Tuesday, August 31, 2021

Ed Asner

Ed Asner as Lou Grant
     Ed Asner died Sunday. Beloved as Lou Grant on "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," and in its spin-off, "Lou Grant," he was one of those crusty-yet-warm characters that people felt close to. Facebook was alive with people who had met him, befriended him, interviewed him, knew him, or thought they did.
     I didn't join in, even though I had flown to Los Angeles in the late 1980s and watched him tape a lesser-remembered show, "The Bronx Zoo," whose two seasons did not even merit mention in his New York Times obit, and had lunch with him. I pulled the magazine story I wrote and it was ... meh. Not worth my typing, which meant it wasn't worth your reading.
     Not a terrible story, mind you. It had a few good spots: his two years at the University of Chicago, where he performed in the first production ever directed by Mike Nichols. Susan Sontag had a walk-on role in the same performance.
     And it didn't pull punches. Covering his struggles with his weight, his collapsing marriage, how his political activism hurt his career—he was the president of the Screen Actor's Guild, and in 1981 and yanked back an honor to Ronald Reagan because he fired the air traffic controllers. He spoke out regarding America's covert shenanigans in El Salvador. Charlton Heston went after him, and "Lou Grant" was cancelled.
     But plodding and cliched. To be honest, I never liked celebrity profiles. It takes a singular talent—a Bill Zehme, say—to do it well. Otherwise you're bloodying your fingertips scrabbling at a brick wall.
     I tried, with Asner. Before I flew out, I tracked down his brother, a butcher in Kansas City. A Jewish butcher. We had a nice chat; he had a daughter, and in our brief phone conversation, he tried to fix us up.
     I wasn't interested. But that did provide me with a great ice breaking line. When I found myself in Asner's trailer on a set at Rosedale Cemetery, L.A., as we were shaking hands, I said, "Your brother is trying to fix me up with his daughter. Is she good looking?" That put him off balance, a good start for an interview, and we ended up having what I thought was a candid conversation during lunch. I believe booze was involved, but I can't be sure at this distant remove.
     The only other part I remember is, later I turned the story in, and immediately afterward I was in the supermarket, and saw a copy of the National Enquirer, which had some headline along the lines of "Ed Asner's Love Child." And I remember thinking first, indignantly, "Really? He didn't say a word about it," and then, "Duh, idiot, it's not like you're pals."
     That's a celebrity profile; pretending to get to know someone you don't know at all.
     At the end of our interview, Asner did say something worth repeating.
     "I cherish America," said the son of immigrants. "I adore America, and all those ideals that I was brought up by. To me [our involvement in El Salvador] was a stain on our escutcheon. I didn't want to see a dirtied America and so I raised my voice becauseI thought that the press and Congress weren't sufficient to draw the people's attention to it.
     "I find the American people too complacent, too unquestioning, too accepting At least at the time, I did And I think that now they are less so, not because of what I have done, but because the press has finally become less supine than it was. Congress is less supine that it was. But it doesn't last. At that particular time I was confronted with an instance of our government's tyranny, our government's involvement in what would turn out to be the murder of some 60,000 Salvadorans by their government, and it is a government that we were fostering."
     Ed Asner was a skilled, funny actor but also something far more rare and valuable: a man who stood up for what is important.

Monday, August 30, 2021

The limp logic of anti-maskers

Noah Kern, a high schooler who stepped in to work as an election judge for the March 17, 2020 primary, had no trouble wearing a mask. “Obviously, I’ve taken precautions to protect myself and others,” he said. Not so obvious to many, unfortunately.

   Say I own a fierce dog — let’s call him “Spike” — who prowls my front yard, snarling and snapping. Occasionally, Spike bounds onto the sidewalk to sink his teeth into passersby.
     My neighbor suggests I put up a chain link fence. At which I scoff: “What good would that do? The gaps in a chain link are two inches across, while Spike’s teeth are an inch long, tops. The teeth will pass right through.”
     Welcome to Anti-Masker Logic. As Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s statewide mask mandate takes effect Monday, there are two lines of opposition.
     One is simple stubbornness. As embodied by John Catanzara, FOP president and babbling id of Red America.
     After the city demanded its employees be vaccinated, he sputtered, “We don’t want to be forced to do anything!” Points for candor, and hubris, coming from a man who belongs to an organization whose members are forced to wear special hats.
     The you-can’t-make-me-I-don’t-wanna approach is obviously wrong. We are forced to do all sorts of things all the time, like it or not: pay taxes, drive on the right, wear pants.
     The truth is, some balk at being forced to do anything new. Even in a crisis. Even to save lives A stance so selfish that some try a second approach. They wander into the realm of science, so unfamiliar to them, and cherry pick a shiny fact to decorate their infantile “I don’t wanna!” Like a bright ornament on a dead Christmas tree.
     “Do the research,” demands one reader. “Find out how large the air openings are on any mask. The ‘smallest’ openings are 3 microns. Now, even Stevie Wonder could see this coming — please tell us how a 3000 nM opening can keep out a 50 nM virus?”
     Tell you how? Happily, for all the good it will do...

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Sunday, August 29, 2021

"Buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jack."


     Change is hard. I get that. As one ages, slip-sliding faster and faster down that greased chute toward the tomb aka life in your 60s, it can be difficult to distinguish between a development that is an unacceptable deterioration, and something that is simply new and different.
     Take a look at the new Sailor Jack, the mascot for Cracker Jack, above. I was trucking through Sunset Foods Friday and it stopped me in my tracks. He looks ... what? Like some 1940s tough who didn't make the cut for the chorus of "South Pacific." Crudely drawn, the dog with that same cross-eyed look that is the mark of bad cartooning. Maybe I was unduly attached to his predecessor, the cool blue stylized Sailor Jack at right, windswept, confident, snapping a smart salute, smiling serenely. Look at what he used to be. And then look at this slack-jawed jerk. Is this an improvement?

     Our city does have a dog in this race. Cracker Jack is as Chicago as deep dish pizza. More. The company started in 1872 by a German immigrant, Frederick W. Rueckheim, part of the army of profit-minded entrepreneurs who raced here after the Great Chicago Fire.            He had a snack cart, and opened a shop at what is now Federal Street. He sold popcorn, peanuts and candied molasses, and for the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition decided to combine them all in one concoction, which he called Cracker Jack, the story goes, when a salesman sampled it and said, "That's crackerjack!" a slang superlative at the time.
     Ruckheim put his 3-year-old grandson and his dog on the box in 1916, and the boy died, at 7, in 1920. His image was on his grave at St. Henry's Cemetery, but someone pried it off. 

     A big deal? No. Looking closer at the New Jack's right hand, it's almost as if he's flipping the bird to the customers, something Borden began doing when they replaced their actual toy prizes with crappy little booklets and stickers that no proper child would want, a practice current owner, Frito-Lay continues. Yes, to avoid choking lawsuits, but you can choke on a peanut too, and they still include them, or did, years ago, when I last bought a box. They famously skimp on the peanuts until the public complains, and they slip a few extra in.
     Oh well. It doesn't matter, right? Nothing matters. If it's any comfort, the mascot used to be even worse: look at the red-cheeked monstrosity they once used. It's amazing the product survived at all. They'll change him again, someday, maybe even for the better. That does happen. Rarely.
     Cracker Jack has the best product placement of all time, inclusion in the deathless 1908 anthem, "Take Me Out to the Ball Game." You'd think they'd get this kind of stuff right. And maybe they do. Maybe the new, idiotic Jack image is in perfect harmony with our current, idiotic times. Maybe I'm the one out-of-step. I'm open to that possibility.

