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With McCormick Place reform legislation firmly in place, it's doubly encouraging to note that attendance at the National Restaurant Association show, which ended Tuesday, registered a 6 percent increase over 2009. (Last year, you may remember, was dismal -- down 24 percent from the previous year.)

And a few final, random thoughts from the show:

* Spike Mendelsohn, he of "Top Chef" fame, is working on bringing the Good Stuff Eatery, his "chef-y" Washington D.C. burger joint, to Chicago.

Mendelsohn and his sister Micheline (together, they wrote the Good Stuff Cookbook) met with a real estate company while in Chicago about their franchise plan, Micheline said. "The thought would be to expand the concept in big cities, rather than have 10 in D.C.," she said. Makes sense -- a certain high-profile lawyer from Chicago but now living in D.C. loves the place.

* Bumped into Primehouse chef Rick Gresh on the show floor; he offered these words about the street food thing trying to gain a foothold in Chicago.

"I think we have a lot of silly laws on the book. If it does happen, it'll change the way people eat here, in a positive way. Who knows -- maybe we'll have a steak truck."

And speaking of steak, Gresh is working with Goose Island brewmaster Jared Rouben to create what he's calling the "ultimate steak beer" that will mimic the flavors of Pinot Noir. Much like what Rouben has done with Vie chef Paul Virant and a handful of other Chicago chefs.

Brewing for the USB will begin in July for a fall release, Gresh said. There will be a spring release as well.

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(photo by John J. Kim/Sun-Times)

When Ina Pinkney suspended dinner service in January at her West Loop restaurant because of the limping economy, with it went her popular gluten-free fried chicken nights.

Well, dinner service still is dark at Ina's, 1235 W. Randolph (it's business as usual at breakfast and lunch) but customers clamoring for Pinkney's gluten-free chicken have won out.

On June 18, Pinkney will open the restaurant at 5 p.m. for a three-course, gluten-free prix fixe meal. Diners will get to choose between that famous gluten-free fried chicken, pan-seared salmon and vegetable risotto.

"We get at least half a dozen calls a week just about our chicken night," she says. "We need the business, and we also want to acknowledge that this is a part of the community.

"There is no crunch in the gluten-free world. They can't have fried food. It's a taste they miss, it's a texture they miss."

Pinkney doesn't have the gluten-free fried chicken on her lunch menu because she only has one dedicated fryer for potato pancakes and french fries. However, she now stocks
a "magnificent" gluten-free pita bread from Rose's Wheat Free Bakery in Evanston for sandwiches.

"Sandwich bread is really the missing link in all of the gluten-free foods," Pinkney says. "But Rose has been genius in figuring out gluten-free baked goods."

The dinner at Ina's is $30; reservations are required. Call (312) 226-8227.

And check out next Wednesday's Food pages for more on the world of celiac disease and gluten-free cooking.

What to eat now

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On this glorious, sunny day, here are two recipes that speak for themselves, from the man who does the same:

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The food truck movement is the topic du jour at the National Restaurant Association show happening now at McCormick Place.

And outside of the convention walls, it's picking up major steam.

Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd) told me this morning he will submit an ordinance at the next City Council meeting on June 9 that re-works the city's existing regulations regarding street vendors. He wants to make the case for mobile food trucks as "a good job creator and just a good way to showcase a lot of talent that might not otherwise be able to afford a whole restaurant buildout."

In an ideal world, the ordinance would then be hashed out in a joint meeting of the council's health and licensing committees, and then go back to the full council for a final vote. Waguespack expects little, if any, resistance.

"Some aldermen don't want food trucks to be able to pull up in front of someone else's restaurants. And [Alds. Tunney and Balcer] don't want them in front of the ball parks, so there will be some of those restrictions we'll have to pull together," Waguespack says, "but I don't know why anybody would be opposed to it."

Waguespack credits Chicago chefs Matt Maroni and Phillip Foss for making his office and the city sit up and take notice. Maroni had approached Waguespack with a draft proposal, and Foss had done similarly with Ald. Vi Daley. There have been meetings with health officials and others since, and Ald. Margaret Laurino last week put forth a resolution calling for a hearing before her committee on economic, capital and technology development. But Waguespack says there's no need for yet more talk -- just action.

"We just took their drafts and their writing, and we're going to do tweak it so it'll fit into the city's municipal code," Waguespack says.

