Local Flavors: Chicago - #110

Every town in the world has a local flavor.  A flavor that comes from its signature dishes, from a group of preferred ingredients, or a type of restaurant that is popular.  There is a flavor that comes from appreciating a particular piece of equipment or a technique.  There's dozens of things that impact on the local flavor, but the most important influences are always the result of geography, history and economics.  So, please join me, Burt Wolf, for a taste of the local flavors of Chicago. The origin of Chicago's importance lies in its location.  To the north and east are the Great Lakes and the Saint Lawrence Seaway that runs out to the Atlantic Ocean.  To the south is a network of rivers that flow into the Mississippi and down into the Gulf of Mexico.  Chicago is a control point between these two waterways.  And for thousands of years, people have been using this spot as a central trading post. BURT WOLF ON CAMERA:  As the United States moved west, Chicago became a commercial center.  And in 1825, when the Erie Canal opened, Chicago found itself with a direct water route to New York City, and shipping prices that had dropped by 90 percent.  Everybody who grew or manufactured something in the Midwest brought it to Chicago for sale, especially the guys who were raising pork and cattle. Each year, millions of steaks pass through this town, and some of the best of those steaks ended up in the kitchens of some of the town's best restaurants.

These days, one of the most popular steak restaurants in Chicago is Wildfire.  It's a steak and chop house with a 1930s, '40s look.  The walls are covered with period photographs, and there's a dramatic open kitchen.  Their signature steak is a horseradish crusted filet mignon.  The chef, Joe Decker, starts by putting a pound of sweet butter in a stand mixer, and creams it for about eight minutes, until it's light and fluffy.  A half cup of freshly grated horseradish and a half cup of prepared horseradish go into the creamed butter.  A little salt, pepper and two cups of Japanese bread crumbs.  The Japanese or Panko bread crumbs are lighter and fluffier than regular crumbs. 

When the ingredients are fully blended, the mixture is turned out onto a piece of parchment paper.  This is clearly a four handed job... spread out and rolled into a log.  The ends of the paper are twisted to hold in the mixture.  And into a refrigerator for an hour or so ... till it's hardened to the point where it can be sliced into rounds.  Any of the flavored butter that's not being used, can go into the freezer for next time.  A ten ounce filet that's been seasoned with salt and pepper is seared for two minutes on each side.  Then it comes off the grill and rests for five minutes.  When it's cool enough to touch, a strip of bacon is wrapped around the filet and held in place with a skewer.  Then back onto the grill until the meat is cooked the way you like it.  Out for a minute, the horseradish crust goes on, then back onto the grill for 30 seconds, and you're ready to plate.

A round of garlic toast goes onto the plate, the steak, a little juice from the meat, parsley and a steak knife.  It's served with Parmesan crusted creamed spinach and a barbecue rubbed sweet potato.  A great drink to have with this meal is a flight of four beers that are served together on a long coaster that tells you what you're drinking.  You can choose between two flights.  Flight one contains lagers and light ales, including Chicago's most popular microbrew.  Goose Island Honker's Ale.  Flight two contains fuller, darker ales, including Wildfire's Blonde Ale and Black Jack Porter.  The nice thing about both of these flights is they arrive on time.  And for dessert, apple raspberry skillet pie with a cream cheese crust served with vanilla ice cream and caramel sauce.

I'll tell you how to get the recipes for the dishes in this program and all the other programs in this series at the end of this show.  The kitchen is a place where you need as much protection as you can get.  Fortunately, Chicago is the home town of the Magid Company, specialists in protective gloves and aprons.  And Mike Stevens came by to explain the state of the art.  What have we got here?

MIKE STEVENS ON CAMERA: We have a variety of industrial grade products that we think make a lot of sense for home applications.  This, for example, is a leather heat mitten that can be used both in your kitchen to take something out of the oven, around your barbecue grill on the deck, or it could be used in your fireplace. 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Extraordinary.

MIKE STEVENS ON CAMERA: This is another heat product.  Not as much protection as a leather or a wool lined product.  This is called a baker's pad.  This is what they use when you want to have extra protection on the palm of your hand at a specific time, whether you're baking, or when you want to do something besides lift the product of the oven. And you've got your hands free for other functions.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Let me try that.  So, it just slips on over your wrist.


BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: When you want to use it, grab something ... you grab it that way.  Then when you're not using it, it flips away.


BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: And it becomes an elegant piece of jewelry.

MIKE STEVENS ON CAMERA: Gorgeous.  This is a metal chain mail glove.  This is extremely cut resistant.  This, for example, I can take a high quality knife with a very sharp edge, and just put a tremendous amount of pressure as I try to cut my fingers off.  This has its roots in the medieval days with uh, chain mail.

BURT WOLF CAMERA: Oh, the knights.  Right.


BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: This is the Sir Lancelot model.


BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: I recognize it.

MIKE STEVENS ON CAMERA: Exactly.  Exactly. 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: I'm going to do this a little bit more slowly than you did.

MIKE STEVENS ON CAMERA: You don't trust me, Burt?

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: I trust you, but I just ... okay.   Scary but true.  Wow. 

MIKE STEVENS ON CAMERA: An excellent product to use for something like shucking oysters or filleting fish, where you have a very, very sharp knife.


MIKE STEVENS ON CAMERA: This is another cut resistant product.  This is Dupont's Kevlar material.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Oh, they use that to make bullet proof vests.

MIKE STEVENS ON CAMERA: Bullet proof vests, for tire cord.  Things like that.  That's extremely cut resistant.  Not as much so as the metal, but it's the perfect product to have around the home and to pick up a broken glass, jar, something like that.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Broken glass.  Interesting.

MIKE STEVENS ON CAMERA: The PVC dots give you a nice grip, so you don't have to worry about it slipping.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Those are PVC?  Plastic?


BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Why is it on the front and the back?

MIKE STEVENS ON CAMERA: Makes it reversible, so you can use it for either hand.


MIKE STEVENS ON CAMERA: You don't necessarily have to have a pair of gloves for every application.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: So one hand has the knife or the problem.


BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: And the other one, you have the glove on.

MIKE STEVENS ON CAMERA: But this product is ... is lightweight enough, you could handle a knife very easily, as well.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Stuff that's both fashionable and functional.  That's what I like in my kitchen.

As Chicago became more and more important, its business men and women made more and more money.  And often, when you have money, you learn to buy the best, which is why some of the country's best chefs are in Chicago.  Perfect example is Charlie Trotter.  Instead of going to trade school, he apprenticed at some of the world's great restaurants, read every cook book he could get his hands on (Loud background conversation), and learned his craft on the job.

CHARLIE TROTTER ON CAMERA: Let's go from the top.

His restaurant is considered to be one of the finest restaurants in the world.  His food comes from a blending of French technique, American creativity, Asian minimalism and the finest ingredients.  Over 90 purveyors provide him with foods produced to his specifications. 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: As part of his desire to give back to the community that supports him, each week, Charlie invites a group of high school students to come in, have dinner and learn about the realities of the restaurant business.  His objective is to teach them that with perseverance and focus, anything is possible.  Maybe even a reservation on a Saturday night in his restaurant.

CHARLIE TROTTER ON CAMERA: Folks, are we ready to begin?


MAN: Absolutely.

CHARLIE TROTTER ON CAMERA: Great, great.  We have a little something I think that'll be fun to kind of get your juices going. 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: During the second half of the 1800s, Chicago's industrial growth required a larger labor force.  Thousands of African Americans came up from the south.  But the city also encouraged immigration from Europe.  During those years, tens of thousands of Germans, Poles and Greeks arrived in this city.  They moved into their own individual neighborhoods and opened up restaurants that served the foods of their native countries. 

One of the oldest is The Berghoff.  In 1887, Herman Berghoff emigrated from Germany to the United States and opened a beer brewery in Fort Wayne, Indiana.

Six years later, he brought his beer to Chicago for the Columbia exposition.  He stayed in Chicago and opened the Berghoff Cafe, which is famous for its beer, its food and its liquor license, which was the first liquor license issued in Chicago.

And then there's the Red Apple restaurant, an old favorite for Polish immigrants and everyone else who enjoys good food.  Its served buffet style, and it's very inexpensive.  They're famous for their potato pancakes, but they also serve many of the traditional foods of Poland.  Sauerkraut in sausages, dumplings, pierogies, cheese blintzes, and that old Polish stand-by, chicken chop suey.

When it comes to Greek food, a good spot is Papagus, which means Grandpa Gus.  The Chicago Tribune called it the best Greek restaurant in the city.  It's divided into areas, each representing a different part of Greece.  The Paros room represents the northern part of Greece.  Handmade cloth tarps line the ceilings.  The walls are white washed.  And the blue bottles represent the Mediterranean Sea.  It's where you'd find the shrimp phyllo bag, roasted jumbo shrimp wrapped in phyllo dough and served on saffron rice.  And whole fish grilled over wood.  The grill they use in Papagus is 150 years old, and burns only cherry wood.  It's also the place for flaming cheese, a Greek specialty.  The area that represents central Greece has stone steps and hand carved tiles on the floor, and vines and grape leaves on the walls.  This is the part of Greece where you would find grilled halibut and orzo pasta.  The Volos room represents the mountain regions of southern Greece.  Wooden stone in the minimalist style with religious relics on the walls.  This part of Greece is famous for rack of lamb and baklava dessert, made from roasted walnuts and almonds, and layered with phyllo dough and honey.  The restaurant is also responsible for bringing the new Greek wines to Chicago.  Greek grapes but grown in California. 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Chicago also has a large Mexican community that arrived here during the second half of the 20th century.  And as you might expect, they brought their native cuisine to the city.  (Loud background traffic noise)  But what you might not expect is Topolobampo and the Frontera Grill, that are thought of as two of the best Mexican restaurants in North America.  Rick Bayless, who grew up in his family's barbecue restaurant in Oklahoma City, is the chef.  As an undergraduate student, he majored in Spanish and Latin American culture.  Three of his favorite dishes are tortilla soup with pasilla chili, fresh cheese and avocado.  Fish braised with tomatoes, capers, olives and herbs.  And quick fried shrimp with sweet, toasted garlic.  To make the quick fried shrimp, garlic goes into a food processor and gets chopped.  Then into a sauce pan with heated olive oil.  A little salt is added, which soaks into the garlic.