Saturday, August 28, 2021

Ravenswood Notes: Savoring

      A good writer channels the zeitgeist, the tone of the times. With August ending and the summer winding up, I detected a certain nameless sorrow in the air, which Caren Jeskey names in her post today.

          Willow Poem

by William Carlos Williams

It is a willow when summer is over,
a willow by the river
from which no leaf has fallen nor
bitten by the sun
turned orange or crimson.
The leaves cling and grow paler,
swing and grow paler
over the swirling waters of the river
as if loath to let go,
they are so cool, so drunk with
the swirl of the wind and of the river—
oblivious to winter,
the last to let go and fall
into the water and on the ground.
     We came across an enormous fallen weeping willow on the Northwestern University Lakefill in Evanston. Even laying down, her presence was mighty. Then it sunk in. She’s dead and will never come back. It seems so many things are slipping through the fingers as easily as grains of dry sand these days. Or has it always been this way, and the fact that I am aging, along with the shadow of death that shrouds us is tinting my lens towards a sense of inescapable loss?
     On my morning walk I was crossing Lawrence and Leavitt with the permission of the little white glowing person in the traffic light box. Suddenly a white Jeep SUV decided to jump into the bike lane, pass the cars waiting to go east on Lawrence, run the solidly red light, and come a foot or two from hitting me. His windows were down and the driver, a young man, looked over. Our eyes briefly locked. He may have shrugged. He didn’t miss a beat, and continued barreling down the street. Other drivers held their hands up and shook them in dismay in my direction as a gesture of solidarity. My next thought was “I could have just died.” 
     The other day my brother— who moved away to the glistening West Coast before he was 20— commented “looks like we’re going back to the bad-old days in Chicago.” He was referring to the peak of murders in the city in 1974, when the number hit 970. A quick Google search shows that we are, in fact, going in the wrong direction. We had 506 murders in 2019 and an uptick to 774 in 2020. A crying shame.
     I am loath to admit I have not been feeling very safe since my return to Chicago in May. I almost never feared for my life in Austin where I lived for seven years. It felt so good to know that the chances of a random act of violence towards me were slim to none there. Here? I’m not so sure.
     I used to traverse the city with wild abandon, and those days are over. I find myself being hyper-vigilant, whether walking or driving, especially since I am usually alone. I have been harassed countless times on my walkabouts, which is to be expected. That’s just what a lot of guys do when women are alone.
     Yesterday a man biked past me on the sidewalk, way too close, a cigarette dangling from his lips. He turned and said hello. I held a “don’t mess with me” look on my face and immediately crossed the street where there were a few other pedestrians. I looked back in his direction to gauge my safety. He had stopped his bike in a driveway and was looking back to find me. Ha ha. I was gone. He quickly realized I had fled and he sheepishly biked away.
     Ever since I was a kid growing up in the city I’ve had to be very savvy about my safety, and as a result I have only been assaulted by strangers twice. The first time in the '90s at the Belmont red line the guy managed to grab me. I knocked his hand away and used my voice to bellow at him. Fortunately there were cops with dogs downstairs and he was promptly arrested. My father came to court with me and the guy got community service, plus time-served. I hope he cleaned up his act after that, but who the heck knows.
     The second time was near Foster Beach, and fortunately I had just taken an Impact class and knew what to do. I got away. When he was arrested a month later after a friend and I spotted him at the lakefront, I learned he had 18 previous convictions for assault on his record. He did not show up to court so continued to roam the streets.
     I stay away from local news these days because whenever I read it I become more scared. Carjackings, shooting on the expressways, and other crime seems to be out of control right now. I just hope that you, me, and everyone we know remains unscathed. Additionally I plan to use my voice and ballots to affect change in any way I can.
     I kept walking away from the runaway Jeep on Lawrence after the near-miss, and found myself in a field of trees. I ducked under the canopy of a healthy willow tree, and the world felt right. I found bright orange pinecones and a prairie grass trail. I saw vibrant mushrooms popping up around tree trunks, and got a second cuppa joe at one of the plentiful and tasty coffee shops in the area. I bought some meatloaf and a Sprite for the guy who lives on the bench near me.
     Women in Afghanistan are being terrorized, humans seem to be such a threat to each other, and I feel helpless in so many ways. I realize how easy I have it, and I am grateful. I will continue to find beauty where I can, and stay focused on continuing to create a meaningful life during my limited time here on the planet.

Friday, August 27, 2021

‘Food Americana’ has the goodies we love

     The setting, an unadorned wood table in a tent next to a parking lot. No plates, the food came in cardboard boxes. Service consisted of setting down a tray holding our order. Still, we were in heaven. I bit into a St. Louis rib at Smoque BBQ and my brain let out a squeal of joy so distinct I could almost hear it. I pulled the rib back and regarded it, agog. I almost kissed it. It was that good.
     “Oh ... my ... God,” I said.
     The United States has lately been marinating itself in shame and incompetence. A plague rages while our fellow citizens retreat into infantile terror and mass hallucination. Even the planet itself at times seems to be trying to shake humanity off, like an angry bull bucking a rider.
     But you know what can still be depended on? Food. The cuisines we’ve loved all our life do not let us down. Like a band of superheroes, they show up to save the day. Or save many days, anyway.
     Thus publication of “Food Americana: The Remarkable People and Incredible Stories behind America’s Favorite Dishes” by David Page is a welcome, well-timed field guide to the goodies that keep harsh reality at bay. With chapters devoted to the cast of our nation’s love affair with food — hamburgers, pizza, fried chicken — it takes us on a quick visit to each of our favorites, both its history and noted practitioners today. Sushi is there, as well as Mexican and Chinese food, a reminder that while millions of our fellow citizens do not know what kind of place our country is, our bellies still do.
     The first sentence — ”When I was a child, my grandmother use to make me something she, for some reason, called Jewish spaghetti” — sent my mind tumbling into the past. Page’s grandma was making pasta, boiled, then fried with onions and ketchup, which sounds gross, to me. But it reminded me that my mother used to serve spaghetti with creamed cheese melted over it, which may sound disgusting to you. I remember it being delicious.
     As a wordsmith, I was gratified by how many new terms I learned reading “Food Americana.” Page calls the charred spots on a properly-cooked pizza crust “leoparding,” the dough in a tortilla is “nixtamalized,” or “cooked in an alkaline solution usually containing lime.” (Lime the mineral, not lime the citrus wedge you stick on the rim of your margarita).

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Thursday, August 26, 2021



Black Hills Spruce, left, with branch from Black Walnut, right.   