I hung out with Maroni on Saturday while he checked out the food truck area on the show floor (read more about that in Wednesday's food pages). He came away feeling inspired about his forthcoming venture, gaztro-wagon -- and with a handful of business cards he intends to use, including that of Streetza's Scott Baitinger, who has offered to speak to the council on Maroni's behalf.

You can bet Maroni and Foss will be sitting in on a panel discussion this afternoon on mobile restaurants; star chefs Ludo Lefebvre and Mary Sue Milliken are the main draw. In fact, Foss will be blogging about the session for the association.

And Waguespack tells me "a foodie" on his staff also is checking out the show today.

Ludo Lefebvre had a ball competing on Bravo's 'Top Chef Masters' two years running, and wants to do it again next year.

"They've already asked me," Lefebvre said. "I told them yes. If they change judges."

Which judge?

"The one with the hat," he said.

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"So how was the hungover chef?" Krissy Lefebvre asked me as I wrapped up my interview with her husband, the chef Ludo Lefebvre, at the National Restaurant Association show Sunday morning. ludophoto1.jpg

(That hangover was procured thanks to Ludo's buddy and fellow Top Chef Masters star, Graham Elliot Bowles. The couple had a three-and-a-half hour meal at Bowles' River North restaurant the night before, where they were served "the entire menu, I think," Krissy says.)

I wouldn't have guessed Lefebvre was hurting; on the contrary, he was incredibly psyched to talk about his soon-to-launch fried chicken truck.

Lefebvre is at the show as a sort of ambassador of the mobile food scene that's all the rage on the West Coast, the East Coast and pretty much every major city (and even some minor ones) except Chicago (check out our Wednesday food pages for more on the topic). Eschewing the traditional restaurant model, Lefebvre has quickly gained a following with his "pop-up" LudoBites "restaurant" in Los Angeles, which rents a space for a short time, then moves on.

"To be stuck in one place, in one restaurant, for 20 years, I don't want that," Lefebvre said. "It's fun to change, it's fun to move."

His truck, developed in partnership with Mobi Munch, a California company positioning itself as a one-stop shop for food truck entrepreneurs, is an extension of his pop-up LudoBites operation -- only, its sole focus is fried chicken.

"When we cook in fine-dining, it's a lot of pressure. It's more fun, a concept like this," he said, adding quickly, "But nothing's changed. We're still using fresh ingredients, the same techniques I learned with the great chefs in France."

So -- he uses boneless chicken leg meat. He brines the meat and flavors it with herbes de Provence. He serves the chicken cut into little chunks or pipettes ("Some people call them nuggets, some say Ludo balls," he laughed).

It's still another month before the LudoBites truck is full operational, but the chef, oh, he has plans.

"I will take it to the Champs-Elysees. That's my dream," he said, an idea that Mobi Munch president Ray Villaman said isn't all that unrealistic.

Lefebvre also has another truck concept in mind -- one serving French street food, which doesn't really exist, if you think about it. "Street food in France is crepes, or you stop at a bakery," he said. "What about crepe tacos with escargot?"

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Entire fast-food empires have been built around the french fry. And yet, companies still continue to pursue perfection -- as in, a better-for-you fry.

The modestly named Perfect Fry company out of Calgary thinks it's nailed such a thing. At the National Restaurant Association show, which opened Saturday at McCormick Place, the company, which makes ventless, hoodless fryers, showed off its new baby: the Spin Fresh.

The 17-inch wide countertop fryer uses centrifugal force to spin off a third of the oil and calories from just-fried fries, chicken nuggets and the like, but retrieves the oil so it can be reused. The fries I tried looked and tasted noticeably lighter and less greasy than most.

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The technology was developed by the Spin Fresh company, one of whose investors and board members, Ed Rensi, knows a thing or two about french fries. Rensi ran a little company called McDonald's for 13 years.

Perfect Fry acquired the technology; in turn, Perfect Fry was just acquired by Elgin's Middleby Corp., maker of the Turbochef ovens used by Starbucks to heat their breakfast sandwiches and pastries.

All of this is to say, you may be seeing a spun-fresh fry at your favorite fast-food eatery sooner rather than later.

