Sky Full of Bacon

Usually program notes for stage productions all sound alike; your actors have a nice list of serious credits for Remains or the Goodman along with some minor scattered TV roles on Chicago-shot shows like ER or Early Edition. Then there’s the notes for Cascabel, where the past roles are more likely to have been Vegas, Cirque de Soleil, or some strange fringe carnival troupe… not to mention the guy who’s apparently never appeared in anything, other than his own TV series about cooking in Mexico.

Mike G’s Rule holds that if there’s a reason to eat somewhere besides the food (ie, a view, waitresses in skimpy outfits), the food’s most likely not that good. Cascabel, co-conceived by and starring, sort of, Rick Bayless, seems to invent a theater corollary to that— if there’s a really good chef’s food in a play, the play itself is probably not much. Cascabel has a wisp of a plot about a mysterious cook and a boarding house whose female owner has a secret sorrow, cobbled out of Like Water For Chocolate’s cookbook for mixing food and erotica, with a hearty dose of broad Latin stereotypes— but like in a play about a famous bunch of musicians, you can’t judge it by too stringent terms, it’s there just to bridge the numbers. Of which Cascabel has two kinds: Bayless’s food, and the cast’s acrobatics.

The acrobatics are great, nervy fun, insofar as most of them are performed over the heads of at least a few audience members and could, conceivably, kill them if they went wrong, a fact that even the well-muscled performers of both sexes can’t shed enough clothing and grind lasciviously enough to entirely make you forget. One performer changes clothes standing on a clothesline tightrope, leaving you genuinely wondering how much of his shakiness and near-missing is actually acting; a couple doing an erotic dance wind up not only using bananas in the obvious sexualized way, but shooting chunks of banana from one mouth to the other, and catching nearly every time. At their best, which happens pretty frequently, the acrobatic numbers are graceful or thrilling or just plain funny enough that they blast past erotic-review cheesiness and achieve something of the “magical realism” the story aims for.

Then there’s the other kind of “number” this show has— the food of Rick Bayless, who is on stage for almost the entire play, cooking for the cast (and given that he is pretty much nose to the grindstone, no phony flourishes the whole time, you believe he really is cooking). After a couple of appetizers and a complimentary margarita, the meal has three courses, eaten at the same time as the cast eats it and is transported to new realms (several feet in the air) after a few bites. The first and best by far was a tuna ceviche with a passionfruit flan, all the gloriously tart citrus flavor of Mexican seafood (I even loved the pre-show popcorn snack that sat with it and soaked up a little of its limey flavor). The second is the inevitable hunk of red meat, a compromise nod to those audience members for whom every meal must have a big piece of protein even if Mexicans generally don’t eat like that: a ball of filet in a mole with a tamale and some braised kale. (Given that my favorite Bayless recipe to make is his swiss chard tacos, I’d have been happy with less red meat and more greens.) Finally, a bright pink cake of Oaxacan chocolate with a blood orange mousse on top, which is good but not so obviously Mexican. I’m sure it’s the best meal I’ve ever eaten at a play, if not the most interesting meal I’ve ever eaten from Rick Bayless.

All in all, it’s a good meal and a broadly enjoyable show, though the fact that the play has to stop cold for both kinds of “numbers” only emphasizes the thinness of the underlying dramatic material; there might be thirty minutes of dialogue in this 2-1/2 hour show, and by the time they’ve hit the wine pretty good, a lot of the audience is barely aware when there’s a show going on on the stage at all, only paying attention when it’s going on above it. I might have wished for a real playwright to flesh out these archetypes during the dead time when audience and cast are eating. I also might be the only one who was thinking about that as well as of the carnal pleasures on display, on stage and on plate.