     You never know when you are going to learn a new word, or a whole new concept for that matter.
     The guy from Advance Tree Care was poking around our yard estimating what it'll cost to do some work—take out a dying pine threatening to topple over onto the back of the house, prune and treat an ash that we may just have shepherded past the waning emerald ash borer disaster. We found ourselves by this black hills spruce I had kidnapped from the property of my pal Rick Telander in the wilds of Michigan's Upper Peninsula. The tree grows like a weed and I like to point it out to visitors. The Advanced Tree Care man observed out how the black walnut nearby has grown toward it, and the spruce has shrunk away from it.
     "The black walnut is allelopathic," he said. "Notice how the spruce has fewer branches on the side near the black walnut."
    Ah. I hadn't noticed that. Plants developed 10,000 or so various chemicals that have nothing to do with their growth, per se, but part of a group called "allelochemicals," toxins that keep them from being eaten, or prevent pathogens from taking hold, or make the surrounding soil inhospitable to organisms other than themselves. Ironically, the compounds that give herbs flavor are mostly allelochemicals. They're basically chemical "KEEP OUT" signs designed to discourage the competition. More water for us.   
     And the black walnut—who knew?—is the Boss Daddy Bad Ass of allelopathic plants. It has a chemical called juglone that's so strong, it's used as a herbicide. Juglone is in the leaves, the heartwood, the bark, the roots, the nuts (causing their orange stain) even in the tree's Latin name, juglans nigra. The spruce is particularly sensitive to what the Morton Arboretum calls Black Walnut Toxicity, but my little tree seems to be placed far enough away that it isn't being affected, yet. Still, I'm going to go hack the black walnut branches away, and make sure the walnuts don't roll in its direction. Tree books encourage you to minimize the contact of black walnut debris with the soil.
     My columnist's sense tells me there is some kind of allegory waiting to be drawn out of this—if our benign friends the trees are hardwired to poison the competition, well, that might explain humanity and its we-don't-want-you bigotries and stay-away biases. But I don't want to go there. We're smarter than trees, supposedly.

Wednesday, August 25, 2021

What if wearing masks makes us more free?

     The funny thing is ...
     Not “ha-ha” funny, but sad and ironic funny, which is about the only funny we get nowadays.
     Anyway, as I was saying before I was so rudely interrupted, by myself, the funny thing is, if Americans actually cared about their freedom, they wouldn’t manifest that care by throwing these you-can’t-make-me, blue-in-the-face toddler fits over convenience store policies requiring masks.
     Rather than refuse to wear masks, as the extra contagious Delta variant rips across the country, they would insist on wearing masks in public, not merely to ward off infection, but to escape the net of cyber surveillance tightening around the public every day. They would wear masks now, and keep on wearing them should COVID-19 ever recede, an increasingly remote possibility approaching “when pigs fly.”
     Masks not only screen out viruses, but also add a fig leaf of anonymity that might be helpful soon. This week, the Illinois State Police, joined by the city and state transportation departments, announced they will install cameras to read the license plates of every car on the highways, in the face of a surge of expressway shootings. The idea is: it’s enough of a hassle to drive the Dan Ryan from Point A to Point B without also having to worry about another motorist shooting you and getting away scot-free.
     Will it help? More cameras doesn’t seem to be translating into more safety, just less privacy. Add highway license plate cameras to the police, business and municipality security cameras already in operation, plus private residence doorbell cameras. Sooner or later those cameras will all be hooked up to a central location. Mix in face-recognition technology, and we’re nearing, if not already at, the point where you can’t scratch your ear in public without risk of the moment ending up on a flatscreen monitor in some basement control room with your name flashing underneath. Someday, you’ll rub your lower back on the ‘L’ platform and your Twitter feed will start recommending Bengay.

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Tuesday, August 24, 2021

Do we really need to kill them?

     Monday's column on my battle to kill a wasps' nest on my porch drew a lot of reaction, but I want to share these two reader emails. They have a valid point, one that never crossed my mind. I'm still not entirely convinced: you can't have your front porch becoming a gigantic wasp colony. But definitely food for thought....

Dear Mr. Steinberg;

     I just read your article about your wasp encounter in the Monday edition of the Chicago Sun Times and would like to comment. Wasps, like many animals, are a useful part of the ecosystem. If you destroy all the wasps, many destructive insects and grubs will flourish. For example, many people hate the Japanese beetle which devastates fruit trees and numerous garden plants. In addition, if you do not disturb wasps they will not sting you. You must admit you did not know you had wasps until you saw some. They were not attacking you or your plants or pets. They were just killing insects and doing their part in improving the ecosystem. Finally, the insecticides you spray on them introduces poisons into the environment. These insecticides are often long-lasting and kill other useful insects. Many affect hormones in humans and animals.
     So my advice, next time you see wasps, just let them alone and they will do the same to you.
     Sincerely yours;
     Rich Lange

Dear Neil,

     I looked up the benefit of wasps. BBC reports that wasps eat a bunch of insects that can affect plants that are growing. But of course I understand why we are afraid of wasps. I understand your try at handling the issue. And of course, we have to thank God for your wife. I think I was stung once by a wasp, that stung several times in the same area. Not fun at all.
     We move into a natural area and then we cannot abide Nature taking up residence. Just like all those fake dear I see on lawns locally. I sure do not like them. We get rid of Nature at our peril.
     Nature, the PBS program recently had a program on predators, and what happens to an environment when a predator leaves. It started with a scientist picking up all the starfish he found locally somewhere in the world I don’t remember The whole local environment perished. Same when lions and tigers and bears and foxes are removed. Predators make a whole environment whole and lively. Just like when we depress fire because people build homes in Nature. But then we have vegetation that creates wildfires and takes those houses with the fire.
     Mother Natures gets back at us.
     Janice Gintzler

     Thanks everyone for writing.

Monday, August 23, 2021

Wasps, or how to see what’s right there

A wasp.

     Did you miss the warning about this summer being especially bad for wasps? Yeah, me too. Even though our 115-year-old farmhouse has all sorts of eaves and hollows, places where wasps gather.
     Though you believe it, right? Of course you do. If you’re like me, the one-damn-thing-after-another quality of the past year has led to dull acceptance of almost any horror.
     If I ran into a neighbor carrying a bucket of water and a ladle, and he explained, “It’s for the burning frogs falling from the sky. They scorch the lawn, but a quick ladle of water fixes that,” I’d shrug and think, “Oh right, the burning frogs. Better get a bucket ...”
Photo by Tony Galati
     Then that’s me. I look at people simply denying one obvious situation or another — COVID, global warming, systemic racism — with blinking incomprehension. It’s ... right ... there. Just ... open your eyes and ... look.
     No? Can’t do that? Not into the whole perceiving-what’s-in-front-of-you game? I guess that’s your way of coping with the stress of bad stuff: ”If I don’t see it, it’s not there.” But c’mon buddy, graduate kindergarten, put on your big-boy pants and join the adults.
     Yes, grasping trouble can be a process. The tendency is to ignore or minimize problems. Most summers, the wasps spout from a chink in the brick foundation in front of our house. Out of harm’s way.
     This summer, naturally, the wasps took up residence under the window box jutting onto the porch, inches from our front door. As we came and went, we’d see wasps coming and going, a wasp parody of our routine. Still, a situation I can handle, or so I thought. I’m not immune to underestimating perils.