(photo by John J. Kim/Sun-Times)

Stories of career-changers looking to make a buck in the food industry are a dime a dozen at the National Restaurant Association show, which opened Saturday at McCormick Place. Here's just one:

Canadian Bruce Gibson was, at one time, a banker. Five years ago, he got fired. He started a concessions business in Ontario, Gibbys Grill (two locations strong now), got his three boys -- all nicknamed Gibby -- his wife and other relatives involved.

They started getting a reputation for their fresh-cut fries. Rather than rest on those starchy laurels, Gibson set about developing a signature item that would pair well with the fries. Thus was born the $5 Gibby Dog, a seven-inch, pork and beef wiener stuffed with cheese, wrapped in bacon and deep-fried.

Last week, he opened a factory that will mass-produce frozen Gibby Dogs for distribution to restaurants, stadiums and the like.

"Honestly, if I'm not the talk of the show...," Gibson said as a steady stream of people whisked toothpick-impaled slices of Gibby Dogs from a tray at his booth Saturday.

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Gibson isn't divulging the intricacies of how the bacon adheres to the dog, or how the cheese doesn't ooze all over the place while it undergoes the hot oil bath. The risk he took introducing the product in such a hot dog-educated town as Chicago wasn't lost on him.

"Chicagoans love their hot dog but they've been very gracious and receptive to the Gibby Dog," he said. (Bruce, it's called free food -- only .005 percent of trade show attendees pass it up).

The Gibby Dog can be deep-fried, oven-baked or microwaved.

Miffed that your photo of chocolate-dipped, salt-flecked bacon didn't get recognition in our reader photo contest? Or just curious as to why our judge, photographer Stephen Hamilton, ended up choosing the photos he did? Hear it from the man himself on his blog, Who's Hungry. Hamilton includes his thoughts on our grand-prize winning photo, the four finalists and several others that caught his eye.

Well, this just about makes it official.

Bon Appetit magazine has signed on as sponsor of Chicago Gourmet, the food festival in Millenium Park, the Illinois Restaurant Association announced today.

The event, dreamed up two years ago by the association, stumbled in its first year but appears to have found its legs and then some. It'll now be called the "Bon Appetit Presents Chicago Gourmet" fest. Might this be the start of a beautiful relationship that will evolve into something rivaling the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen? We can only hope.

"We are just delighted to be part of Chicago Gourmet," Bon Appetit editor Barbara Fairchild said via press release. "It's a city of great restaurants with much diversity, talented and innovative chefs, and an enthusiastic foodie public that enjoys it all. I always love exploring the scene. And we're looking forward to talking with everyone!"

Tickets to Chicago Gourmet Sept. 25 and 26 are on sale here.

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Well, could that have been a crabbier episode of Top Chef Masters?

No pun intended. Some crab was cooked, but we're mainly talking pissy chefs and judges on Wednesday's episode, not to mention that Tony Mantuano -- Chicago's only hope to take home the crown -- was booted off a shade too soon, which just makes us crabbier.

The quickfire challenge: make a dish out of legs (frog, crab, octopus, etc). The judges: a moody Jay Rayner and Olympic swimmer Jason Lezak because, as host Kelly Choi was forced to point out, he knows how to use his legs. Huh? Think it's time for some fresh blood on Bravo's creative team?

In a sign of things to come, Susur Lee hogs table space in the kitchen, while Mantuano tries to stay zen. "You're my lucky charm," Lee singsongs back to a visibly annoyed Mantuano.

To the judges, Mantuano presents a lovely looking warm potato and crab salad with coriander. But Rayner gets a bite of cartilage and dismisses the salad as underdressed, prompting the first expletive from Mantuano. In a rare bright spot, sunny Susan Feniger takes the challenge with an ugly but tasty dish of roast chicken with quinoa pilaf.

The elimination challenge: a tailgate party for 100 USC football fans, using a charcoal grill. Right up our Chicagoan's alley right?

But the dark cloud still hovers while the chefs shop for groceries, with Marcus Samuelsson greedily buying all the boneless chicken thights and Mantuano uttering a second expletive after Lee again refers to him as his lucky charm. "Susur annoys me at times," Mantuano says to the camera, after Lee suggest Mantuano would be perfect as a chef on "The Sopranos."

Mantuano's mood improves as he gets rolling; the dough for his pizza is exactly how he wants it to be. The judges, however, feel differently, calling it tough and dry. In the end, Feniger's skirt steak tacos were tailgate-friendliest, while Mantuano garnered the lowest score of the night.

