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May 2009 Archives

Could Kaze be Kaput?

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This would be so sad if it happened, since it's such a great restaurant with amazing food, but according to a report from Crain's Chicago Business, a spat between the owners of Roscoe Village's Kaze could spell the end of the run for this popular sushi spot.

"Macku Chan, Kaze Sushi's executive chef, accused Andre Williams and Manifest Destiny LLC of breach of contract and using company money - at least $650,000 - for personal expenses," Crain's said. "Mr. Williams contends he has done nothing wrong and that the money he withdrew from Manifest Destiny was to reimburse him for the capital he personally invested to get the restaurant off the ground."

Kaze, 2032 W. Roscoe St., opened in 2004. It was named one of the country's top 10 sushi spots in the April edition of Bon Appetit magazine.

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We hereby declare this the summer of pie.

Hugh Amano, he of the unemployed chef/blogger beat, is organizing a pie-off, fresh on the heels of his first successful potluck with strangers. Exact date and location TBA, but Amano is aiming for a late June lakefront shindig.

In September, we can look forward to the now famous, fifth annual Bucktown Apple Pie Contest, which draws hundreds of spectators.

But perhaps the most visible champion of pies is Hoosier Mama Pie maven Paula Haney. Foodies citywide rejoiced when she finally opened her stand-alone shop at 1618 1/2 W. Chicago in March.

Churning out sweet and savory pies is apparently only part of what Haney does. She gamely participated in our story on having pie for your wedding. And she's going to be a judge at a June 6 pie contest, part of a fundraiser for Blue Sky Inn, a job training program for homeless youths.

We first wrote about Blue Sky Inn's Lisa Thompson in 2007. Back then, she and a few youths worked out of a rented kitchen. They sold their baked goods at a few farmers markets. Some kids worked hard. Some stopped showing up.

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The program has since grown -- not by leaps and bounds, mind you, but in the nonprofit world, a little is a lot. A year ago, Thompson opened the Blue Sky Bakery & Café at 4749 N. Albany. She still only works with two to three youths at a time. The disappointments outnumber the success stories. Both of the youths interviewed in our story are still living in shelters; one of them was shot in the leg while leaving a GED class.

Thompson met Haney when both were working out of the rented kitchen. Haney had the overnight shift; Thompson and her crew would come in after her, around 6 a.m.

The two stayed in touch, and now Haney will help out at this fundraiser at Lush, 1257 S. Halsted. In addition to the pie contest, there will be picnic lunches up for auction, made by Charlie Trotter, Rick Bayless, Ina Pinkney and Randy Zweiban; and lots of wine. Admission is $12 the day of -- so even if you've never heard of Blue Sky Inn, well, it's only 12 bucks. And again, we're talking pie.

The backstory is pretty sweet, though, wouldn't you say?

Made cornbread from the back of the cornmeal container last night. The other week, it was scones from the back of the pastry flour bag.

We underestimate the power of the back of the box but that's where some of the most classic recipes are from. Think Nestle Tollhouse Chocolate Chip Cookie.

Here's what we want to know: What are your favorite back-of-the-box recipes? Post your comments, or send an email to mdavenport@suntimes.com.

The Webcams are coming! The Webcams are coming!

During her cooking demo at the recent National Restaurant Association show, Stephanie Izard shared this interesting tidbit: She plans on installing a live Webcam to show the build-out of her restaurant, The Drunken Goat (expected to land in the West Loop in December or January).

After the restaurant opens, Izard says she'll keep the Webcam up in the kitchen so that diners can watch the chefs in action. (She admits she may have to tone down the back-of-house cursing, however).

Sarah Stegner of Northbrook's Prairie Grass Café, meanwhile, has a Webcam set up in her backyard garden.

Stegner (that's her below, with her husband, Rohit Nambiar, and co-chef George Bumbaris) is keeping it up all summer long as a sort of inspiration to home gardeners. She also is tracking her garden's progress on Facebook. It's kind of like watching grass grow -- wait, it's exactly like watching grass grow! -- but still, pretty cool.

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Thank you, GQ Magazine, for cluing me in on just what goes on in that mysterious storefront on Balmoral and Clark, but for also letting me know that within its doors I will find one of the 25 best pizzas in the United States.

For many of us who live in the neighborhood, we're surprised not only to find out that the pizza made at Great Lake is one of the best in the country, but also that it's a pizza joint. Those last two words may make the folks behind the carefully arranged wheelbarrow, a couple retro paint cans and flour sacks in the window cringe, I'm sure. But I guess I'm just one of the clueless sorts who can't figure out that a place that does not say the word "pizza" in its window or door, which has no indication to passersby that it makes pizza and that it's sole window display is something that looks like a slice of a Restoration Hardware vignette, is a pizza place.