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Sunday, August 22, 2021


    The Glenwood Ave Arts Fest began Saturday, drawing as always an eclectic crowd: Rogers Park locals, mostly, artists, of course, several politicians, couples with dogs, couples with children, young people and old people, white people and black people, street people and curious suburbanites, such as my wife and myself, who went because we always go. My brother-in-law, Alan Goldberg, helps organize it, and supporting your loved ones in their endeavors is what family does. You show up.
    Besides, it's fun.
    We cruised the booths and chatted with the artists, including a 14-year-old boy who caught my eye and said, "Come look at my paintings." So we did. I asked if the paintings, squares of color, had titles, and he improvised them on the spot for our benefit. I would have bought one for that alone, on general principles, but my wife nudged me onward and, figuring that disappointment is part of every artist's education, tried not to feel badly about it.
      After an hour, we drifted toward the car, I suggested we park ourselves on a pair of metal chairs by the empty bandstand.
     "I don't think there's an act until 4:30," my wife said. It was 4:10 now, and I understand that to mean, translated from the wife language, "Let's go."
     "Let's sit," I said. "We don't just sit enough. It's summer."
      So we just sat, watching children dance to the 1960s hits being broadcast from the stage. They were joined by a trim older gent, who danced by himself to several songs, obviously very pleased to be doing so, and we watched him dance too.
      "This is the best part of the festival," my wife said, of the sitting interlude.
     When we finally got up to go, I spied a gentleman in a red hat whom I had seen, from a distance, and of course noticed for his dramatic ensemble. He was about to dig into a plateful of dinner in a doorway, and after we passed him I pulled up, excused myself and went back and introduced myself.
     "Can I take your picture?" I asked. He said I could. He produced his business card, and I produced mine, and we made the exchange. His says he is Tamarie T., and his band is Thee Elektra Kumpany and their genre is "Exotik Funk." I asked what instrument he plays, and he said he is the front man, and they would be playing at 6 o'clock. It was tempting, but we decided to slide up to Evanston instead for a bubble tea.  That was fun too, and we ended up walking in the sand at Greenwood Beach, holding our shoes, and I realized it was the first time I had set foot in Lake Michigan in three years, maybe more. Though if I could do it again, I might wait the 90 minutes and hear Tamarie's band play. Next time.


Saturday, August 21, 2021

Ravenswood Notes: Ginger


The Music Lesson, by John George Brown (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

   My wife has a saying that I like, "It's better to be kind than right." A truth that Ravenswood Bureau Chief Caren Jeskey explores delightfully today. Her Saturday report:

     "We don’t see the world as it is, we see it as we are.” One of my favorites, Ana├»s Nin, is credited with this combination of words.
     I find that all of my good ideas have come from others in one form or another. Whether receiving direct advice from a mentor or elder (yes, including you Mom & Dad), instruction in school, or picking up on the essence of those I admire, I’ve gleaned a lot from the people around me. I was once told that we are a conglomeration of the six people we spend the most time with. True or not, since then I’ve made an effort to surround myself with those I’d like to emulate for their desirable qualities. Calm, funny, warm, creative, forgiving, caring, intelligent, and those who can admit their flaws and have a sense of humor about themselves. Those who are willing to bend when they have something to learn.
     Today had its ups and downs. The ups were waking up in my cozy new Chicago apartment with wood floors and a gorgeous built-in hutch filled with gifts of rugs and furniture from good people welcoming me back. I had Telehealth sessions with clients, an honor and a privilege. I ordered a personal deep dish pizza from Giordano’s. I had a flute lesson. Then I left to find a spot to settle in and work, since I tend to work better at outside establishments with wifi, whereas at home I might get drawn into a project or another episode of Ted Lasso. As soon as I ventured out, everything went kaphooey. First stop, garbage bin. Why oh why do folks throw their garbage and compostables in the recycle bin? Why do my neighbors leave the back gate open when they walk their dogs rather than simply closing it and pulling their key out when they return? Why does no one smile when we pass on the sidewalk? Am I invisible? Then I hit the road. Why does no one stop at stop signs? Why do people race around on little side streets?
     I finally made it to a coffee shop with a patio. Why was the waiter so rude that I decided to leave? I almost went home and called mingling with society a wash for the day.
     Instead I drove around listening to music until I got an idea. Jerry’s Sandwiches on Lincoln. Right on the Square with the fountain, just south of Lawrence. Free wifi, tasty fare, and a laid back vibe. I settled in with my laptop to get my work done. Chariots of Fire theme in my bluetooth ear bud, I was ready to go. Alas, wah wahhhh. Think the sad, mocking sound in a TV game show where you’ve gotten the wrong answer. No wifi for me on the patio this fine night. The signal was too weak. The waiter kindly invited me inside where the signal is stronger, but with Delta? No way.
     Just then I realized: it’s blog time. No wifi needed. Time to write.
     I decided to broach the topic of wanting to avoid all human beings today. Feeling disconnected from my fellows. Then I realized that my own irritability had a lot to do with it, and remembered that the world can be different for me if I change into my rose colored glasses.
     I decided to kill the waitstaff with kindness. Sometimes I forget how hard COVID times have been on the service industry. They have had to show up—if they were lucky enough to retain their jobs— when many of us were able to stay at home, safe and sound, if we so chose. I went to the Comedy Showcase at Navy Pier this week, a part of the Chicago Humanities Festival. (I’m sure the Fest was much less hardy than it was in 2019. Two short years, and the whole world has changed). One of the performers entertained us with a song that sardonically reminded us of our privilege, and implored us to check it at the door or the opening of the patio when dining out in these hard times.
     The result? I won. My server responded to my kindness and we bonded. Turns out, they are a Comedy Drag Queen named Ginger Forest who worked for years with Second City. More recently, they host a children’s story time at Gerry’s on the third Sunday of each month, which is on hiatus thanks to Delta, but will hopefully return soon. They told me that their main message to the kiddos at story time is to be kind rather than judging others.
     Ginger shared their philosophy of life. “Know thyself. Look inward towards your own personal growth and journey, and use the people around you to inspire you. There is nothing wrong with saying ‘I need a little help.’ You need to be open and accepting. If you can reach beyond your personal boundaries, you’ll be amazed at what you’ll find. Look outside of your personal bubble. Find people who are different from you. Find your similarities with them, and build on them. The differences make you grow, and the commonality will bring you together.” Well said.

Friday, August 20, 2021

Culinary Artists Week #6: Pressure Cooker, Pt. II

     This is the second part of my 1996 GAMES stories on the Culinary Olympics. For part I, click here.