"I can't believe it's over," he said. Us either. Boo.


The things you learn in a 75-minute lunch at Café Spiaggia:

-- Tony Mantuano has removed Rick Bayless from his Twitter follow list. The man is too prolific, says the Spiaggia chef. "I love him, but I just can't. It's too much," Mantuano says.

-- Spiaggia will be serving decidedly downscale pizza and beer tonight. In the private dining room, that is, for tonight's "Top Chef Masters" viewing party. Twenty bucks. 8:30 p.m. Go and root for Mantuano.

-- Susur Lee, Mantuano's fellow 'Masters' cheftestant, does not own a cell phone, nor does he have an e-mail address. "It's impossible to get a hold of the guy," Mantuano says.

-- Six-year aged balsamico tastes like nectar. (Check back here in a few days for more details on Spiaggia chef di cucina Sarah Grueneberg's scarily vast knowledge of balsamico).

-- Pasta cut using a gold die, a recent find now on the cafe menu, yields a rougher finish, thereby enabling the sauce to adhere better. "And you can charge more," Mantuano chuckles.

Pictured is fusilli with Nichols Farm greens, tomatoes and almonds -- toothsome yet velvety. (And look for more discussion of pasta made using traditional brass dies -- and an equally lovely dish -- in our Low Mileage Kitchen column next Wednesday).

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Ruh roh. Sun-Times Washington correspondent Lynn Sweet has pissed off the Top Chef Master. Sweet wrote that Rick Bayless was tweeting from the White House kitchen. Bayless, on Twitter, fired back, "I NEVER Tweet from WH, which I KNOW is not permitted. Apology?" Sweet then offers this clarification and apology.

Whew.

But if we may, just one more Twitterific Bayless-related detail about today's state dinner: Frontera Grill chef Richard James got to pet Bo, the White House dog! This via inimitable fishmonger Carl Galvan's Twitter feed. Galvan is nowhere near the White House or the White House kitchen. Funny how that Twitter works!

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Here you go, folks: The winner of our first ever Food Photo Contest is ... Sharlene King and her simply delectable chicken sandwich!

King, 27, is an Andersonville resident and a techie by day who works in digital design. She (kind of) maintains a blog and last year went to the casting call for "Masterchef," the Fox show in development starring Gordon Ramsay and Chicago's Graham Elliot Bowles. She made salmon and grouper with an arugula salad for the judges. "I guess I didn't pass muster," she says blithely.

King made this sandwich last summer to use up some farmers market produce she had, including sugar snap peas she'd pickled herself and freeze-dried shallots from the Spice House on Wells. For all you camera geeks, hers for this shot was a 2003 Sony Mavica. "Not even a digital SLR. It uses a CD instead of a card. It's not old-school, it's just old," she says.

"That sandwich does it," said our guest judge, culinary photographer Stephen Hamilton. "It's not perfect."

Click here to see our four talented finalists, and here for the other entries. And thanks to all who played the game. What do you think -- should we do this again sometime?

And while we're (or, rather, you're) at it with this whole taking pictures of food thing, this just popped in our inbox: Food52, one of the more creative Web-based foodie concepts out there now not to mention a prolific recipe generator, is holding a travel food photo contest! Way more rules than ours, but those prizes are pretty cool.

The food world over knows Rick Bayless is cooking at the White House tomorrow, and making his 28-ingredient mole, and that he has been tweeting from D.C. (though something tells us he's finally been muzzled, as our White House correspondent Lynn Sweet calls it; by our calculations, Bayless averages one tweet every 5.2 minutes, and his last one was around 7-ish this morning). Obama Next State Dinner.jpg

We know, via his Twitter feed, that he was a little nervous, that the White House kitchen is "rather small" and that he was worried about the ingredients, all of which had to be ordered by the White House.

An AP story that just moved on what is shaping up to be the biggest non-story food story involving a famous chef tells us more of the same, plus this fascinating tidbit: Bayless at first wasn't allowed to bring his own knives -- "I said that's like asking a famous runner to run in someone else's tennis shoes," Bayless told the AP -- but the White House finally, surprisingly, relented.

For this state dinner for Mexican president Felipe Calderon, Bayless will be cooking for 200 people. Which should a breeze, considering his past exploits.