It's not just me, though. I've walked past the place with friends and neighbors, and the "is it a bakery? a hardware store?" questions reminded me of the old, "Is it a floorwax or a dessert topping?" Saturday Night Live skit. Well, it turns out Great Lake is neither a floor wax or a dessert topping. It's a very highly regarded artisan pizza gallery, or so says GQ magazine. (Who gets local restaurant recommendations from GQ, anyway? People who get stereo-buying tips from Playboy?)

As expected, attendance at this year's National Restaurant Association show took a hit. The show, which closed Tuesday at McCormick Place, drew 54,000 attendees, a 24 percent drop from 2008, the association said.

A bright spot: The International Wine, Spirits and Beer portion of the show logged a 13 percent increase in attendance.

Some we spoke to said that though the show floor wasn't shoulder to shoulder as in years past, the buyers and restaurant professionals who were there were serious about doing business -- which is what the industry needs.

After picking up some asparagus and shiitake mushrooms at the Daley Plaza farmers market earlier today, I couldn't resist a stop at the Bleeding Heart Bakery booth. It's an automatic reflex -- baked goods for sale, me like a bee to honey. Damn you, baked goods. Three bucks later, a s'mores brownie was mine. Lunch was still on the horizon. Still, I broke off a nugget right then and there.

"Eat it," one of the young women working the booth urged. "If you die, at least you know you had the best part."

Chef Bill Kim is taking Urban Belly on the road, his wife, Yvonne Cadiz-Kim, tells us.

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Plans are unfurling for a Los Angeles outpost of Kim's noodles-and-dumplings joint at 3053 N. California.

Here we were getting all excited about the Kogi BBQ chef coming into town and teasing us with tastes of his taco truck cuisine, which isn't coming our way anytime soon, and one of our own is spreading his wings (as he should).

In fact, Kim and Kogi chef Roy Choi bonded while at the National Restaurant Association show, which ended Tuesday. Choi promised to be Kim's tour guide when he visits L.A. in a few weeks.

We're not big caramel fans. If we're in a sweet snack mode, we usually turn to chocolate first.

But there are exactly two caramels out there that one should always save stomach space for: Katherine Anne Confections and Das Caramelini.

We first met Katherine Duncan and her little pillows of goodness back in 2006, when she was slinging Potbelly sandwiches while trying to make a go of the confections business. (She's gone and done it -- her products are in Whole Foods, among other places.)

This week at the All Candy Expo, we met Katie Das (below) and her husband, Dhruba, of Das Foods.

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For a decade, the Ukraine native toiled as a food scientist for Kraft and Wrigley before breaking out on her own in 2006. She had been inspired while on a trip to France with her husband; they fell in love with salted caramels given to them at a bed-and-breakfast and the inn's owner shared her recipe, which Das of course couldn't help tweaking.

Funny the career shift -- developing snacks, salad dressings and other foods that require all sorts of funky stabilizers and multisyllabic ingredients you've never heard of, to making caramels made with real butter, real sugar and real cream from local farmers.

It seems the world couldn't get enough of salted caramels last year. And while Das certainly isn't dismissive of trends -- she was at the show to introduce a line of lollipops, including a maple-bacon number -- she says striving for the highest quality trumps the flavor du jour. And that's pretty sweet.

Das caramels are sold at Sam's Wine and Spirits, Provenance, City Olive, the Pleasure Chest (really!) and Chicago's Downtown Farmstand.

In these tough economic times, everything that can be done to relieve some of the pressure on Americans struggling to get by is welcomed, whether it be incentives to buy new cars or homes, or a package of hot dogs for no charge.

Oscar Mayer is the one offering up the free franks. They're giving away up to $1 million in Jumbo Beef Franks, for those who sign up at the Web site they've set up for the promotion, http://kraft.promotions.com/ombeeffranks/front.do.

Once you sign up for the offer, you'll get a coupon (within four to six weks) for your free package of Jumbo Beef Franks. Hurry up, though, because the promotion ends at 10:59 Central Time Wednesday.

We were expecting the creator of Crackheads candy to be some goofball from California in his 40s, wearing a rumpled "Legalize Weed" t-shirt that made him look 23 ... or something like that.

We weren't expecting John Osmanski.

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Osmanski, 28, is the earnest if a tad talkative mastermind behind Crackheads. We chatted with him today at the All Candy Expo at McCormick Place, where he was showing off his latest product, Crackheads2.

Crackheads are chocolate-covered espresso beans. Crackheads2 are Crackheads with added caffeine. And for the record, Osmanski is not making light of drug abuse.