Cooking cakes (Metropolitan Museum)
     Though constantly in motion, the chefs seldom rush. They always seem to be deep in concentration, as if constructing atomic bombs instead of meals. Periodically, they stop what they're doing and study a situation, hands on hips, faces grim. The assistant, seeing the chef motionless, hurries over to find out what's wrong. Together chef and assistant stare at, say, a tray of cored apples. Then the chef mutters something to the assistant, and the two snap into action.
     Immediately after a mess is made, everything halts until it is cleaned up. The counters remain spotless—nothing is left sitting out in the open. Partially finished dishes are stored on wire racks. After six hours of constant cooking, the kitchens looks almost as clean as they did at 7 a.m. Of course, some are cleaner than others, and the judges take notice.
     While the chefs sometimes refer to their watches, not one of them uses a timer. Experience allows for shortcuts most amateurs would never contemplate. Hugelier holds a blue Morton canister a foot above a roast and pours an unmeasured white stream of salt. Stacy Radin, the pastry chef at Desserts International, Merion, Pennsylvania, reaches into a 25-pound bag of sugar and tosses handfuls into a mixing bowl. 
     But moments of crisis do arise. While Seigfreid Eisenberg, the executive chef at the Opryland Hotel in Nashville, Tennessee is diligently filling orange-flavored ravioli with duck paste, the pot of duck consume, unwatched, boils over onto the floor. Chef and assistant gasp simultaneously and rush over to attend to the spill. Eisenberger blows uselessly on the roiling surface of the 10-gallon pot, then turns and begins angrily dicing carrots into splinters, leaving his assistant to sop up the consume. Fortunately for Eisenberger, the judges, chatting among themselves across the room, don't seem to notice.
     Chefs who are not cooking that day hang around, planning strategy and ribbing their fellow competitors.
     "These guys are sickening," declares Jeff Gabriel, the executive chef a the Grosse Pointe Yacht Club, in Grosse Point, Michigan. "Sea bass and venison! These guys got nice ingredients. I wish I would have gotten that. You always wish you got what the other person did."
     Gabriel points through the glass at Mark Erikson, the chef-manager of St. Andrew's Cafe, hyde Park, New York. Erikson is glazing the coveted venison with honey and thyme. "Venison and sea bass. You're sickening!" Gabriel shouts. Erikson looks up, smiles, stick the thumb of one hand into his ear, and wiggles his fingers.
     When the chefs are not watching each other cook, they are eating each other's food. The day after Catherall prepared Cornish game hen, he sits at a table sampling Lawrence Ryan's cooking. But no sooner has he taken a few spoonfuls of the cold carrot bisque than he calls over a busboy.
     "Send this back to the chef," he says, suppressing a smile. While waiting for Ryan to receive the insult, Catherall explains that he had tried to find out whether he could bring his own plates, had been unable to get an answer, and ended up using the plates provided. Chefs are sensitive to every nuance of food presentation, ad Catherall believes these plates did not display his cooking to its best advantage. "Ryan didn't bother asking," say Catherall. "He just brought his own plates."
     Ryan walks over with a big grin on his face. "I heard you did well yesterday," he says, shaking hands. "Almost a gold...."
     The strategy employed by chefs is fairly straightforward. It's good to be creative, but not so creative as to risk failure. The menus for the most part reflect the current trend toward regional cooking: Eastern Shores Sea Bass with Shrimp Leeks, Connecticut Garden Salad Dumplings Minnesota, Minnesota Wild Rice Soup, Minnesota Bread, Medley of Seafood Back Bay, Seafood Medley Oregon.
    Some chefs show off more than others. Thus while Radin turns her white chocolate into mere White Chocolate Mousse, Northmore transforms his into Terrine of White Chocolate Mousse with Raspberry and Vanilla Sauce. And for good measure, he converts the nasturtiums into a Flower Tart with Fruit Sauce.
Preparing dough, Tomb of Rekhmire (Met)
     In general, the mystery box does not pose much of a problem, since a chef's normal day in a restaurant begins by looking in his refrigerator and then planning a menu around the food on hand.
     "I had a general idea of what to do," says Foster, after putting the finishing touches on his last pastry. "If I couldn't make one dessert, I'd make another. I was kind of surprised how smoothly it went."
     "The way I looked at it, items I had more of were for the entree, items I had less of were for the appetizer," says Larry Banares, executive sou chef at the Disneyland Hotel, in Anaheim, California. 
     "Before I came, I already planned on something neutral. I would make a seafood mousse, regardless of what seafood I got," says Tan Hung Heng, executive sous chef at the Waikiki Sheraton, Honolulu, Hawaii. "I had to think a little bit to make some adjustments—I got chicken. I had planned turkey."
     There is disagreement as to whether chefs need to practice for the competition. Robins says he practiced each night for hours after coming home from work.
     "If I practiced like that, I wouldn't be married or have a job," says Banares.
     "They all have to practice," says Hermann Rusch, a judge. "A jockey has to practice with the horses, a chef has to practice with the carrots."
     Gabriel demurs: "Not much you can practice. how many ways can you bake a potato?"
     As in any competition, the mood of the contestants is sometimes cynical, and their strategies often pragmatic. After all, only four chefs will be chosen for the national team, with an additional 10 picked to form the regional team, members of which travel to Frankfurt as assistants and to compete independently in certain cold food events. The difference between being on the national team and the regional team is the difference between driving in the Indy 500 and being on the pit crew.
     Three off-duty chefs gather in a corner near one of the kitchens. They all wear blue blazers with gold buttons, and none of them wants his or her name used.
     "Even though Jeff Gabriel put up real garbage yesterday, he'll be on the team," a chef with an accent says darkly. "I can name you six people who will be on the team no matter what."
     "I think there will be surprises," another chef says.
     The discussion moves into the real-politik of the competition: It's a good idea to prepare German food, seeing that most of the judges are German; give the items on your menu vague, general names, so however the food turns out, you'll be safe; no temper tantrums in the kitchen, no looking frantic—a bad attitude will sink you faster than too much pepper; the younger chefs have less of a chance, because they have less experience.  
Pounding meal (Met)
     Though the judges deny favoritism, they admit they don't want to try out any novices on the national team, no matter how sublime their food tastes.
     "I like to bring them into the support team and evaluate them," says Galand. "Everyone who goes to Frankfurt on the American team was on a previous year's support team. It's a good idea to bring them up that way, almost like a farm team."
     As 12:30 p.m. approaches, the action intensified. Eisenberger, running with a bag of powdered sugar from another kitchen, overshoots his own kitchen and puts on the brakes. "Missed," he says, sheepishly, backtracking. he mixes the sugar into his shallot mustard dressing, pours a bit into a small bowl, and drinks it. This is to be mixed with his "Melange of Greens," which will accompany such other creations as Duck Consume with Duck Ravioli, Corn Crepes, Seafood Medley Oregon (composed of sea bass, sturgeon, and shrimp  in a dill sauce), and a Venison Loin "Autumn" on a Bed of Split Peas.
    The six judges take their places at a table on a raised, gold-carpeted platform. They all wear white lab coats with red, white and blue USA CULINARY TEAM patches on the breast pocket. A trio of musicians plays nearby. The first appetizer is served—a shrimp-stuffed pear on a bed of carrots. The judges approach it carefully.
     "Very good flavor."
     "I liked the smoked shrimp."
     "Now that is beautiful."
     "Before you cut that up, let me get a taste of the center. Let's see how he's done this."
     The judges eat only a mouthful or two of each dish. Television cameras, film crews, and still photographers record every bite. After each course, they make notations on their clipboards and deposit their dirty silverware on a plate covered with a peach-colored napkin. Then they take fresh silverware rom a pile in the center of the table and await the next course.
     "Very important to have eye appeal," says Roland Shaeffer, a judge who went to Frankfurt with the American team in 1980 and 1984. "If it looks good, you're ahead of the game. Naturally, if it tastes good, too, you have a winner."
     Despite the great pomp surrounding the judging of taste, it is the least important factor in the competition. The judges assign 12 points apiece to the categories of Presentation, Creativity, and Workmanship, and only four points to Composition, the category that relates to the actual palatability of the food.
     After four days of competition, when all the chefs have displayed their talents, the judges add their hot and cold food scores and divide by two to arrive at the chefs' final scores. Anyone with a 34 or higher qualifies for the 1988 competition, though the judges have considerable latitude when it comes to selecting the final team roster.
Sifting meal (Metropolitan Museum of Art)
     When the scores are totaled, Lawrence Ryan has been chosen the captain of the U.S. Culinary Team for 1988. His three teammates are Mark Erikson, Daniel Hugelier and Hartmut Handke, executive chef at the Greenbriar, White Sulphur Springs, Virginia. The captain of the regional team is Jeff Gabriel, and his nine teammates are Thomas Catherall, Seigfreid Eisenberger, Ruben Foster, Stacy Radin, Chris Northmore, Carolyn Claycomb, chef at Pates and Things, Columbus, Ohio, Michael Russell, chef de cuisine at Travis Pointe Country Club, Ann Arbor, Michigan, and Rudolph Speckamp, chef/owner of Rudy's 2900, Finksburg, Maryland.
     Those not selected for the team will not be forgotten, however. In culinary competition, there is always tomorrow.
     "Yes I'm very disappointed," says Michael Robins, after the results are announced. "I'll still go to Frankfurt in 1988 as an independent competitor. When you come this far, you can't go back."
     He says his cold food scores dragged him down. With a strong stable of hot food chefs from previous years, the judges were looking to boost the cold food effort in Frankfurt.
     "I'm still very young," says Robins, who is 23. "Just to go to Chicago was a very big honor. You have to be ready to keep your name up there and be a good sportsman. And I can't rule out that in the next two years they'll need a little help. That has happened before. If not, they better watch out in 1990, because I'm going to be on the team."
Editor's note: Michael Robins eventually won three gold medals, with perfect scores, at the World Culinary Olympics in Frankfurt. At 26, he was also the youngest person to attain a "Master Chef" ranking. Today he runs Integrated Culinary Systems, a consulting firm that assists clients in developing and commercializing food products for retail and Foodservice Sales.

