As you may know, I love food very much, so I was excited to speak with today's interviewee, who gets to eat it for his job, as one of the leading food broadcasters in the country. As the Food Reporter for ABC-7 Chicago, he reports as the "Hungry Hound" several times a week. He is an occasional judge on Iron Chef America and is a 12-time national James Beard Award-winner. He also writes the Adventures in Urban Eating blog for WBEZ Chicago public radio. You can find out much more about him here. We chatted on the phone last week as he was on his way back from the suburbs on a gray rainy day trying a new barbecue place. I was very jealous.
Are there any restaurant trends you're "over", either in terms of cuisine or service or décor...anything that you think just needs to stop happening?
I definitely am over small plates. I was just at a restaurant last night, and they have to explain the whole process of how the menu works -- "have you dined with us before?" A couple of people might say "yes", a couple would say "no", and they say, "well, here's how it works." That drives me crazy.
But then when she said it's small plates meant to share...it just never works out. If there are two people or three people at the table, fine. But if it's more than four, five, six people -- we had a party of eight. After the server leaves I just explain the reality is that if you want to share things, our pod of two or three will get something, your pod of two or three and that side of the table should get something. And let's not pass the plates all the way across to each other because you're just not going to get more than a bite! It's crazy.
Yeah, it is bad for big groups. My husband hates small plates but I have a theory that guys like to know what they're going to own food-wise and don't believe in passing it around.
I like to share, and I want to try a bite of something from somebody else -- some people accuse me of being a "share Nazi" with mine because that's kinda my job. I just don't get...like last night we had a beef dish, and there were five slices of beef, so what do you do with eight people? Well, we'll cut them in half...it gets to be so ridiculous. So that's one thing that drives me crazy. And I'm a little bit over pork belly, too.
Yeah, it's sort of like what tiramisu was in the late 90s, or crème brulee was a few years after that. Every menu it's either beets & goat cheese, or pork belly. And it's not that I don't like it, I certainly love a good pork belly if it's done well -- I think the pork belly at Publican Sunday brunch is fantastic -- but I'm just tired of seeing it on EVERY menu. Everyone is jumping into that bandwagon: beets & goat cheese for starters and the main always has to have pork belly.
What is a Chicago food that everyone is supposed to love that you just can't get in to?
Oh yeah? Not a fan?
Yeah. Deep-dish pizza is that one thing that everybody in Chicago swears by, and they all have their favorite places. I think of it as a cheese casserole. To me -- and I'm from Minnesota, so not really a bastion of great pizza history, but I've certainly eaten pizza around the world -- I feel like a two-inch-deep bowl of cheese and dough is not a pizza. And I try to explain this to people who argue with me about it, and they just think I'm crazy. It's like heresy when you say you don't like deep-dish pizza. And I've had it at all -- I've had it at Giordano's, I've had it at Gino's/Gino's East. Although I will say I like the pan pizza...I don't mind Lou Malnati's, and I do like Burt's up in Morton Grove. But the Gino's and Giordano's are just a cheese casserole.
It's like a Thanksgiving of pizza, it just knocks you on your butt.
Yeah, you just want to lay on the couch and take a nap. That's not...pizza shouldn't do that to you. And there are also regional pizzas in Chicago that people swear by, like Aurelio's in Homewood, like that's the best pizza ever, especially if it comes out of the old oven (the locals will tell you). But I've never been enamored by that pizza, either: I think the dough is weak...it's definitely not an artisanal dough by any stretch, they don't proof it long enough, it doesn't have the right chew, there's not enough salt. The toppings are kind of industrial, it's not necessarily small batch like Great Lake is.
And I get into arguments with people from different parts of Chicago. But the rule is always the best pizza in the world is the one that you grew up with, and I've never found anyone to sort of dispute that. You know I can grow up eating Shakeys, and for many, many years, that was my ultimate pizza. But then I got wise and expanded my palette a bit. But I think it's the pizza that people grow up with. I'm much more passionate about Italian beef and hot dogs than I am about deep-dish pizza.
What do you think is the most blessed neighborhood in Chicago in terms of restaurants?
I think Albany Park. I just love the ethnic eating up there; you're pretty much around the world within a six, seven block radius. And a lot of people don't give it the credit that it's due or they just think it's all Middle Eastern. But there's all this great Mexican and Lebanese and Thai, Vietnamese. One of everything I like up there, usually, and couple of bakeries for good measure. It's a little hard to get to because it's far from The Drive and far from the Kennedy, and it's in between two sort of not-main streets, Lawrence and Kedzie. But if just drive up and down Lawrence and up and down Kedzie in that area, there are some amazing restaurants.
Good to know. Is there anything that you won't eat?