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Katherine Duncan, purveyor of caramels and truffles that will make you go, "OMGthoseareamazing" as you drool all over yourself, is back at the farmers markets this season, this year with an ambitious goal: She vows she will make a new, market-driven truffle every week.

But fie the cold Chicago spring weather and slow-to-come harvest. At last week's markets, "all there was was rhubarb!" she lamented (if you could even get your hands on some, and unless you showed up super-early to Saturday's Green City Market, you probably didn't). So she went with ginger-blood orange, rose and fleur de sel and (locally ground) peanut butter and fleur de sel truffles.

She's still experimenting with the rhubarb, so this week, expect the ginger-blood orange again plus a Champagne-raspberry number -- using raspberries frozen from last year's haul.

Find Katherine Anne truffles at the Andersonville market on Wednesdays, Daley Plaza and Sears Tower on Thursdays and Division Street and Glenview on Saturdays.

"Can't wait for strawberries soon," Duncan says. Same here.

Indeed, Spiaggia's Tony Mantuano is still in the running on "Top Chef Masters," though it wasn't necessarily a masterful night for him or the other cheftestants.

A trying-too-hard quickfire challenge -- create a dish for the characters on "The Simpsons" -- was followed up by the "Exotic Surf and Turf" elimination challenge involving black chicken, monkfish liver, sea cucumber and one too many geoducks.

Try as we might, we're still can't get the images of geoduck and undercooked goat leg out of our head, so we'll spare you all the details. (But just for fun, here's a shot of Andrew Zimmern, host of "Bizarre Foods" on the Travel Channel, with the giant clams; Zimmern, as it happens, was the featured judge on last night's episode.)

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Anyway, Mantuano scored the lowest on the quickfire with his fried bacon-honey dough, but scored in the top half for the elimination round with a luscious goat ravioli, one of the few appealing dishes of the night.

Crazy Susur won with an impressive 19 stars, and lovely Jody Adams, alas, was sent home.

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Stephanie Izard knows how to keep the buzz going.

It's been two years since the Top Chef-winning chef whetted everyone's appetite with plans for her own restaurant. It was going to open last spring. It was going to open in January. It was going to be called The Drunken Goat.

Delays are par for the course in the restaurant world. But rather than fade into the background while mucking through all the red tape, Izard has smartly kept herself very much in the scene, cooking at various charity events and trade shows, holding "Wandering Goat" dinners and so on. goat 3.jpg

And so, The Girl and the Goat, as it has been re-christened, is opening -- really, truly, Izard says -- in mid-June on West Randolph. And Izard isn't yet done building up the anticipation.

Her latest promotion is a button giveaway. She has 1,000 of these cute little goat buttons, each numbered on the back, that she's already started giving away. On May 24, she'll draw 25 numbers and post them on her site. Those winners (and their plus-ones) will get to eat at a preview dinner before the restaurant's opening.

Izard will be handing out buttons at 11:30 a.m. Saturday at the Green City Market, and at her 11:30 a.m. Demo on May 22 at the 61st Street farmers market.

Two other ways to finagle a button: buy local products (Milk & Honey granola, Three Floyds Beer, Prairie Fruits Farm cheese, etc) at Whole Foods, 1550 N. Kingsbury, Saturday through May 22 (bring your receipt to customer service), or buy a local beer at Rootstock, 954 N. California, and a button is yours.

You have until the end of today to enter the Sun-Times Food Photo Contest! A reminder: photos have to be of something you cooked, not a dish you ordered in a restaurant, however lovely it may appear.

Thanks to all who have sent in entries so far. There are some beauts. This one gave us the biggest chuckle:

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These are making us hungry:
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The winners will be announced in next week's Food pages. There are some lovely cookbooks in it for four lucky shutterbugs. And, for the grand prize winner: a day-in-the-life-of-food-pornographer-Stephen-Hamilton experience.

Got an email the other day from the Bravo pr team reminding me to watch "Top Chef Masters" as our own Tony Mantuano is still in it to win it.

"It's now between him and four other chefs to determine who will be crowned Top Chef Masters in finale," the email read.

Er, wait -- isn't it between him and six other chefs? Though math isn't our strong suit (which is why we chose this profession - bah dum bum), we can do simple addition. The champions round just started last week with the eight finalists. Chef Carmen Gonzalez go the boot. That leaves seven.

We sent an e-mail back.