Thursday, August 19, 2021

Culinary Artists Week #5: Pressure Cooker, Pt. I

Library of Congress

     We'll finish up my weeklong look at chefs with something special: this article from the September, 1986 issue of GAMES magazine was my first article written for a national publication. Games was on my radar because my college pal, Robert Leighton, had gotten a job there, nudging the publication into the realm of the possible for me. I began looking for something going on in Chicago that I could report on, and the U.S. finals of the International Culinary Olympics seemed an event they might bite at. They did. I ended up writing for GAMES for years, including an article on college pranks that led to my first book.
     The Culinary Olympics is the model for "Chopped" and the many other TV competitions pitting chefs against each other and the clock. The event is still held: it'll be in Stuttgart in February, 2024. This story is long, though not bad for a 26-year-old novice, and I broke it into two parts, running today and tomorrow.

     The 67th National Restaurant Association convention is a culinary madhouse. Tens of thousands of food industry types swarm over every level of Chicago's giant McCormick Center, gobbling free samples of TaterBoys, Tofutti, Koala Cones, and other snacks, clustering around booths representing such restaurant supply companies as Sani-Pearl, ThermaKleen, and Cut-Tel Automatic Faucets ("You never, never again have to touch your faucet....")
     In one corner, separated from the hall by a row of seven glassed-in kitchens, pandemonium has been reduced to a quiet hum. Here some of the best chefs in America are competing for the industry's highest honor—a spot on the U.S. Culinary Team representing this country two years from now in the Internationale Kochkunst Ausstellung, or International Culinary Competition. Held in Frankfurt, West Germany, every four years since 1894, this "Olympics" of cuisine is the world's most prestigious culinary competition. In 1984, 60,000 visitors came to the Messegelande—Europe's largest single exhibition area—to watch teams from 28 countries compete. In addition to national competitions, some chefs also compete in various individual categories. 
     The U.S. first participated in 1956, and in 1984 American entrants won 27 gold, three silver and two bronze medals.
     The finals in Chicago are a "hot food" competition, in which food is cooked, served, and then eaten. To quality, the chefs had to distinguish themselves at one of the five regional "cold food" competitions. In the cold food contest, a variety of dishes—from huge marzipan dolphins to delicate fillets of meat and fish glazed in aspic and garnished with tiny curlicued carrots and potatoes carved in the shape of mushrooms — are prepared as elaborately as possible. The key is aesthetics, since none of the cold food is consumed.
     "You get the most expensive food money can buy, then throw it all away," says Thomas Chaterall, executive chef at the Cherokee Town and Country Club in Atlanta. Because the food 

must be prepared and crafted all at once, the chefs work nonstop for several days.
     "You can't imagine what it's like to stay up three, four days in a kitchen and to work constantly," says Michael Robins, executive chef at the Hilton in Altamonte Springs, Florida. "I had a chance to sit down and said, 'My God, I haven't sat down in 24 hours.' But it doesn't get any better than this—the highlight of a chef's career." The entire process—regional competitions, finals, the two years of preparation for the U.S. team, 
and the trip to Frankfurt—is underwritten by the National Restaurant Association and the American Culinary Federation. The ACF is a professional organization that promotes the restaurant industry. The competition is held under its auspices, including the appointment of judges.

