beer-can squab, which was on a tripe ravioli that was as good an earthy-funky dish as I’ve ever had from Paul Virant or his ilk.

The room, both architecturally and in terms of the crowd, was very 80s-90s money, surely the highest per-capita wealth of any crowd I’ve ever been in; I’ve heard things about service slipping at Trotter’s of late (like from Steve Dolinsky) but all I can say is, for this crowd it could not have been more on point, as good as I’ve ever seen. The wine, much of it brought in by collectors attending the dinner, was incomparable, at least as far as my experience (which obviously is many steps below that of many people there) is concerned.

And Trotter? He was ready to be done with interviews and greet his guests, he made that clear by not responding to my questions but razzing me. Some interviewers seem to get bent out of shape by him doing that. Some may, in fact, write three-part articles after feeling dissed by Trotter. I have no ego as an interviewer, I am happy to ask what seems like a dumb question if it will get someone talking, so it didn’t bother me. The video shows what I genuinely saw about the warmth between Trotter and his staff; that I did not personally feel it is the least interesting thing imaginable about the night. He is who he is, and I think this video is truthfully who he was on one night, at least, of the 25 years his restaurant was open.

This is probably the longest I’ve gone without posts but besides posting continuously at Grub Street, and a week away camping, I’ve been cranking out videos like crazy— I just haven’t updated the archive of Key Ingredients here all summer. Here are the most recent Key Ingredients in order, the video I shot at Charlie Trotter’s is nearby, and there’s another one about a really interesting opening that I think will be at the Reader next week. So watch away…

Meg Colleran of Terzo Piano with colatura:

Amanda Rockman of Balena with Pu-erh tea:

Toni Roberts of theWit with sheep’s milk:

Dave Ford of The Bluebird with strawberries and rhubarb:

Ian Rossman of Frog ‘n’ Snail with cattails:

Blair Herridge of Browntrout with Bailey’s Irish Cream:

Jeffrey Sills of Sprout with chicken gizzards:

Elissa Narow of Perennial Virant with huitlacoche:

and Ray Stanis of Nellcôte with mochiko:

I also made a movie about the new things happening at Arami, which people like me had been quick to write off when its chef left:

Finally, I also shot two videos with Chef Jean Joho talking about Julia Child, for her 100th birthday:

Bon Appetit!

The third chapter of Finding Grace, my series about the creation of Curtis Duffy’s Grace, is here:

Finding Grace 3: Plates from Michael Gebert on Vimeo.

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The second chapter of Finding Grace, my series about the creation of Curtis Duffy’s Grace, is here:

Finding Grace 2: Wine from Michael Gebert on Vimeo.

Yes, you’re right, I haven’t posted lately. Needless to say there’s been lots to read at Grub Street Chicago, if you’re so inclined, and also a fair number of videos.

I did this interview piece with Grant Achatz about the Bocuse d’Or, featuring Richard Rosendale who’s the captain of the American team:

And of course, Key Ingredient continues on. Giuseppe Tentori picked Sarah Grueneberg of Spiaggia (and Top Chef), who got high on her ingredient, propolis (story here):

She picked a fellow chef from Tony Mantuano’s empire, Meg Colleran of Terzo Piano, who got a little known but actually practical ingredient, colatura, Italian fish sauce (story here):

She picked another Top Chef (the desserts version) veteran, Amanda Rockman of The Bristol and Balena, and gave her a kind of tea (story here):

And she picked another pastry chef, Toni Roberts of The Wit hotel’s restaurants, who got sheep’s milk (story here):

The first chapter of a series devoted to the opening of Michelin-starred chef Curtis Duffy’s Grace. (7:09)

Guess I didn’t behave too badly, they invited me back…

There’s nothing people love more than to read about their own impending doom, and so Amanda Hesser of got a lot of FaceTwit attention last week for this piece about how becoming a food writer sucks these days. Actually the piece goes on to lay out a positive Internet-futuristic vision that makes a lot of sense and is well worth thinking about, but nobody seemed to pay any attention to that. They just glommed onto the part about how it’s hopeless to think you’ll make a decent living as a full-time food writer in the traditional sense, and wallowed in it for a day or two online.