Her reply: "Sorry-that was a typo-him and SIX other chefs. I don't even know who wins so I couldn't let you know what the future holds, even if I wanted to! I intentionally DON'T find out the outcome because that knowledge is like a loaded gun :-)"

Mmm, hmm. At the least, that knowledge has been known to piss off viewers who hate spoilers.

Also, there seems to be a pattern of cheftestants who host viewing parties doing pretty well. And yes, there will be one at Spiaggia at 8:30 tonight - prosecco, sweets and a $20 donation to benefit Mantuano's charity.

Watch Mantuano advance, or maybe not, but probably, at 9 tonight on Bravo.

Here are quick links to the farmers featured in today's cover story on these unlikely adopters of social media, plus a few that didn't make it in:

Dietzler Farms: on Twitter
Green Acres Farm: on Facebook
Heritage Prairie Farm: on Facebook and Twitter
Three Sisters Garden: on Facebook
River Valley Ranch: on Facebook and Twitter
Seedling Orchard: on Facebook, and Twitter
Ellis Family Farm: on Facebook
Nichols Farm and Orchard: on Facebook and Twitter

We're particularly tickled to see Nichols Farm on Twitter. Looks like they signed up the day after we'd chatted with Todd Nichols (at right), one of the sons of the farm's founder, Lloyd Nichols. 5-18 podgo farm 8.jpg

Todd, 28, who's had a personal Facebook account since the site's get-go, says he took it upon himself to start a Facebook page for the farm earlier this year.

Pa Nichols "is so computer-illiterate. At his point in life, he doesn't even want to learn. In fact, he was surprised when he heard your message about this story, because he didn't know we had a Facebook page," Todd Nichols says.

We'd like to think we had something to do with the new Nichols Twitter account; but alas, as their second tweet says, it was Oak Park locavore-to-the-core Rob Gardner who's responsible. Anyway, Pa Nichols, if you're reading this (which you probably aren't, based on what your son is saying about you), consider yourself informed.

Sunda chef Rodelio Aglibot's new show, Food Buddha, will premiere at 9 p.m. June 14 on TLC. As we'd described earlier, the show has Aglibot traveling to various cities to sample the local cuisine (via Aglibot's "OOE [one of each]" ordering style at restaurants), then going back to the kitchen at Sunda in River North to come up with a new dish informed by his travels.

Bummer, though -- the network is promoting this as a "special," not a series.

Wonder what's up with that other show touted last fall by TLC, starring Chicago's own Art Smith? Waiting to hear the official word from the network. 2-16-10_podgo_chef_8.jpg

Update: "Craving Comfort," which was to be Smith's hosting debut, is off the table.

"In the process of developing the show, the network decided not to move forward with the concept," TLC spokesman Dustin Smith says. (You might have guessed as much after reading our cover story on Smith in February and wondering why there was no mention of an air date).

There is an upside, however: TLC is "talking to Art Smith about other opportunities on the network," Smith says. Expect a less vague announcement in a few weeks.

Things keep looking up for Blue Sky Inn.

We first met the nonprofit's founder, Lisa Thompson, in 2007, when she was getting a job training program for homeless kids off the ground. The core of the program was catering and baked goods, made in a shared-use kitchen. Thompson worked closely with two to three teens at a time, some of whom quit the program barely after starting. But slowly, by word-of-mouth at the farmers markets where they sold their scones and cookies, they gained a following. 11-21-07_Hein_bluesky_1.jpg

A year later, Thompson took the next step, securing a small space at 4749 N. Albany and opening a bakery and café that would employ the youths. The café wasn't much to look at but Thompson and the kids did their thing, holding bake sales, community dinners and the like.

Next week, the Blue Sky Bakery moves to even bigger digs at 3720 N. Lincoln. The 1,200-square-foot space was a former Dinner by Design meal assembly kitchen.

The café and bakery will be open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Thompson plans to have six youths on the payroll this summer, who will sell their baked goods at the Printers Row and Wicker Park farmers markets.

"We're having a much higher success rate with probation clients," Thompson says. "We're also working with a GED prep center on the South Side. They've sent us some youths. They're getting ready to graduate [from the 12-week training program] in three weeks. We've kind of turned a corner."

Around that corner is a good place to be.

On a related note: Blue Sky Inn is a subject of a short film by Chicago filmmaker (and frequent Blue Sky Inn volunteer) George Desort. The film is one of the contenders in the One Chicago, One Nation contest; view it and vote for it here. Voting ends Sunday.