     Thirty chefs, six of them pastry chefs, ranging in age from 23 to 46, made it to Chicago last spring. During the four-day finals, six chefs and one or two pastry chefs will occupy the seven kitchens each day. Each chef has only one chance to cook. The kitchens are replicas of the kitchens us
ed in Frankfurt — professional gas stoves, large stainless steel refrigerators, rolling wire racks, and pots, pans, and utensils of every size and description. (The chefs, however, usually bring their own knives, setting them out in neat rows on towels, like surgeon's tools.) Six of the kitchens are identical. The kitchen used by the pastry chefs, who are judged separately, has two ovens in it.
     Compared with the marathon cold food competition, the hot food competition is brief—a little more than six hours of continuous effort. The chefs arrive around 5:30 a.m. and are given a "myster
y box" of ingredients that they must use to prepare their meals. Usually the boxes contain staples—fish, onions, poultry, beef—but one day they included nasturtium flowers. Not everyone gets the same ingredients, and the competition isn't so cut-throat that chefs don't lend each other a needed carrot or mushroom.
     The chefs have half an hour to plan out a menu, which they then post on the door of their kitchens. After that, the race is on. Aided by a lone assistant from a local vocational high school, each chef must prepare 26 identical seven-course meals. Two are served to a panel of judges. The remainder are devoured by hungry journalists and other sponges. Lunchtime is 12:30 p.m.
     Now it is a little after 8 a.m. on the last day of the competition and Daniel Hugelier, the executive chef at the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel in Grand Rapids, Michigan, is begging for cream.
     "Just two cups Rich," he asks Richard Schnieder, a judge in the finals. Schnieder, a stern man in a white lab coat, at first tells Hugelier that he can't have any more cream. He's gotten as much as the others, and will have to make do. But Schnieder eventually goes off in search of more.
     "He's always giving us a hard time," says Hugelier. "It's all part of the stress test."
     The judges, six distinguished chefs, themselves veterans of dozens of foreign competitions, do not sit back and passively wait to make their evaluations. Rather, they are constantly in the kitchens, looking over the chefs' shoulders, taking notes. This inspection has two purposes: It allows the judges to rate cleanliness, usage, and procedure. And it lets them put a little extra heat on the masters of haute cuisine.
     "If we noticed one chef is under great pressure, even if the food is good, we may feel he won't hold up under two weeks of intensive pressure in Frankfurt," says Baron Galand, president of the American Culinary Federation and judge.
     Part of Galand's inspection includes sifting through the garbage. "I've already been through every trash can," he says. "Chefs can't be throwing good things away. If they're using mushroom cups, then we ask them what they did with the stems. Usage. That's what's important."
     Ferdinand Metz, a judge with a thin mustache and a tight expression, walks into Lawrence Ryan's kitchen. Ryan, a department head at the Culinary Institute of America continues with his work. Metz looks into the refrigerator, takes a few notes, samples a green bean, and whispers something to Ryan.
     Robins, who shows up every day to intently watch the participants, observes Metz through the glass. "He's giving him pressure, as much pressure as possible," he says. "He's doing it in such a way to see what his breaking point is. Wants to see how he reacts to his authoritarian way of helping him out."
     "There is very little difference between work habits and final product," Metz says later."I've very seldom sen people work sloppily and produce high-caliber results. Anyone can do something if they have time and leisure and no pressure. This is a pressure environment. here they have X number of hours, strange conditions, an unfamiliar kitchen. Can they do the same under these conditions?"
     The judges talk tough, but in practice they go easy on the chefs, some of whom they have known for years. Schnieder returns to Hugelier's kitchen and silently places a single coffee cup, filled with foamy cream, on the counter before Hugelier, who looks down at it. "If my mousse is tough, you tell Ferdinand why," he says evenly. Schnieder shrugs and walks off. but a minute later he is back with a second cup.
     Each chef copes with pressure in his own fashion. Ed Leonard, a plump, disheveled chef from Trusthouse Forte in Norwalk, Connecticut, sings happily to himself as he pulls the backbone from a duck for his Duck Soup Hudson Valley. Ruben Foster, a tall, handsome pastry chef, removes a tray of golden brown maple-leaf-shaped pastry shells from the oven, twirls on one toe with the grace of a dancer, and sets the tray down on the center table, gently kicking the oven door closed behind him. 
     Chris Northmore, the pastry chef from the Parker House in Boston, chews gum like a pitcher. He wears a floppy cap over his strawberry blond hair, and is the only chef not to wear a toque, the cook's traditional starched white hat. On the counter before him are three bowls of varying sizes, and two scales. The bowls are filled with flaked white chocolate, and Northmore keeps pouring the chocolate from one bowl to another, grimacing, combining and recombining, and weighing the chocolate as if he were trying to solve a math problem. Finally a particular bowlful satisfies him, and he places it in a pan of boiling water on the stove. Immediately, he starts slicing strawberries. One strawberry yields eight thin, perfect slices. he arranges three slices in a champagne glass, nudging them gently into position. Then he steps back, jaw working away and appraises the glass at eye level, like a golf pro lining up a putt. Twenty-five empty glasses await on a tray nearby.

Coming Friday: Part II.

Wednesday, August 18, 2021

Culinary Artists Week #4: Cooking sea bass right is no day at the beach

Tony Mantuano

    The vacation is going great, thank you. I re-connected with an NU classmate I hadn't seen since college, got a first coat of paint on the front steps, dug the next book out of mothballs and started blowing off the dust. Though taking a week off does remind me why I coined the phrase, "If you're not the newspaper, you might as well be dead." Very quiet. I am enjoying revisiting these profiles on chefs, and hope you are too. At the time, it was a way to eat fancy meals I couldn't otherwise afford. This one came from a publicist, who was ballyhooing Mantuano's return after doing field research in Italy. I was trying to think of how to translate that into a story, and thus a meal at Spiaggia, and asked if I could watch him teaching his staff one of the recipes he plundered.
    Tony Mantuano was named Best Chef Midwest by the James Beard Foundation in 2005. He now heads up the food program at The Joseph, a luxury hotel in Nashville.

     Tony Mantuano is worried about a potato.
     "We're doing Idahos and yellows," he says, standing before the curving grill line at Spiaggia, the chi-chi Italian restaurant on Michigan Avenue. "I'm more concerned about the potatoes than the fish."
     It is the middle of the afternoon. The dining room, with its stunning view of North Michigan Avenue, is empty of customers. Mantuano, who is Spiaggia's executive chef, huddles with his top staffers, struggling to do something few of the tens of thousands of Chicagoans who haunt fancy restaurants ever pause to think about: add a new dish to the menu.
     Restaurants are like stage plays. They provide a backdrop for your life's dramas. That's the secret successful restaurateurs understand; you can eat good food at home. But to leap upon the stage, to enjoy that special, fleeting zone that is part private and part public and all glitter and elegance, you need to dine out.
     Like plays, most restaurants open quietly, run for a while, then disappear forever. A few go on to respectable, lengthy runs. And a very few—a handful—last so long they seem to go on, to steal the advertising line from Cats, "Now and Forever."
     To reach that coveted state of longevity, a restaurant, like a play, must refresh itself occasionally. New cast members must be brought in, new arrangements written. Spiaggia, which opened in 1984, has reached that age where restaurants either expire or become institutions. Hoping for the latter, last year it redecorated and brought back Mantuano, who was chef when it first opened, moving on in 1990 to tackle his own projects. Now he is back.
     "It's like returning to a child you helped in its infancy," he says.
     To inspire himself, Mantuano headed to Italy for two weeks at the end of October, seeking out new restaurants and old favorites, including a former haunt called Al Bersagliere, on the Mincio River in the Lombard town of Goito.
     There he was served fish wrapped in a delicate potato lattice. A dish that had an enigmatic sweet taste. A dish, he immediately realized, that would wow 'em back in Chicago.
     "We had prawns done similarly in Tuscany," says Mantuano. "It was sweet. That's what caught my attention. That subtle flavor made the dish jump up a notch. At first you don't recognize it."
     Even though Mantuano sat down with the chef, Mossimo Ferarri, and quizzed him about the dish—the sweetness turned out to come from chestnut honey—reproducing it back in Chicago is not as simple as it might appear. Which fish to use? Which potato? What kind of herbs?
     Each element poses its own problems. The Italian word Ferarri used for the fish was "ombrina," which translates out as "sea perch," a nearly generic term. There are 8,000 different types of perch.
     First Mantuano tries halibut. Then sea bass. Chef du cuisine Beth Partridge slices succulent filets off a shimmering silver and pink slab. Then they have to decide: one big filet or two small ones? They settle on one big filet: less trouble with drying out.
     Next problem, the potato. The lattice is easy enough to cut, using a metal kitchen gadget called a mandolin, sort of a Veg-O-matic on steroids. But how to prepare the potato so it is not too crisp, not too soggy but, to quote Goldilocks, "just right"? How to keep it from discoloring?
     They try blanching, try poaching.
     "The oil-poached potato," says sous chef Russ Elliot, gravely, in the tone a doorman might say, "The Queen of France." He hands Mantuano a thin sheet of yellow potato, sliced into a screen. Mantuano holds it on his fingertips and looks closely.
     "I don't think the yellows are going to cut it," says Partridge. "We're down to Idahos and yellows."
     Eventually the potato problem is solved by blanching in oil. Then on to the puree.
     "I'm not liking the puree," says Elliot. "I think we're better with chopped herbs. This is the black truffle sauce."
     They stand around. Different plates are passed, the three chefs picking up forks from a row of clean ones.
     While not exactly tense, there is a certain air of struggle to refining the dish. Mantuano spikes a version of the herb puree.
     "What's the problem?" asks Elliot. "Are you judging by flavor?"
     "Yeah, imagine that," says Mantuano, testily. "I'm assuming that's what most of the guests will do."
     Finally, the fish is right. The potato is right. The honey is right. The herbs are right. But something's still not right. More tasting. Mantuano unholsters the chef's secret weapon: salt—fancy French salt, we hasten to add, but salt nonetheless. Everyone tastes again.
     "I really think it benefits from the fleur de sal," says Mantuano. "Like salt on French fries."
     "Ta dah," says Partridge, indulging in a bit of culinary punning. "It's a weiner."
     The next week, Branzino in rete di patate -- "bass in a potato net" -- debuts on the Spiaggia menu at $35 a pop. The crowd goes wild.
     "It's really a big seller," says Mantuano.
      —Originally published December 17, 2000