I thought about how to express my thoughts on this and started about three or four different opening sentences, but finally decided a Venn diagram expressed my opinions best:

I don’t mean that I’m some multidimensionally fascinating being who’s too big for the traditional world of food writing— I’m just saying that my interests range considerably, as I expect yours do too. And anybody who wants work is going to have to figure how to make money out of the degree to which what motivates them overlaps with what the marketplace buys.

But where that was a fairly defined (and maybe even hidebound) set of things a few short years ago, when monopoly dailies were making money hand over fist, now we’re in a time when you can experiment with what seems cool to you and it may overlap with what someone else wants to do to shake things up too and suddenly, no, you don’t have a traditional food journalism job, you have an entirely new one that didn’t exist at all until you helped invent it. Indeed, Amanda Hesser basically said exactly that: “If I weren’t working on Food52, I would not be a full-time writer because, even as an experienced journalist and best-selling author, I would not be able to pay my bills.” Which makes it sound like she was forced to fall back on Food52 when in fact she invented something new and has made quite a success out of it. When it ought to be more like, “If I was still a full-time writer doing the standard assignments, I’d never have invented Food52.” At least I hope she thinks of it that way; I do.

* * *

Speaking of a job that pretty much didn’t exist until I invented it for myself, I have a lot of chef video things going on; I started a new series at Grub Street about Grace, Curtis Duffy’s restaurant which will open later this year (maybe). I’ll be checking in with him from time to time as the restaurant develops on its path to being the next four-star (they hope!) top level swank joint in town:

And I haven’t posted Key Ingredients for a while, so here are the last three, oldest to newest. We went inside The Office, Next’s private lounge, with Craig Schoettler (story is here):

Then he picked Charles Joly of The Drawing Room (story here):

I thought we might be doing mixologists for a while, but Joly picked Giuseppe Tentori (we shot at GT Fish & Oyster; story here):

* * *

And it’s a new quarter so time to tally up the best things I’ve eaten since the start of the year (I didn’t stop at March 31st, so this runs up right to this morning):

• Pork tamale from in front of St. Francis of Assisi church
• Mortadella from Smoked Goose, Indianapolis (at Dose Market)
• Manila clams with merguez broth, Purple Pig
• Sardines in saor, other stuff, Bar Ombra
• Surryano ham, some cheese from Minnesota with honey and apple salad, 2011 Commanderie de Peyrassol rosé, Telegraph
• Parsnip cake dessert, Storefront Company
• Chicken and waffles with onions and gravy, Chicago’s Home of Chicken & Waffles
• Honey panna cotta, Eating Vincent Price/Clandestino popup dinner
• Wheatberry/risotto with asparagus and ramps, Browntrout
• Sturgeon with buttermilk sauce/spaetzle, Blackbird
• Maple and citrus glazed black cod, Brittany Coast John Dory with sunchokes and Cote du Rhone reduction, Sixteen
• Rare tender beef salad, Nha Hang
• Ramova chili (what can I say, I only ever went there for breakfast before now…)

Wisma corned beef sandwich, French Market
• White pizza, Jimmy’s Pizza & Beignets
• Crispy tripa taco, La Chapparita
• Indian spiced sturgeon, some other fish I forget, Sepia
• White anchovies, Vera
• A taste of blood sausage at Publican Quality Meats in someone else’s stew or soup, I liked the sandwiches fine but this made them kneel before it
• Little bit of everything sandwich (Ellen Malloy dubbed it “Goutwich”) at Butcher & Larder with amazing crispy mortadella on it
• Chicken, bacon and leek (cock-a-leekie) pie at Pleasant House Bakery
• Brussel sprouts and kielbasa, tagliatelle with duck or something like that, Allium (preview dinner)
• Lamb ribs, Lockwood
• Lobster roll, New England Seafood Market
• Breaded steak sandwich, Johnnie O’s