Here's what you need to know about last night's Top Chef Masters:

-- Our only Chicago hope, Tony Mantuano survived, thanks to some perfectly cooked a la minute ouzo shrimp and a classic potato gratin (his mom's recipe).

-- Cool as a cucumber seems to be a winning trait in this competition, and while Mantuano does well in this category, Jonathan "Obi-Wan" Waxman has this down.

-- Susur Lee is nuts, and we love it.

Both challenges had the chefs split into teams. The quickfire was a tag team cookoff -- each team had to make one dish, the catch being each chef had to cook one at a time, they weren't allowed to talk to each other and while waiting their turn, had to wear a blindfold.

Mantuano's team -- Lee, Marcus Samuelsson and Carmen Gonzalez -- lost by half a star. "Now I'm pissed, I have to kick it up a few notches," warned glint-in-his-eye Lee, who in the previous episode called himself a kitchen ninja.

The elimination challenge was to cater a wedding reception for 150 guests. Mantuano's team cooked for the groom, a self-described meat and potatoes guy. The overachieving Lee went ... nuts ... with dessert, making an impressive croquembouche, raisin bread pudding, chocolate profiteroles and his first ever carrot cake ("When I lived in British Columbia, it was full of hippies. They made the best f---ing carrot cake!" Lee exclaimed). Mantuano stayed cool, though we worried when he admitted feeling really tired because, man, he looked it.

The judges thought the team's menu was too dessert-heavy and wished Gonzalez would have cooked more. (Points to Mantuano and, in a rare ego-less moment, Samuelsson, for defending Gonzalez at judges' table as the uber-organized one who kept them all on track).

Gonzalez got the boot, and Jody Adams continued her slow and steady march, winning the challenge with a lamb dish, despite the bride's declaration that she didn't much care for lamb.

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OK, eaters, you have one more week to enter our first ever Food Photo Contest.

Check out our site here for the entries that have come in thus far. (Those are homemade Oreos above, shot by one Katie Mays of Chicago. Mmmm, homemade Oreos.)

This is your competition. Study, size up, assess. Then: cook something, make it look pretty, photograph it and submit it at suntimes.com/win. You can enter up to three photos.

Grand prize is a half-day watching culinary photographer Stephen Hamilton work (there will probably be noshing involved; there is always food in his studio). He's the real deal. Four second-prize winners will get cookbooks.

Deadline to enter is May 12.

While we're talking Beard Awards and new ventures by big-name chefs and all, we just had a very visceral reaction to this post over on Grub Street -- a bunch of chefs will guest-star on this week's episode of Treme on HBO. And not just any bunch, but Eric Ripert, Tom Colicchio, Wylie Dufresne and David Chang.

Anyone else loving the new show? We're not ashamed to admit it -- we're schoolgirl giddy, we like it that much. And we've never even been to New Orleans. Treme airs at 9 p.m. Sunday on HBO.

by guest blogger and New York writer Seanan Forbes; photo by Kent Miller:

Don't buy the stereotypes; some people get along with their in-laws. In 1948, on the edge of the Calumet River, brothers-in-law Sid Kotlick and Len Toll opened Calumet Fisheries, 3259 E. 95th. Sixty years later, they're still dishing the fish. Mark-Kotlick--Calumet-Fisheries-photo-by-Kent-Miller.jpg

They smoke fish over natural wood. (Check the website for a smoked fish menu, or stop by Calumet Fisheries and do some impulse shopping.) The Kotlick-Toll clan takes pride in serving the freshest possible fish. Shrimp, oysters, frogs' legs, crab cakes and catfish share menu space with cheese sticks, onion rings, mushrooms and macaroni salad.

The place is strictly take-away - not what you expect to see at the "tuxedos and white linens" James Beard Awards. The Beard Foundation, however, give America's Classics Awards, awards that go to places that locals appreciate.

Last night, Mark Kotlick slung a green ribbon around his neck. Shoulders back, head high, eyes glowing, he stood like exactly what he was: the bearer of recognition for more than half a century of good service, well-prepared fresh fish and local pride.

No need to tell Grant Achatz to strike while the iron's hot.