Tuesday, August 17, 2021

Culinary Artists Week #3: Cutting-Edge Chef

Ted Cizma (Photo for the Sun-Times by Richard A. Chapman)

     This ran on a Sunday, and the reason that is important is the Sunday editor was a solid man named Michael Arnold. I happened to be sitting in his office when the subject of this story phoned, in a lather because I had accurately quoted him answering my question about why he got divorced. Mike earned my eternal admiration by his reply, which was along the lines of, "Here's a thought Ted. Next time you are being profiled by a reporter, and there is something you don't want to be quoted saying in the newspaper, DON'T SAY IT!" 
     There's still a Grace restaurant in the West Loop, but it's not the one Cizma opened: that's closed. In 2016, he was the executive chef of Space X, but that's about all I can find.

     Ted Cizma's love of cooking is etched on his body.
     A stockpot, ladle, frying pan and cleaver tattooed on a tableau running up one arm; chili peppers, beef cattle and a fish being sliced for sushi on the other. An entire food chain, with Cizma himself, knife and fork in hand, at the top.
     "The more comfortable I get with myself," he says, sitting in the cool, high-ceilinged dining room of his hot new Randolph Street restaurant, Grace, "the more I want to express my personal style."
     Cizma must be feeling very comfortable with himself of late. Food & Wine magazine has just named him among "America's Ten Best New Chefs"—one of only two chefs not on the East or West coast to be honored. A second restaurant is in the works, as is a cookbook, and the other trappings of culinary fame —TV shows, signature kitchen apparel—perhaps are not far behind.
     While Food & Wine might consider Cizma "new," the 37-year-old native Chicagoan is no newcomer to the local scene. He cut his teeth at cult favorite Daniel J.'s, then went to Zealous in Elmhurst and was five years at Lake View's the Outpost, before starting Grace last year.
     His grandfather was a butcher, and there is a certain meatiness to Grace's menu. Featured are lamb chops and ribeye, and there is a focus on game: venison loin stuffed with wild blackberries, plum glazed antelope tenderloin, grilled rabbit salad.
     The wine list is first rate, studded with hard-to-find vintages from coveted vineyards—with several bottles topping at $ 700 apiece—acquired by Cizma's careful personal lobbying of the top vintners in California.
     "It's pretty straightforward American," he says. "I tend to utilize almost exclusively domestic products -- small artisanal and boutique producers, a few local farmers who plant specific crops for me. Simple food, aggressively flavored. People seem to like it."
     "He cooks as well as anyone," says Paul Wildermuth, chef and owner of nearby Red Light. "He cooks as well as (Charlie) Trotter. He cooks as well as Paul Kahan from Blackbird—as well as anyone I've ever worked with. He's just as good or better."
     Not everyone is enamored of Cizma's cuisine; when the restaurant opened, it was suggested that he heaps on the flavors and textures, a charge he denies.
     "I truly believe my food was never contrived," he says. Yet, as time passes, he does find himself getting back to the unadorned flavors of his materials.
     "I realized that simpler is better," he says. "I think it's a sign of maturity."
     Maturity has its downsides. As his restaurant has grown in popularity, he has found success sometimes standing between himself and his kitchen.
     "The more successful you get, the less time you have left to do what made you successful in the first place," he says. "I find that lately I rarely have time to actually cook."
     Or to play. "I did have hobbies," he says, noting how pastimes such as golf and bicycling have fallen by the wayside.
     As has his marriage, a victim of his passion for food.
     "Absolutely," he says. "It was the mind-set. I was so focused." His wife didn't share his passion. He was fascinated by restaurants and recipes, while "all she wanted to do was fill her stomach."
     "She would boil a chicken breast and eat it plain between two pieces of bread," he says, explaining the separation that left him with custody of their two girls, Grace—the restaurant's namesake—who is 5, and her older sister, Elaine, 7, who will get her own moniker on a restaurant next year when Cizma's second eatery opens in Naperville.
     "My kids have an idyllic life. They are surrounded by people who love them. They come in here and are treated like rock stars," he says, adding that the life of a chef often makes parenting easier.
     "It certainly is a challenge, but I think I do a pretty good job," he says. "It's not that hard if you're willing to make the effort. It helps that my schedule is so flexible. I get to have virtually every meal with my kids."
     This despite a routine that—as with all restaurants—is filled with crisis. "Every day brings some form of disaster," Cizma says. "The basement flooded three times. The power went out twice, once at 6:30 on a Friday night. There were 90 people in the dining room when the lights and the air went off."
     Despite the occasional crisis, Grace is usually filled at dinner and is so successful that Cizma has a philosophy of whom he doesn't want to eat there.
     "I want to populate it entirely with people who 'get' it," he says. "I do not want to be all things to all people."
     Recognition such as the Food & Wine plaudit often means a gig in a top New York restaurant. But Cizma, who grew up in Burr Ridge, says he is staying put.
     "I'm a Chicago guy, born and raised," he says. "I'm dedicated to Chicago. It's a great restaurant town and only getting better."
     That said, the attention that has already risen to a furious boil is a little daunting to the former Marine.
     "I'm a little dazzled by all this," he admits. "I've always considered myself a regular guy without affectations or delusions of grandeur."
     So what is this regular guy's recipe for success?
     "Pay attention to quality at every step," he says. "Pay attention to the details."

          —Published in the Chicago Sun-Times, July 2, 2000