I don't do the Andrew Zimmern school of eating. I will try eyeballs or I will eat ear. But I don't want to do crazy-crazy, like snake and bats and weird animals that I've never heard of, you know, things from the Appalachian Trail. Anything within the cow and pig I would probably do -- I just had haggis last week. I would try most things from the animals I'm accustomed to eating, but I don't think I would do , like, a grilled heart from a bat...or even like a deer heart I wouldn't do unless it was sort of ground up in a sausage with other stuff and cooked with some fat, I guess. But yeah, I'm not a real adventurous, bizarre food eater.
So to boil it down, you won't eat anything gross.
Yeah, I won't eat anything gross.
Do you do many food festivals? Do you think there's any good eating at the fests in Chicago or do you think it's just a rip-off?
No. They all sort of deal from the same suppliers, I see a lot of the same sort of eggrolls/chicken wings/pizza guy, and they're all sort of the same. Although Koreatown has a really cool one in August, and I do like that because it's all from local restaurants. It's that secondary Koreatown, not really Lawrence but I think it's Bryn Mawr, and the Korea Chamber of Commerce is up there, and they have a bunch of restaurants like So Gong Dong. All these little joints up on the street have booths out there, which is really cool. That's actually a really good eating festival. Most of these festivals up on the North Side all have the same food, there's always that Cevapcici guy who does the Croatian/Yugoslavian sausages, which is kind of good. But no, for the most part, they're all kind of a joke. And Taste of Chicago is kind of the biggest joke because it's not really a taste of Chicago, it's a taste of the places who can afford to spend $25,000, $30,000 on fryers and grills.
I know it's not in Chicago but have you been to Pierogi Fest in Whiting?
I've not been to that, but it's been on my calendar.
I think you should go. I went...you kind of have to be ready to throw away your dignity and eat everything, but I just had so much fun, it was so laid back and cheap. I just enjoyed it very, very much.
Yeah, that would be a fun one to do. There aren't a lot of local food fests that get me excited, frankly. They're just always kind of the same everyman hot dogs, and why spend $10 admission to go and eat the same food I can get in the neighborhoods for less?
Yeah. What's your favorite eating city outside of Chicago?
I love Vancouver so much, but New York just has it all, it's an international city. Although I will say Bangkok was probably my most fun eating. There wasn't the vast array like in New York where you can just get everything and anything you wanted, but the sheer pleasure of just eating off the street in Bangkok was a hoot, and everything was delicious and dirt-cheap and made all in the nude, right in front of you. And you could see the pick-up trucks loaded with all herbs driving into the city every day -- all the basil and opal basil and lemongrass -- so you knew everywhere that you were getting off the street was totally fresh, whereas there isn't that street food culture in any city in America. So I guess for overall eating I would say New York City, but for just the sheer pleasure of eating in a city and really tasting that city, I would say Bangkok.
What's a restaurant in Chicago that you would go to all the time if it were closer to where you live/work?
Lula. LOVE Lula -- in fact I was supposed to go there today for lunch and my lunch date got canceled. That's kind of my de facto Monday brunchy/lunchy time because a lot of industry people go there and you usually get some news from people or gossip from some chefs. But the food is just spectacular, it's so simple, it's so honest, it's so delicious. Everything I eat there tastes good, it's not over-fussed and precious. It's kind of like, sort of grunge/Brooklyn/Alice Waters, they have that same aesthetic: they care about the farmer. But they really have a nurturing passion for creating dishes and making sure flavors work, and there's always some kind of acidity and something that's pickled, which I really love. It's just really honest food. I do live fairly close to Logan Square, but if that place was like two blocks away, I'd be there every other day.
Do you read a lot of the comments you get from what you post online, and what tends to be your most common reader complaint?
The most common complaint is "why don't you come to the suburbs more?", you know, don't ignore the suburbs. I just got a really nasty call from a viewer about a week ago berating me for not going west. She's like, "Once again, a restaurant that I have to drive an hour to get to, I wish you would stop ignoring Naperville and the western suburbs." And, you know, I take those to heart, started shaking the trees a bit. I just shot at a really good BBQ place in Wheaton last week that my friend Gary told me about. So that's probably the no. 1 complaint, that we don't go to the suburbs enough.
Is it hard to turn off thinking about food when you're just eating? Or do you always feel like you're on the job when you're dining?
Yeah, I'm definitely always on the job. I met a friend of mine in Highland Park today, for BBQ places to try. We only had an hour in between trains, and she wanted to sort of catch up, talk about our families and what was going on, and I could tell I was being a little bit aloof because I was focusing on how the brisket was made, you know, was it too dry for me, and did I feel like the pork was smoked long enough. So yeah, every meal to me is kind of work, but I honestly love it. It's something that I just totally enjoy, and I immerse myself in it. I read about food and talk about food all the time, and there are some times when I don't want to be on the clock, like when I'm on vacation. Or if I'm out of town just sort of exploring somewhere, I don't want to have to answer calls from people coming in to Chicago next weekend for brunch, where should I go?
