Chicago Magazine used to be the go-to publication for dining and entertainment. The blush went off that rose a while ago. Now, like gilding, there is only ugly base metal left.
John Kessler, a food writer for Chicago, wrote an article claiming the “Party is over” for Chicago’s dining scene. Mr. Kessler’s reasoning equates Beard Awards and Michelin Stars as the hallmark of culinary delight. He claims by losing out on awards and stars, “Chicago’s dining scene has lost its luster.”
Kessler admits he is an annoying newcomer who wants to complain about Chicago, from the food to the weather. He avers that his 25 years as a food writer makes him the right kind of annoying newcomer.
Kessler is the wrong kind of annoyance.
His first of five complaints? Chefs in Chicago do not cook with seasonal ingredients sourced from farmers markets. Heirloom tomato slabs are scarce on hamburgers. Wild chicories cannot be found on menus. Seasonal berries are rare.
There is not enough seasonal produce to fill the desires of chefs and diners. Further, menu prices would skyrocket. Farmer's market and seasonal produce shipped from other areas are expensive. For people like Kessler, who admits to owning an overpriced expensive Canada Goose coat, that may not be a problem. For chefs and diners, looking at bottom lines and checks, it is.
Kessler’s second complaint is astoundingly stunning. “We need more immigrant cooking.” Really? Does this guy live in a bubble? Chicago has a plethora of choices of immigrant cooking by real immigrants. Mexican, Somali, Pakistani, Mongolian, French, Ethiopian, Venezuelan, Peruvian, Guatemalan, Uzbekistan, Russian, Polish, Scandinavian, German, Italian, Ukrainian, Filipino, Vietnamese, Thai, Cambodian, Malaysian, and more, much more.
Chicago is a city of immigrants and they bring their foodways here. In every neighborhood. Maybe Kessler should get out of Logan Square, Fulton Market, and River North to expand his horizons.
I do not know what small circle of dining public Kessler is confined to, but people here rave about many of the ethnic restaurants. What is wrong with cheap eats if the food is great? Maybe Kessler should read the food columns in the Chicago Tribune. He might learn where the good stuff is.
Kessler complains about the corporate culture in the industry. I have to grudgingly agree with him on that point. However, the restaurant group concept is a good business model, if done right.
Kessler’s real shocker? He cannot find a good Italian beef sandwich in Chicago, where the sandwich was created. Evidently, he is oblivious. People here argue and even fight over their favorite places. A few years ago, one of the best Italian beef sandwiches could be had at a food stand in a Home Depot. If Kessler cannot find a “cravable” beef sandwich in Chicago, he is not looking or asking the right people.
It only gets worse. Kessler does not know what street food is or apparently where to find it. Hot Dougs was not street food. Hamburgers in well-known restaurants are not street food. Pizza is not street food.
Street food? Maybe Kessler should put on his Canada Goose coat and head over to the old Maxwell Street market on DesPlaines Street on a Sunday. There he will find some of the best Mexican street food anywhere.
There is a food hall in Chinatown with stands serving a variety of Asian street food, including pig ears, snouts, and tails. There are places I will not mention, but he could find them, where unlicensed cooks sell ethnic street foods made with love in their homes.
There is nothing wrong with a Vienna Beef hot dog. One would hope and pray Kessler does not put ketchup on whatever fancy schmancy dog he eats. That would be an abomination worthy of hellfire and brimstone.
Last, Kessler, like other transplants, decries our civic boosterism. What is wrong with walking around with four starred tee shirts or tattoos? What is wrong with wearing Chicago Cubs clothing, or any of our other team clothing? What is wrong with being proud and loud about our food scene?
The four stars are on our flag and we are insanely proud of our city and our sports teams. As to our food scene, it is not judged by stars, awards, famous chefs, or people from some other planet who do not know Chicago’s food history. It is judged by us, the people who live and eat in this city. The people who cook, serve, and toil to give us the good stuff.
To his credit, Kessler did not disparage our diner scene. That would have created a mass demand for his deportation to anyplace but here.
Our chefs, cooks, and diners are not hibernating, as Kessler posits. Chicago’s food scene is vibrant, alive, and thriving from fine dining to hole in the wall family joints.
Chicago’s food party is not over. It is rolling and rollicking along as it has been since the 1850s when Chicago established itself as the food capital of the nation.
It is time for Kessler to burst the elitist bubble he lives in and explore our city’s great dining scene. He may be surprised. He may eat his words.
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