He says the name of the candy comes from a term he used while a student at the Milwaukee School of Engineering to refer to his parents, professors, friends and anyone else around him who drank coffee incessantly. They were ridiculously helpless when they didn't get their daily caffeine fix -- crackheads.

In the beginning (and by that, we're talking 2007) he made batches of the candy by hand using a double boiler. The business has grown quickly and considerably since then.

Osmanski, who is now in law school part-time, has caught some flack for the name -- angry e-mails mostly. He responds with a form lettter.

"We're not trying to make fun of any drug usage," he says. "We're poking fun at people drinking coffee all the time."

So you know: The candy is sold under the less offensive name, Jitterbeans, depending on the store.

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Greetings from Candyland!

Hot on the heels of the massive National Restaurant Association show at McCormick Place is the smaller but eminently sweeter All Candy Expo, which opened today and ends Thursday.

Stay tuned for what we found (besides this gentleman who calls himself "Reinhold") as we went sniffing for the new, the funky and the fabulous in confectionery. Hint: coconut, ginger, salty/sweet, organic, savory.

Looking for the best pizza in America?

Head to Andersonville, according to the men's lifestyle magazine GQ.

GQ food writer Alan Richman gives the nod to Great Lake's Mortadella Pie, 1477 W. Balmoral Ave., in the June issue of the magazine.

Richman traveled more than 20,000 miles across the country in search of the perfect pie and found 25 of the best pizzas you'll ever eat.

"[Nick Lessins's] cheese pie, prepared with fresh mozzarella made in-house, grated Wisconsin sheep's-and-cow's-milk cheese, and aromatic fresh marjoram instead of basil, was slightly shy of unbelievable," Richman said. "This pie--creative, original, and somewhat local--represents everything irresistible about the new American style of pizza-making."

The National Restaurant Association show is all about networking and pressing the flesh if you're a restaurant operator.

Same thing if you're a suburban mom and marketing exec turned culinary student just looking for an in.

Claudia Biespiel, who is studying to be a chef at the College of DuPage, was in the audience Saturday at the Culinary Pavilion watching chef Rick Bayless demonstrate how to make grilled steak with a chipotle tomatillo salsa. When it came time for the Q&A, Biespiel had a carpe diem moment.

"Do you accept stages at your restaurants?," she asked Bayless.

With nary a pause, Bayless answered, "Yes, we do. You can contact [chef de cuisine] Brian Enyart at the restaurant."

(The next question, from another woman: "What's a stage?" Bayless, again, on the ball: "If you have to ask that, you're probably not going to have one." Big laughs from the audience. Bayless quickly and very nicely answered her question - it's an unpaid stint in a kitchen.)

We caught up with Biespiel after the demo.

"I adore Mexican food. I really like Bayless," she said.

She said she was going to call Enyart today. You go, girl.

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Who among us overachieving home bakers hasn't dreamed of chucking their day job (provided it isn't, uh, baking) to open a bakery?

Lisa Spinner wasn't one of those dreamers. Nine years ago, she was an undercover investigator for the Office of the Cook County State's Attorney who, while on maternity leave, happened to bake some banana bread (using, as always, her grandmother's recipe) for a party for her daughter, Hannah. And a friend happened to really dig the bread and told Spinner she should make a business out of it. And that's what Spinner did.

True story. As told to us Sunday by Spinner's husband and PR guy, Pete, at the National Restaurant Assocation Show at McCormick Place. We almost passed up the Spinners' booth (it's easy to do when the Coca-Colas of the show floor take over five times the square footage). We're glad we didn't.

Hannah Banana Bread is based in Glencoe, but the breads are baked at a North Side facility near Irving Park and Rockwell. The Spinners offer four flavors of banana bread, as well as coffee cake, pumpkin bread and soon, gluten-free banana bread.

When Lisa Spinner first started out, she hawked the bread at small coffee shops in the 'burbs. Today, Hannah Banana products are in Whole Foods and Costcos nationwide. It'll be on QVC this fall. And, the golden ticket -- it made O Magazine's The O List in October.

But watching the Spinners hand out samples Sunday, carefully choosing the prettiest pieces while talking enthusiastically about the bread, it was clear that being in the specialty foods business is all-consuming and no cakewalk, no matter what Oprah says.

The bread's inspiration, by the way, is 8 and is "very conscious of the fact that something is named after her," Lisa Spinner said.

Hannah should be proud. Cakey and fragrant, it's just the sort of thing dreams are built on.

It was a crystal clear, sunny weekend in Chicago. Or so we gathered. We spend it within the massive confines of McCormick Place for the National Restaurant Association's annual show.

Sore feet aside, there are worse ways to spend a weekend. The NRA show is where chefs, restaurateurs, buyers, sellers, producers and importers collide to talk dining trends and show off the latest in food, drink and gear.