At the end, happily, the cooks in back come out to join the cast for a bow, and are warmly appreciated by the audience. Will there be more Cascabels? I’m not sure how many chefs can really act even to the degree that Bayless does, though it does have me suddenly contemplating shows they could do (Paul Kahan and Donnie Madia as Nathan and Sky in Guys and Dolls?) I doubt we’ll see many more shows of this type— much easier for the chef with performing ambitions to just be on TV— but as at least one other restaurant is proving right now, there is an audience for a dinner that tells a story and puts on a show as much as it satisfies hunger, as surely as there was 60 or 70 years ago when the floor show of dancing, acrobatics and girls was as essential to dining out as the food.

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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I’ve sometimes made reference to “Finedininglandia” or some other term representing the fact that wherever you are in the world, there’s a kind of international “country” of fine dining that transcends place. This is only natural because it’s a jet-connected world where chefs pop into each others’ restaurants around the globe, read the same books or articles about the same techniques, etc. So what one chef does in Oslo, soon becomes what chefs from San Diego to Sao Paolo are playing with. That doesn’t mean there’s no difference— obviously there is if there’s any sort of localism to the food— but nonetheless, as Walt sagely put it, it’s a small world.

I hadn’t really thought about the temporal rather than the spatial version of that that much, although it’s obviously the case— if everyone in 2012 is doing a certain thing, that means all restaurants are different even from themselves in 2008, say, when they were all doing a certain other thing. The reason I didn’t think about that, I’m sure, is that you can’t pop in to, say, Blackbird five or ten years ago and see how it’s different from Blackbird now. What’s the point of thinking about it if you can’t eat it? But I just wrote a review about a place (Urban Union) that I thought was kind of 2008 all over again, and if that sounds like a slam, I enjoyed revisiting 2008 again, having it to contrast with 2012. Some of how food has changed since then is more refined, but some of it is less focused than the simplicity of big porky flavor pops, which seemed to be all the rage then. So going back to 2008 was both instructive— and simply pleasurable.

I mentioned Blackbird because I went to a dinner there a couple of weeks, sponsored by Tasting Table (whose guest I was), that aimed to recreate the original Blackbird c. 1998-9 when it opened. Now that’s really going back in time— there are many restaurants still serving largely what they served then, I’m sure but Blackbird is one that has done so much to change the world it works in that its menu of 12 years ago is truly an act of historical reconstruction. Local produce is so much more common and available now, the idea of eating funky cuts is so much more common now (thanks in no small part to Blackbird famously popularizing pork belly and the like). But Blackbird has also changed, become more refined under Paul Kahan’s successive chefs de cuisine— more a citizen of Finedininglandia. (Listening to Paul Kahan talk that night about getting Blackbird open back in the day, you realize that apart from chic decor and location, it was kind of more like a hippie cafe in spirit than the typical fine dining of the day, with its emphasis on fairly straightforward ingredients rather than all the chic frou-frou of the time.)

Anyway, we had a three course meal of dishes from the early menu, including a sturgeon dish with spaetzle, housemade pickles and a buttermilk sauce, and a knackwurst and sauerkraut dish. Kind of amazing to think that a chic white restaurant then was serving hearty German food in the latter case, and in the former case, outright Jewish food. I knew Paul Kahan’s dad had had a fish smoking company, and deep down his connection to simple meaty ingredients came out of his growing up around the meatpacking district (he talks about that in my latest video) but never before had I had something at Blackbird that came so directly out of a Jewish fish merchant-and-deli milieu. And you know what? I loved it and I instantly wished that there was more of that on the menus of his empire. Why shouldn’t there be smoked fish at Publican Quality Meats next to chorizo and blood sausage? Paul Kahan’s the last guy who needs me or anybody to tell him what he should be cooking, but I’d love to have a Jewish Blackbird pop up some more, somewhere on the menus of his various places. In this case, seeing a little of Blackbird in 1999 opened the door to a whole world of Chicago food culture history beyond it.