• Egg custard dessert, clay pot chicken, Takashi
• Dessert at Yusho
• Shima Aji, Anise hyssop, Oyster courses, EL Ideas
• Caiprinha, spherical olive, carrot foam, miso cake, mint pond courses, Next El Bulli menu
• Calves’ foot jelly, pearl onion mutton soup, Kentucky tavern dinner, Big Jones
• Biscuits & gravy, Don’s Humburgers
• That’s-a-Burger

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There are times I think I must be not only the most active food filmmaker in Chicago, but the world. This week was one, with three different videos turning up online and the sold-out premiere of a 4th— only the second time I’ve ever managed to have a public screening of one of my films, which usually I only get to see with my family or a friend or two. I did premiere Raccoon Stories at a party at my house with maybe 15 or 18 people, but until now the only big screening was the event Supreme Lobster planned at the Shedd Aquarium for A Better Fish and In The Land of Whitefish.

Since the new one, The Butcher’s Karma, was inspired in part by a panel* at last year’s Family Farmed Expo (now the Good Food Festival & Conference), while it was in production I contacted Grant Kessler, who describes himself as more or less the marketing guy for (even though he’s a photographer, not a marketing guy), and he immediately liked the idea of doing an event before the festival next month premiering the video and starring the three main characters of the film. Well, by the end we didn’t have any of the three main characters for various personal reasons, but we did have a sold-out house at Uncommon Ground…

and a fine dinner prepared by Uncommon Ground chef Chris Spear from pork supplied by Black Earth Meats (plus some pate sent over by The Butcher & Larder).

Yes, that was bacon and chocolate mousse. Anyway, a very appreciative crowd of about 60, quite a number of whom remembered the panel quite well (more than once I heard people talking about things that were said that were in the video, too); the film played after dinner and then Christopher Pax, who works for Black Earth, and I took a few questions. I’m not a personal-attention hog, but I’m not going to turn down getting applause in front of an audience, either, and this was up there with this in terms of making me feel good about the hours that go into this stuff.

So let’s see the film, you say. Well… hopefully soon. Because it involved shooting at Publican Quality Meats, which was not open yet and which had already made deals with various publications about exclusives on this or that, I have to get their signoff before it can be generally public. No question it will happen soon, it just may not happen right away. Just watch here for more details.

In the meantime, you can watch another video that I cut for Grub Street out of the footage from Publican Quality Meats. This one focuses on the store itself (which had just opened when it ran; the segment in the film is more in-depth about meat and farmers. (There’s only a tiny bit of overlap in terms of footage used between the two versions.)

But that’s not even one of the ones that premiered last week! I also shot at soon-to-be-open Nellcôte, and what I expected to be a short shoot about the unique flour mill they installed turned into a longer shoot involving actually making both pizza and pasta, so I cut it into two five-minute-ish movies:

And we’re still not done— the Key Ingredient series just keeps churning away at the Reader, and here’s the latest installment, with Iliana Regan, who does dinners in her apartment as One Sister:

Oh, and then I contributed to this Time Out Chicago bloggers’ roundup too: here, here and here.

So hopefully this quantity of material can tide you over until the 18th official Sky Full of Bacon podcast, The Butcher’s Karma, debuts. Big thanks again to Grant Kessler, Uncommon Ground (which by the way does a first rate job video-wise for a restaurant showing a movie) and FamilyFarmed.Org. And to everyone who bought tickets for the dinner… and allowed us to use the magic words “sold out.”

* I was already thinking about doing one with Bartlett Durand of Black Earth Meats, whom I’d met on a cheese junket, but the overall direction of the piece was finally set by the panel which included Rob Levitt, Paul Kahan, Durand and Herb Eckhouse of La Quercia, moderated by Ellen Malloy.

Chef Jared Van Camp makes the first pizza in Nellcôte’s word-burning oven. (6:20)

Chef Jared Van Camp shows off the in-house pasta mill at his new restaurant Nellcôte. (5:04)