So much to see, so much to sample. Some odds and ends:

Hand sanitizer stations were everywhere. Every 50 paces or so. Water, on the other hand, was elusive to the point of maddening. S-T photographer John Kim, my companion on opening day, had this theory: No water equals more stomach space for tasting samples.

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The Peppadew booth was manned (womaned?) by young ladies in tight blank tank tops and miniskirts. Perhaps they took a wrong turn en route to the Auto Show?

Roy Choi (below), chef of L.A.'s Kogi Korean BBQ truck, told me, "This is the most beautiful city I've seen in my life. And I've been to Milan, Paris, Tokyo, Seoul... ." (It was Choi's first visit to Chicago and the show.) This remark does not mean we are getting a Kogi truck. "You don't have a street food culture," Choi said. Boo hoo.

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Choi, on his first night here, ate at Uno's and Sunda, the new Billy Dec hotspot. Of Sunda, he shrugged, "Alright." He asked for recommendations. We offered up La Pasadita, Hot Doug's, Publican. An attendee with a New York badge standing next to us piped in Urban Belly.

Offal-mad San Francisco chef Chris Cosentino was selling these tees for 20 bucks after his unbelievably cool pig's head demo (tee modeled by NRA marketing manager and chief blogger Derrek Hull):

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We heart Cosentino.

This, by the way, is what Cosentino made Sunday. Looks like a ham, right? It is so not a ham. It is all the meat FROM A PIG'S HEAD. Dudes in the audience were visibly thrilled. (You'll read more about this in an upcoming Food section.)

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Inquiring minds were all abuzz this week over Esquire food critic John Mariani's visit Tuesday to graham elliot, chef Graham Elliot Bowles' restaurant at 217 W. Huron. The general uproar among the twitterati took us back a few years to the story we broke about Mariani's alleged demands made to moto chef Homaro Cantu, and the ensuing debate about what is or isn't ethical behavior.

At any rate, Bowles posted this on Facebook today:

"i just wanted to take a second to comment on mr. mariani's recent visit to graham elliot. during his time in the dining room, he was nothing but gracious and paid for his meal in full. it should also be noted that mr. mariani was the first writer/critic to ever take notice of me while i was chef at the jackson house in woodstock, vermont...where he also paid for his dinner and showed no sign of 'douchebagery.' "

Phew -- the man paid. As for who makes Mariani's Best New Restaurants list this year, we'll just have to hold our breath (or will we?).

The Local Beet, a Chicago-based online resource for all things locavore, graciously allowed us to run this piece on canning in yesterday's Food section.

Oak Park resident David Hammond originally wrote the essay for Local Beet, which attached an editor's note to its Web version -- which we omitted. And perhaps we shouldn't have.

See, Hammond's essay is all about his first experience with canning. The process itself was delightful, he writes. The results, however, were inedible.

So, Gardner just told us he heard from a local chef today who is very passionate about canning and very upset that this piece will scare people away from canning.

We liked Hammond's piece because it was honest, funny, well-written and very much in the spirit of the modern foodlover. We also see the chef's point. We do hope those of you who've never tried your hand at canning weren't turned off by the essay. Perhaps you took it as we did.

But so we're all clear, here's that editor's note that ran wth the story on The Local Beet:

"Eating locally isn't always easy and we want to share the whole picture with you, warts and all. This piece is about the difficult and dangerous side of preserving your harvest. If you have questions about canning or a story to share, please show and tell in the forum. Although, I'm sure David won't be answering your questions on how to properly can veggies."

And maybe that chef will show us the right way to canning nirvana.

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By guest blogger and New York writer Seanan Forbes:

Never mind spring flowers. This year, for many of us, April's showers brought May's head cold.

It hit me late last week.

My mother's cure (for adults only) involves tea with brandy, a 50/50 split. Her recipe: Make the tea, get under a mound of duvets, and drink the mixture while it steams. You'll heat up, fall asleep and feel better - or not care.

Work doesn't mesh well with a mug full of hot brandy. My daytime cold routine: heat whole wheat udon in chicken soup, add at least three kinds of chili pepper and down it - hot enough in all ways to make me sweat. My drink's no gentler: ginger root and lemons, simmered in water, drunk by the honey-sweetened mugful.

For three days, I lived on chicken soup and hot ginger lemonade. It didn't drown the cold.

The weekend ended, the workweek started, and I was still in the grip of the grippe. Okay, it wasn't a flu; it was just a cold - but it wasn't going anywhere. As I sat, head bent over my third consecutive dinner of hot noodles, broth, garlic, ginger and pepper, pepper and more pepper, my head dripping, my brain drowning and my tongue on fire, I started to wonder: What do chefs eat - or drink, if they're not cold-time eaters - when they have colds?