* * *

I had another flash from the past at another meal. Sixteen is the restaurant in the Trump International Hotel & Tower. As you might expect, this is nosebleed-pricing fine dining land in every way, a very expensive menu, a grand dining room with a two-story sweeping wall behind it, a chef (Thomas Lents; I interviewed him here) who got his start at Everest but has worked all over the world for people like Joel Robuchon, and a pretty-much-admitted mission to land three Michelin stars, cost be damned. (I was a media guest. Needless to say.)

What’s interesting is that although it’s plainly modern food, it’s not modernist food— there’s only the slightest dabbling in foams, and no powders or other strange transformations happening here. Which makes me wonder— is there room in Michelin’s universe, and in that of diners for whom fine dining has come to mean Alinea’s and Next’s bag of magic tricks, for straightforward food at the highest level? Because this was, unquestionably, at the highest level, refined to a delicacy so exquisite that the only other place I’ve experienced anything like it lately was, indeed, during my sampling of the Next El Bulli menu. The difference is, when Next gave me a carrot dish that downright sang with the intensity of the purest carrot flavor, it was a space-age El Bulli concoction, disembodied carrot foam in a glass bubble. Where at Sixteen, Lents simply made carrot soup, physically as anyone might make carrot soup for a piece of Dover sole to sit in. (The sole was, incidentally, the one off thing of the night— tougher than it surely ought to have been, especially resting amid carrot evanescence.)

I have a menu and could list specific dishes but you know, they’re all composed plates consisting of several different tastes; it wouldn’t tell you that much to rattle them off. What I can say is that, at least eight times out of ten, they tasted intensely, almost fluorescently of themselves, the most radishy or gingery or black coddy a thing ever tasted. (The plates were also often fluorescently colorful as well, like the aftermath of an Easter Egg accident.) What it suggested to me is what Charlie Trotter’s must have been like 25 years ago. Not, I think, that Lents’ food is much like Trotter’s (though it might well be more like it than it’s like Alinea’s) but people who ate at Trotter’s back then felt that they tasted things, truly tasted them for the first time back then when he made them— surely as pivotal a moment in the making of our modern food scene as their first taste of pork belly at Blackbird. Without being like Trotter’s actual food necessarily, Lents’ food at its best was like tasting these things for the first time (even the one I’d just tasted for the other first time at Next). Lents is not exactly a locavore, though he is definitely buying things at peak season somewhere on the globe; for instance one vegetable, I forget which, was coming from Florida, from a farm next to where his parents live.

So if this is the Trotter of 2012, will that draw the crowds in 2012 without Alinea/Next conceptual pyrotechnics? I guess the Donald can gamble on that; so far Lents hasn’t gotten a lot of attention for what he’s doing, but maybe they’re just playing the long game and don’t feel the need to battle Nellcote and Balena to be restaurant of the moment. If you have the money— a big if— and are okay with the atmosphere of the vast hotel dining room (great view, leaves you feeling a little like the small fish in the very big tank), Lents is making gorgeous, exquisitely well-crafted food that deserves to be tried, even if only to know what a major hotel company’s best guess at what Michelin and its international audience of well-heeled diners will love looks and tastes like.

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WE PULL UP ON A SIDE STREET near the Merchandise Mart. There’s a small group of people already waiting, each with a smart phone in one hand, a paper or plastic bag in the other. In the bag might be tamales from the Tamalli Spaceship, mac and cheese from The Southern, or sausage from the Haute Sausage truck. Jared Forratt, a lanky twentysomething with a scraggly beard and tattooed “sleeves” running up both arms, pulls the emergency brake, makes his way to the back of the white truck and opens the window. The first person in the crowd walks up, clutching three ones. “Uni shooter,” he says.

Forratt goes to work, setting out a shot glass, then splashing the inside of the glass with aquavit. Deftly he cuts a sea urchin out of its spiny shell and plops it into the glass; then he grates fresh horseradish onto it and places a single slice of candied kumquat on top. He sets it on the ledge of the window and plucks the three dollars from the man’s hand. The customer takes the shot glass, knocks it back in a single motion, and sets the shot glass back down. “That was beautiful, man,” he says. Forratt just gives him the slightest nod, and then points to the next customer.