RICK BAYLESS ON CAMERA: It looks like a monumental amount of garlic, but it gets so sweet and toasty as it cooks.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: You never had problems with vampires.

RICK BAYLESS ON CAMERA: I definitely ... no, not when you make a dish like this.  So, a little sprinkling of salt over the top of it.  And then you squeeze it out ...

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Rick uses a Mexican lime press to extract the juice that goes into the garlic.

RICK BAYLESS ON CAMERA: It basically turns that half inside out.  It's a very, very efficient piece of kitchen equipment.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Seeds are removed from a canned chipotle chili pepper, at which point the pepper is thinly sliced and added to the sauce.

RICK BAYLESS ON CAMERA: Just let that simmer around for a couple of minutes, if you want, just so that the flavors are all combined. 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: A little of the oil from the garlic goes into a heated frying pan followed by some peeled and cleaned shrimp ..... with their tails on.  Cilantro is chopped and mixed into the shrimp.  Rice that has been cooked with plantains is molded into a pyramid and placed into the center of a large bowl.

RICK BAYLESS: Onto the plate.  And if I've got it right in the middle ...

BURT WOLF: The shrimp are placed around the rice.

RICK BAYLESS: Okay.  So, we'll put a few of 'em around the outside of the ...

BURT WOLF: The garlic sauce is spooned onto the shrimp.

RICK BAYLESS: That is really beautifully sweet, tender pieces of garlic.  A little fresh flavor of ...

BURT WOLF: And finally, a little more of the chopped fresh cilantro.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Chicago is also the home to one of the most interesting restaurant companies in the United States.  It's called Lettuce, as in the green leafy stuff, Entertainment You.  And as you can tell from the name, it is creative and has a sense of humor about what it creates.

It was started in the early 70s by Richard Melman and with his partners, built into a $170 million business. But unlike most restaurant groups that have a good idea that they take all over the country, Melman has opened almost all of his businesses in Chicago.  Curious to find out what commercial insight lay behind this unusual decision, I asked why he did almost all of his work in one town.

RICHARD MELMAN ON CAMERA: I hate to travel.  I don't like the aggravation of going to the airports and the delays with the planes.  And I have a horrible sense of direction.  When I do get to another town, I never know where I am.  And I'm a homebody, and I like being with my family.  And that's ... that's the reason.

Of the top four restaurants listed in the Zagat guide for Chicago, three are Melman's. Ambria for excellent French cuisine in an elegant atmosphere with art nouveau architectural touches.  It features a light approach that relies on the use of the freshest ingredients and cooking techniques that enhance the food's lighter flavors.

Everest is on the 40th floor of the Chicago Stock Exchange building, and has one of the great views to dine by.  Considered one of the city's top dining rooms, it operates under the direction of chef/owner Jean Joho, who has been described by the Chicago Tribune as the most creative chef in the city. 

And Tru, which presents a progressive approach to French cooking and serves their dishes on a spectacular array of non-traditional surfaces.  Like caviar on a glass staircase, or marinated sushi in a bowl with a Japanese fighting fish. 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Those three restaurants are rather upscale, and their energy is directed towards producing a great cuisine.  But the company showed its sense of humor early on.  During the 70s, they opened a restaurant called Jonathan Livingston Seafood, and another one called Lawrence of Oregano.

And for years, I've been a fan of Big Bowl, which is a casual Asian cafe that offers an eclectic menu of simple fresh foods.  Asian noodles, stir-fries, soups and wraps.  And everything is inexpensive.  One of Lettuce Entertain You's most popular restaurants is Mon Ami Gabi which is an authentic reproduction of a Parisian bar the way they looked in the late 1800s.  A signature meal at the restaurant would start with onion soup, followed with a main course of steak with garlic butter and French fries, and end up with crepes banana foster for dessert. 