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Rodelio Aglibot of Sunda,110 W. Illinois, grew up in Hawaii. He was reared on multicultural foodstuffs and his restaurant's menu celebrates Asian food. Where does Sunda's peripatetic chef turn when a head cold tries to take him down? The answer has to be exotic, right? No. He goes for two shots of Jack, then honey ginger tea, served hot. My mother would approve.

Laurent Gras of L20, 2300 N. Lincoln Park West, seldom falls prey to a cold or flu. When he does, someone else cooks for him.

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Gras says, "I am lucky I do not get sick very often. When I do, my wife usually makes egg drop soup for me. It has chicken broth with a lot of ginger and feathery threads of egg. She sometimes puts a little green onion and soy sauce on the top. The hot broth and ginger are soothing and the egg gives you some energy and protein. But also it is probably the effect of having someone make you soup when you are sick. That makes you feel better right away."

You have to love love.

The National Restaurant Association's annual trade show hits town Saturday, which always makes for an exciting, dizzying, busy couple of days. This year, however, we are literally busting at the seams with anticipation. Forget celebrity chefs ... the Kogi Korean BBQ Truck is coming!

Make that, three key people behind the Los Angeles sensation-on-wheels -- owners Mark Manguera, his wife Caroline and chef Roy Choi. Choi will be cooking his now-famous kimchi quesadillas in the Korean Pavilion.

If you've been living under a rock and don't know what we're talking about, you should be ashamed. Ok, kidding. But do your homework here and here.

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We caught up with Choi, 39, this week as he prepped for yet another day (and night) on the streets. We wondered if his appearance at the NRA show signals an expansion into our fair city. Not quite yet, he says.

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Hello, farmers markets!

Reporter Misha Davenport fesses up about why he joined a CSA (community supported agriculture program) this year (laziness, mostly). Ah, but week after week of just-picked produce from Wisconsin's Harvest Moon Farms will whip him into shape.

Also, check out our comprehensive guide -- and accompanying map -- to every market in the Chicago area.


View Chicago-area farmer's markets in a larger map

Had it not been for one unattractive, hot tar paper roof, Merrill Smith's bright idea -- a portable garden called the Green Box -- might never have bloomed.

Smith, an avid gardener (she was part of our story on container gardens), moved from the burbs to Lincoln Park five years ago, trading her backyard vegetable garden for access to the aforementioned tar papered rooftop. Instead of giving up her green thumb, she went about trying to figure out how to make the space work for her.

"I read about a guy building these big salad tables, about six feet long. I had a friend make one of those for me. Then I started kicking around the idea of just how I could make it more portable," Smith says.

As she tweaked the design, she pitched her idea to the nonprofit Resource Center, which operates City Farm, just down the road from the Cabrini-Green housing projects. The farm bit. "And then I became this junkyard dog," Smith says, trolling Dumpsters for lumber.

The two-by-three-foot Green Box -- Smith builds these with her own hands, people! (her 16-year-old son helps) -- is made solely of recycled or repurposed materials, including old crib slats. It comes with a burlap bag of City Farm compost, red and green lettuce seeds and directions.

It, Smith says, will not fail even the most novice gardener.

"This really is the closest thing to instant gratification in vegetable gardening," she says.

The Green Box makes its debut from 9 a.m. to noon Saturday at City Farm, 1204 N. Clybourn. Smith will be there, shoveling compost and showing people how the thing works. A box costs $75, $50 of which goes back to the farm and the Resource Center. RSVP: greenboxchicago@me.com

Our esteemed Bill Zwecker hears that Chicago may be in the running as the site for a new reality show in the works from British chef Jamie Oliver and American Idol's Ryan Seacrest.

The show's premise: a healthy makeover of an unhealthy city.

Note to Jamie and Ryan: if you're going by this list, you have 12 other solid contenders to consider before us.

Last chance to get your hands on Hugh Jackman's Tim Tams....

Now, don't get all flustered. Let us clarify. Tim Tams are the favorite cookie of the hunky Australian actor, who cleverly hawked them, and his movie, "Australia," last fall. Pepperidge Farm agreed to make the chocolate treats exclusively for Target, but only through March.

A Tim Tam, according to Wikipedia: "Two layers of chocolate malted biscuit, separated by a light chocolate cream filling, and coated in a thin layer of textured chocolate." Sounds kind of like an all-chocolate Kit Kat, which can only be good.

Now comes word that there is a single case of Tim Tams left, autographed by Jackman and up for auction on eBay. Bidding (which hovered today around $237) ends Thursday.