A week after Achatz's restaurant, Alinea, was named the seventh best restaurant in the world, via S.Pellegrino's annual list, on the night Alinea was given the Best Service award by the James Beard Foundation and one day before Alinea's 5th anniversary -- Achatz posted a link Monday on Twitter detailing his next two ventures, which he'd alluded to in interviews last week.

Ladies and gentleman, he presents Next and Aviary, a restaurant and bar, respectively. Think: "world cuisine," time travel, four menus a year, 40 to 75 bucks, tickets not reservations, drinks by chefs not mixologists. Fall 2010.

Read on here.

Upstairs, a man says, "There's this pork on a kind of cracker downstairs - That's the best."

Downstairs, Priscilla Satkoff of Salpicon, 1252 N. Wells, dishes out Tostaditas de Tinga: crispy tortillas mounded with shredded pork and chorizo in a chipotle-laced roasted tomato sauce, topped with Mexican cream and avocado.

Bypassing the plates, elegantly attired men and women reach for easy finger food. Crisp tortilla, tender shredded pork, a touch more fat in the form of avocado and cream . . . you can't blame the guests if they go back for thirds or fourths. After all, it's only a mouthful - and they're not as lucky as Chicagoans. If they have a craving tomorrow, then they have to board a plane.

IMG_0891-Satkoff.jpg

Story and photos by guest blogger and New York writer Seanan Forbes:

IMG_0889-Achatz.jpg

Standing on Lincoln Center's plaza, well-earned glasses of Champagne in hand, Alinea's dapper crew wears their latest honors well. Alinea, 1723 N. Halsted, took outstanding service - a thing that gives Grant Achatz clear pleasure. Achatz is no stranger to the James Beard Awards, but this time's different.

"It's a great achievement for the front of the house," Achatz says. "Joe [Catterson] and Craig [Sindelar] have been with us since day one - before day one. Joe . . . months before the restaurant opened, helping us plan it and lay it out. He's such a great, detail-oriented service person. More than that, he really makes the restaurant run."

Catterson is Alinea's general manager and wine director; Sindelar's the head sommelier. There are separate roles in the restaurant, but looking at Alinea's winners, it's apparent that this is a team.

Achatz is beaming. "For these guys to get that recognition, it's great." He pauses for half a second and adds, "I love it."

by guest blogger and New York writer Seanan Forbes; photo by Kent Miller:

Koren-Grieveson--Avec-Best-Chef-Great-Lakes--photo-by-Kent-Miller.jpg

Koren Grieveson took Best Chef: Great Lakes. That's one for Avec, 615 W. Randolph. Grieveson is "thrilled ... nervous, excited." She wishes she had more planned to say. One gets the sense that, of all she'd expected, the last was the possibility that she might win.

She was seated so far in the back that the Award presenters thought she wasn't in the house. She was. She just had an intimidating 100-yard walk to the stage.

"Now, I join my crew and celebrate, have a few more glasses of Champagne and get back to work," she said.

Get back to work. And that's what it's all about.


By guest blogger and New York writer Seanan Forbes:

IMG_0897-Curtis-Duffy.jpg

For the gala, Curtis Duffy, chef de cuisine of Avenues at the Peninsula Chicago, 108 E. Superior, served king crab in cucumber consomme, with wild steelhead roe, kalamansi and tangerine lace.

Michael Muser, Avenues' wine director, says that there were some problems with the lace - not making it, but getting it from Chicago to New York. The lace, which is made with three kinds of sugar, is extremely fragile. Not only is it prone to breakage, but it also melts at the drop of . . . well, at a drop of anything.

To get it to Lincoln Center, they wrapped it in cellophane, put it in Tupperware tubs and gave one tub to each member of the Avenues team -- and each one got stopped by security at the airport. They had to unwrap the sugar lace and show it to security guards . . . again and again. No worries, though. They got here - crew, fish, dishes and delicate sugar lace.

At Avenues, the presentation is in glass. The gala compromise is plastic - but the dish still looks beautiful: bright and colorful and fresh. As to Duffy and his team, you'd never guess that they'd spent a day having their craft questioned by security guards. They look as cool as the cucumber in which their king crab swims.

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Congratulations to the Reader's Cliff Doerksen and the Trib's Kevin Pang for taking home James Beard Awards last night, Doerksen for his piece on mince pie and Pang for his multimedia Cheeseburger Show.

Now on to tonight's chef and restaurant awards....

About the blog

Janet Rausa Fuller

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

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