The pastry chef, Michel Briand is preparing the crepes.  He's from Brittany, which is a world epicenter of crepe cookery.  The base of his batter is made from flour, eggs, butter, oil, sugar and milk, which is standard.  But then, he adds a little rum and some Grand Marnier.  He's French, which explains the Grand Marnier, and he worked in the Caribbean for two years, which explains the rum.  The alcohol also opens the batter in a way that makes the crepe lighter.  It can be made early in the day and held for dinner.  Just put them in an air tight container and keep them at room temperature.  Make as many as you will need ahead of time.

Michel uses a non stick frying pan at the restaurant to make the crepe, but you could also use a pan specifically designed for the job.  The crepe pan should have sloping sides to keep the crepe round.  It should be shallow, so you can flip the crepe easily, and it should be made of a material that absorbs, distributes and retains heat well.  This pan is made of carbon steel.  And now, it's time for the sauce.  Butter is melted in a sauce pan. Brown sugar is added, and then corn syrup.   That's mixed together and brought to a boil. 

MICHEL BRIAND: Mixed everything so we don't have any lumps. 

As soon as the mixture reaches a boil, cream is added, and it's brought to a boil again, at which point some vanilla extract goes in.

MICHEL BRIAND: A shot.  Great.

The crepe goes onto a serving plate.  Ice cream is scooped onto the crepe.  A banana is sliced into a bowl.  The sauce is mixed with the banana.  Some of the banana sauce goes onto the ice cream.  The crepe is folded over.  More sauce goes on.  And finally, a dusting of powdered sugar.  Fantastic. 

BURT WOLF AND MICHEL BRIAND ON CAMERA: would you hold this for me?


BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Thank you.  See you around.

Since 1959, the Second City has been touring the world and making people laugh.  Its alumni list reads like a Who's Who of American Comedy.  Alan Arkin, John Belushi, Bill Murray, Robert Klein, Dan Ackryod, Martin Short, Gilda Radner.  The Second City troops are masters of improvisational humor), and very often, part of a joke.

WOMAN ACTRESS ON CAMERA: I'm a waitress and I'm a sinner.  Sometimes folks come into the restaurant and they'll order a salad with fat free dressing, and I give 'em regular.  I don't know what's wrong with me.  I mean, I bet I get some sort of you know, evil pleasure out of seeing people eat a lot of fat, when they don't think they're getting any.

MAN: Have you or anyone in your family been a witness to or a victim of ...

MAN: Yeah.

MAN: All right. 

WOMAN: Have you or anyone in your family been a witness to or a victim of a drug crime?  Well, I haven't, but I think Joan has.  And Joan would be.

WOMAN: I’m Joan.

MAN: Doctor, I'm ready for my physician assisted suicide.

NURSE: All right, Mr. White.  I have two options for you.  The deluxe or the economy.

MAN: Well, my family doesn't have a lot of money, so the economy. 

NURSE: I understand. 

MAN: Hit the button.

WOMAN: I'm sorry.  I forget every time. You look great.

MAN: Oh, you look great.  You look really good.

WOMAN: You look better.  Oh, I love you. 

MAN: I love you too.

WOMAN: I love you more. Oh, honey, I'm sorry I was late.  I was at brunch with the girls.  I lost all track of time.

MAN: Oh well, you know, time flies.

WOMAN: Time flies when you're having fun.  I'm having fun.  Oh.  How about you?  You okay?

MAN: Oh yeah. I'm getting by, you know.

WOMAN: Good.  You're coping?

MAN: Coping?  Yeah, coping.  What's new?

WOMAN: Oh everything.  Everything is new. I'm so busy.  I'm meeting people and doing things.  I ... oh, I just wish you were with me to experience it all.  You know?

MAN: Oh, so do I.

WOMAN: You know, when they first put me in prison, I thought it was gonna be hell,  but I'm having a great time. 

MAN: Man, do these trains take a long time, or what? 

WOMAN: Going to a costume party or something? 

MAN: Oh no, I'm a super hero. 

WOMAN: Oh, like uh, Superman or something like that.  Huh?

MAN: Yeah, no.  I'm Captain Apathy.  I have all of the powers of Superman, but none of the willingness to use them.

MAN: Aeeyah (humming "Amazing Grace") ...

That's a taste of the local flavors of Chicago.  I hope you enjoyed it.  And I hope you will join me next time.  I'm Burt Wolf. 

MAN: (Still humming "Amazing Grace") 

If you would like free copies of the recipes from this program, or hundreds of other recipes from Burt’s programs, to read his special reports from around the world and interviews with leading food authorities or to order a copy of The New Cooks’ Catalogue, a critical guide that tells you what to look for when purchasing cooking equipment and utensils, with over 1,000 color photographs and recipes, just visit Burt online at BURTWOLF.COM.