The whole promotion is a bit silly, but people's love for Tim Tams apparently isn't. Here's singer Natalie Imbruglia demonstrating how to do a Tim Tam Slam (biting off the ends to make an edible straw).


All this got us thinking about people's candy bar loyalties.

We don't need Jackman to get us all excited about candy bars. Our recent favorite (and believe us, we discuss these things) is the Take Five bar -- chocolate, pretzels, peanut butter, caramel. Don't know how this has escaped our radar for so long, but it's scarily good.

As candy bars go, what's your fave?

If you've ever talked to Gary Wiviott, you know the man can talk. (If you've never talked to Gary Wiviott, try it sometime. Even if he doesn't know you from Adam, chances are he'll engage and get going and before you know it, you'll be downing dumplings and Tsing Taos at some hole-in-the-wall joint on Argyle Street).

One of the founders of the LTHForum.com chat site, Wiviott also is known for his skills with the grill. He's come out with his first cookbook, Low & Slow: Master the Art of Barbecue in 5 Easy Lessons.

It's perhaps the only cookbook we know of that begins with a section on cooking gear that "should be avoided at all costs," charcoal briquettes and lighter fluid among them. But that's refreshing. We like that. (And kudos to co-author Colleen Rush for capturing Wiviott's voice so perfectly).

Our Dave Hoekstra spent some time barbecuing and eating with Wiviott recently; his story runs in Food next week. The book is in stores now. And Wiviott and Rush are hosting a book release party at 6 tonight at the Paramount Room, 415 N. Milwaukee. What more do you need?

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The Obamas love hamburgers. This past week, both the President and the First Lady made trips to hamburger restaurants in and near Washington. Everyone has heard about President Obama and Vice President Biden's lunch excursion to Ray's Hell Burger in Arlington, Va. last week, but not as widely reported was First Lady Michelle Obama's burger jaunt.

The Washington Post reports that Mrs. Obama and her staff dined at the Good Stuff Eatery, on Pennsylvania Avenue, this past Friday.

"The outing was just one of several the first lady and her staff have made to local eateries for lunch, also visiting Five Guys Burgers and Fries and a barbecue place," the Post reported.

The restaurant assembled platters of various house specialties, so everyone in the group of around 18 could sample a variety of burgers. The burgers they got to eat included the Colletti's Smokehouse burger, free range turkey burgers, the "Prez Obama" burger, regular burgers and bacon cheeseburgers. The burgers were served with two kinds of French fries -- sea-salt dusted ones and a thyme, rosemary and cracked pepper version. "Also on offer were Cliff's Homegrown Vidalia Onion Petals, a kind of high-end blooming onion," said the Post.

Who knew the Obamas were such burger fans? Maybe next time they're back in Chicago we'll catch them at Kuma's or Hamburger Mary's.

We know that, as Mayor Daley has said, you don't want a rat in your sandwich, but a rat with your beer? A rat in the DJ booth? That's no good, either, but that could have been the case had the Mayor's Dumpster Task Force not paid a visit to the Mad River Bar & Grill on Friday.

Inspectors found an active rat infestation at the bar and grill, at 2909-2911 N. Sheffield, "that put customers at risk and required immediate closure," according to a press release from Streets and San.

The Dumpster Task Force got a complaint about uncontained garbage at the Bar & Grill but they found the bigger problem was "the unchecked presence of rats."

They found more than 300 rat droppings over two floors, including in the kitchen area, the DJ and bar areas and also in storage (I don't know what kind of music the DJ plays at the Mad River, but a certain UB40 song about a rat in the kitchen comes to mind).

The inspectors also found numerous holes and openings "that would have given the rats numerous potential sites in which they could nest."

Josie Cruz, the Deputy Commissioner of Streets and San's Bureau of Rodent Control, which operates the task force, said, "We closed the Mad River Bar & Grill for the critical violation of inadequate pest control and also cited them for failing to have a certified food manager on the premises. They will have to clean and rodent proof their business, revamp their pest control and sanitation operations, then request and pass a complete reinspection before we will consider letting them reopen."

We couldn't resist. And it's Friday.

Check out some precious food-related moments from one of our favorite shows, NBC's "The Office," via Chow. Creed's mung bean sprouts revelation still has us chuckling.

In deep freeze

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Well, this would have been a fantastic topic for one of our Kitchen Economist installments in the Food section, but Mark Bittman beat us to it. Here's a thorough, logical look at why and how to use your freezer to its full potential. You'll eat well and save money. Nuff said.

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The AP reports that President Obama and VP Biden went on a burger binge today to a small strip mall joint called Ray's Hell Burger in Arlington, Va.

Amid a gaggle of photographers, the two paid with cash and waited for their number to be called.