Forratt is the proprietor of Bouche-Bag, the world’s first amuse-bouche truck. From his earliest days cooking, he was intrigued— maybe obsessed— by that tiny first bite of the meal offered gratis as a welcoming gesture in fine dining restaurants. “Everyone deserves to have their meal start out with something great,” Forratt says. “An amuse-bouche is like a ticket to adventure.” He soon became famous in Chicago restaurant circles as the master of the form— sometimes beyond practicality. “I’ve got three guys waiting to get at the fryer, and Jared’s taken it over, battering and frying individual microgreens that he’s holding in the oil in his tweezers,” Rick Tramonto recalls of Forratt’s tenure at Tru. “He’s an artist, no question about it, but at 7:00 on Friday night I gotta use my kitchen to make things people actually pay for.”

After a tempestuous history with many of the city’s top restaurants— Trio, L2O, Graham Elliot, The Black Sheep— and repeated struggles with chefs who, he felt, compromised his vision for “an amuse-bouche that, as Aldous Huxley said, opened the doors of perception,” Forratt was talking with Phillip Foss, then operator of the Meatyballs Mobile. Foss, jokingly, pointed out that the city code which prevented food trucks from preparing food on board defined prepared food as multiple ingredients put together in a dish to be eaten in multiple bites. Therefore an amuse-bouche, which is designed to be eaten in a single bite, was technically not food for the purposes of the regulations. Excited by the prospect of doing amuse-bouches exactly as he wanted to, without the distraction of other chefs or a restaurant, Forratt quickly found a backer from among the fans who had followed his work over the years from one four-star place to the next, and at last he had his own rolling establishment where he could offer amuse-bouches that met his precise vision, directly to diners.

IT’S 12:34, AND WE’RE A FEW minutes late for a rendezvous at the Aon building. The line is about 15 deep, all clutching bags— Pret-a-Manger, Au Bon Pain, Taco Bell. I ask Forratt if it bothers him that his beautifully-crafted amuse-bouches are often followed by fast food. “No, man. An amuse-bouche is a promise; it’s not my problem if it’s a promise that the rest of your meal can’t keep.” Today on the menu he’s got three choices, each priced at $3: the uni shooter, a stamp-sized square of Arctic char on a cauliflower semifreddo with pickled Japanese turnip, candied blood-orange peel and radish sprouts, and a spelt cracker with ahi aioli, hazelnut dauphinoise soil and mung-lychee sorbetto.

The Arctic char amuse.

Forratt works amazingly fast, “plating” each onto a plastic spoon or other utensil with tweezers in less than a minute. Yet not a piece looks out of place, and the buyer receiving each handcrafted jewel holds it carefully, almost reverently, before downing it and then getting on with his chicken salad on Asiago roll or Doritos Locos taco. I ask one customer, graphic designer Wade Murdock, why he’s willing to pay $3 for a single bite of food. “I thought it was crazy, too, but as soon as I had one bite— which is all there was, one bite— of his pork belly niçoise with wasabi poutine gelee and banh mi smoke, I was hooked,” Murdock says. “It’s worth $3 for something that really sets up your slice of Sbarro’s so perfectly.”

Despite the high price, Forratt admits that he’s barely breaking even on the amuse-bouches; he’s thinking of adding a line of palate cleansers to his menu, so that customers might come back during the same lunch for a single spoonful of Thai lemongrass gelato, say. But at the same time, he curses himself out for even thinking of compromising his vision of the perfect amuse-bouche. “The most exquisite moment is the one right before you take that first bite, when all the possibilities and wonder of the meal are before you,” he says. “If I could, I’d sell you that moment, and then drive away as fast as I can before you ruin it by actually eating.”