Sometimes I want to be off the clock but when in terms of just eating meals, I always feel like I'm on. Because you never know where you're going to get another good bit or story, or anecdote. Great example: I was in Copenhagen last year eating at Noma with my wife -- we had gone with a colleague of ours -- and somebody we knew got us a reservation, you know, because it takes forever to get a reservation. And so there we are, and we're eating and dessert comes, and the guy goes, the server says, "I heard one of you at the table is from Chicago?" and we said, "Yes, we are" and he said, "You know our pastry chef is from Chicago." And I never knew that! She's from Pilsen! So I asked if I could talk to her afterward, and sure enough she came out, her name's Rosio, and I get the little impromptu interview on my iPhone, and then I wrote on my blog the next week. So you just never know where you're going to get a story from, people from Chicago are everywhere in the world and so it's just always interesting and fascinating to talk to people about food and how they got into the business...and food people love to talk about themselves anyway.
Have you ever considered going in disguise, incognito, anything like that?
I can't really do disguises, only because I'm on television, it's sort of pointless. And when people say you have to be anonymous to be a critic, well, I'm not a critic: I'm not looking at reviewing a place based on multiple visits (which I think most critics should but apparently many people don't have the budget to do it now, but ABC gives me a budget just to go out and dine).
I'm looking for a hook, I'm looking for an ingredient, I'm looking for a dish...you know, if I go to GT Fish & Oyster, I'm really probably looking at two things: oyster service and lobster rolls, and that's all I care about. So if they recognize me, what, are they gonna give me a piece of key lime pie? Big deal, like that's going to affect how I feel about the lobster roll? And the funny thing is I do a lot of ethnic places -- like I'll do a story of some town with a crazy little thai place -- and those people never watch regular news, they don't know who I am because they're watching satellite television from back home. So I'm usually incognito anyway, at most places. But when you go to the big-time places, they might know, they might seat you before somebody else, but that doesn't affect me because I'm not interested...I'm looking at the food, it's all about the food for me.
I live in Edgewater, and when I walk up and down Broadway, I see your picture in some of the windows of the restaurants. How does that work, the picture exchange?
So after we feature a place on the segment, we'll send them a certificate and a headshot. And the only places that have them are places that have been featured on the Hungry Hound.
My husband wanted to know if you carried them around with you in the car and give them out.
No, but I do 147 stories a year, and many of those stories are more than one location. And I've been at ABC for 9 years, so that's a lot of locations. Although one caveat is that if a place gets one of those photos, it might be because I did a story on one dish there, so I'm not necessarily giving the entire menu an endorsement. If you look on the picture it will say, "...really loved the such-and-such." That's what you might want to hone in on .
What are you guiltiest food pleasures, whether eating out or at home?
I love anything with chocolate and peanut butter. I'm a freak for mango on sticky rice, that's probably my ultimate dessert, from Thai food. The Chunky Monkey Ben & Jerry's, definitely a guilty pleasure. Oh, and Tate's Chocolate Chip Cookies, they're from Long Island, they sell them at Olivia's Market by our house...they're these really super-thin and crispy chocolate chip cookies, I cannot get enough of those.
Obligatory question: How do you eat out so much and keep your girlish figure?
I'm very careful about portions. I'm a nibbler, I'm a taster, I'm not a clean-my-plater. And I work out with a trainer once a week -- every Monday I have a one-hour appointment with her, and she's amazing, I've been with her for three or four years. And I think by going that one day a week, I burn so many calories and it also speeds up my metabolism... I really feel like since I've gone to see her, I can eat anything I want as long as I'm careful about portions. And I drink a ton of water, I don't drink any soda, and very moderate alcohol. And I don't eat any crap, I don't eat any processed food. And if I have some duck fat French fries, I'll eat a handful of them and then I'm done.
What have you eaten so far today?
Today I've had some pulled pork, I had baby back ribs, a little bit of brisket, a little bit of pulled chicken, and a couple bits of mac n' cheese...baked beans, bread pudding, coleslaw and two spoonfuls of banana pudding. But I didn't have any breakfast, so my first meal started at 12:30. And tonight I'll have a light dinner at Three Aces in Little Italy before sweating at the Arcade Fire show.
Do you subscribe to any cooking or food magazines? What about any food blogs?
Yes. I get Cooks Illustrated, Saveur, Bon Appétit, Food & Wine, and the New Yorker. Food blogs, I read all the local guys: Eater, Grub Street, I look at the Tribune's blog, The Stew, I look at TimeOut's blog...that's probably it, I don't really look at any blogs nationally.
How does it feel to be the 281st person interviewed for Zulkey.com?
Like I'm a little late to the party.