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Ray's Hell Burger, also called Ray's Butcher Burgers, does one thing (and well, at that, according to D.C. foodists) -- a $6.95, 10-ounce burger made from freshly ground, prime beef.

Sara Levine of the Washingtonian.com said, "Ray's creations aren't of the truffle-and-brioche gourmet variety à la Palena or Central Michel Richard; they're more like great made-at-home burgers from the backyard grill, taken up several notches thanks to the quality of Landrum's meat." Washington Post food critic Tom Sietsema's only quibble: the brioche bun tends to fall apart.

Ray's doesn't even sell French fries.

The foodie(s) on the White House staff know their local grub. The cheeseburger at Ray's Hell Burger is on the list of the 50 best burgers in 50 states in the June issue of Food Network Magazine. It's one list we won't quibble with, at least not where Chicago is concerned -- the Slayer burger at Kuma's Corner is the magazine's pick for Illinois.

Update: We just heard back from Ray's owner Michael Landrum, who apologized for not being able to call us that day the Prez came in. Kinda busy, we guess.

Anyway, Landrum tells us he's humbled by the impromptu visit from Obama and Biden to his 9-month-old shop. And contrary to what some were reporting Tuesday, he says Obama ordered a cheeseburger with Vermont cheddar. And Biden ... uh, Landrum doesn't remember what theVP ordered.

"The tour buses haven't started rolling up yet, but seeing your restaurant discussed on The Daily Show and Dave Letterman is kind of cool," Landrum says.

By guest blogger and New York writer Seanan Forbes:

Nothing bears as powerful testimony to the talent of a chef as having
a crew that can maintain your standard. If your crew can do that and
keep smiling, then you're doing your job right.

To judge by the action behind Carrie Nahabedian's table at the 2009
James Beard Foundation Awards
, Chef Nahabedian excels at creating a team.

Her flight was delayed. She'd planned to be in New York at 3 p.m. At 7 in the evening, the chef was still in transit.

At work stations across Avery Fisher Hall's lobby and grand promenade,
preparations for the gala were underway. With no captain at their
help, Naha's cooks were keeping up the pace, and smiling as they did so.

Naha's contribution to the festivities: cured ice-caught Great Lakes
whitefish and Door County golden whitefish caviar with crème frâiche,
candied Meyer lemon, bull's blood greens and Lebanese-seeded fattoush.

On the page, it looks complicated, but every element is needed. The
dish had taste and texture and (joyfully, in a drippy New York City
evening) the scents and shades of spring.

It received a reception as enthusiastic as any concert ever played in
the hall. Ingredients, execution and a delighted audience - no wonder
Nahabedian, who got to gala with plenty of prep time to spare, was
smiling.

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By guest blogger and New York writer Seanan Forbes:

At the James Beard Awards, medallions aren't the only things that shine brightly. After the event (and, if you're lucky enough to meet the right bartender, during), the food and drinks glow. After all, James Beard wasn't about competition; his interest was in good food and drink.

Last night, Bridget Albert showed New York how Chicago makes a cocktail.

Albert has the ingredients of a master of the bar, and that's precisely what she is. She's crafted cocktails for the Art Institute of Chicago, and had more than a stirrer in the drinks at Sepia, Nacional 27 and the Drawing Room.

Now the master mixologist at Southern Wine and Spirits of Illinois, Albert is also the Director of the Academy of Spirits and Fine Service - a history program for bartenders - and an author.

That makes life easy if you want to try her drinks at home. Get your hands on a copy of Market-Fresh Mixology: Cocktails for Every Season, and then go to the Green City Market. With regional farms in bloom, you're certain to find ingredients to make any award winner spring-green with envy.

Yesterday evening, tweaking her Chicago-Style Cocktails to balanced perfection, Albert was as smooth and cool as her drinks. Later, with crowds jamming her table, she kept drinks and conversation flowing.

A splash of Grand Marnier Cuvée du Centenaire, some 10 Cane Rum, raspberry-ginger shrub syrup, Goose Island Reserve Matilda Belgian-Style Ale and precisely enough fresh lemon juice to offset the sweetness ... Now, we're talking a winner.

The recipe, after the jump.

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An eat pork greeting card, via Serious Eats.

Congratulations to Grant Achatz, who picked up a cookbook award, and the Publican, for best restaurant design.

Bummer to all the Chicago chefs nominated but not victorious in their various categories. Hey, tomorrow, you're still ours in Chicago. Next year.

Read the full list of winners here.

By guest blogger and New York writer Seanan Forbes:

Jennifer Petrusky of Charlie Trotter's is cooking for the gala. She's making it like the restaurant's current menu: "a celebration of spring".

It may be springtime in Chicago, but it's film noir time in New York City. With cool rain outside, there's need for a reminder that it's springtime -- and Petrusky and her crew are providing just that.

Asked how it feels to be here representing Chicago, she says, "It's a great honor to be here representing Chicago and also representing women -- from all over the world."

To judge by the smiles on her crew's faces -- and the scents coming from the work station -- she's representing better than well.

By guest blogger and New York writer Seanan Forbes:

Grant Achatz says he's fine. He looks fine, with his neck circled by
an orange band bearing a round medal.

Alinea the restaurant has earned recognition. Alinea -- this time,
the book -- has its own websites: www.alinea-book.com and
alineamosaic.com. Now, it (or, more precisely, its author) has a
medal, as well: for "Cooking from a Professional Point of View."

Is Achatz startled to have won? "Of course I'm surprised," he says.
"When you're up against Thomas Keller and Heston Blumenthal, you have
to be surprised."

With that, he lopes off to find the rest of his team. Some people
strive to be in the limelight. Achatz, who could easily claim the
shine, is always swift to state that he could do none of it alone.

By guest blogger and New York writer Seanan Forbes:

Even dressed to the nines for the James Beard Awards, Grant Achatz
still looks like an ebullient adolescent.

Asked what's exciting him lately, he cocks his head and says, "the
James Beard Awards". Achatz's girlfriend, Heather, whispers, "Japan."
"We just got back from Japan." Achatz says the trip was inspiring.
"It was amazing. We were in Tokyo and Kyoto. Kyoto's it."

Achatz has been giving inspiration to many people -- not just in
Alinea the restaurant, but also in the cookbook of the same name. The
hardcover Alinea has been nominated for Cooking from a Professional
Point of View. At last year's awards, Achatz took Outstanding Chef.
A few hours from now, we'll know whether he's bringing an authorial
award back to Chicago, as well.

Come what may, Achatz looks to be having a fine young time.

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By guest blogger and New York writer Seanan Forbes

In the bustle of The Modern, the restaurant attached to New York's Museum of Modern Art, Belinda Chang is a sanctuary in comfortable heels, carrying an easy air of smiling calm.

Seeing her in passing, you might think she was someone's guest, about to be spoiled with an elegant meal. You'd never guess that she was the hard-working wine director of the high-end restaurant.

IMG_3765_Belinda_Chang.jpg

Chang is more than up to the task. She's worked her way around the country, from San Francisco to -- now -- New York. Chicago is Chang's hometown, and she's served in some of the city's finest. She was a sommelier at Charlie Trotter's, corporate director of wine and spirits at Rick Tramonto's Centinare, and wine and service director for some of Tramonto's other Chicago restaurants, including Osteria Via Stato and Osteria di Tramonto.

If you ask Chang, hers is a fabulous job. "I'm having," she says, "the time of my life. For each point in time, there's a right place to be. Right now, for where I am in my career and in my personal life, New York is the most amazing place I could be."

Chang's been in New York for a year "and a few months". How has her life changed since moving to New York?

Her daily commute is a lot easier. In Chicago, she had a daily drive to the city from Buffalo Grove. Now, she has a five-minute walk to work. In fact, just about everything in her life is within walking distance of home.

The walk to work may be short, but Chang puts in the miles underground -- not in the subway, but below the restaurant. The cellars are a trek from the restaurant -- and there's a lot of wine. The Modern's current list runs 43 pages, and some of the bottles bear the restaurant's label. Next door, in MoMA, art may hang on the walls. Here, it's in the glass and on the plate.

What are Chang's choice wines of summer? She likes Edelzwicker, although "like" may be too weak a word.

Getting to know Tom

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Tom Colicchio is like the new guy who came along around sophomore year of high school, the one you misread as mostly a jerk but who ended up being your crush for the next two years. In other words, Tom Colicchio grows on you.

Here's a cozy little Q&A with he of Top Chef fame, which only adds to his appeal. (We always have Fresca in our fridge, too, Tom! And tequila also makes us crazy.)

Three great little nuggets for us regular cooks:
"You don't need to have a Rolls-Royce kitchen to make a great meal."

"Recipes tell you nothing. Learning techniques is the key.

"Buy the best you can find or afford and don't overmanipulate it."

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Had a lovely drive in this morning, thanks to David Hammond's piece on WBEZ-FM (91.5). If you didn't catch it, check it out here. It's a must-listen.

Hammond, moderator of the culinary chat site LTHForum.com, talked to Chicago chefs Rob Levitt, Bruce Sherman and Mark Mendez about swine flu and happy pigs and how, when we can achieve the latter, we wouldn't have to connect the dots to the former.

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About the blog

Janet Rausa Fuller

Sun-Times Food editor Janet Rausa Fuller is always thinking about her next meal.

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