Tuesday, November 12, 2013

My Thoughts on Michelin and the Next Conundrum.

So today the 2014 Michelin Guide Chicago stars were announced. This red book generates a lot of chatter in the Chicago restaurant community and among enthusiastic diners.  A few weeks ago I said on social media that I questioned the continuing relevance of Michelin, particularly in Chicago.

Basically there was very little change in the starred restaurant list from last year. There are 5 new restaurants receiving stars and congratulations to these folks. They work very hard and it's nice that their accomplishments are recognized.   But of all of the restaurants on this list none are restaurants that I eat at regularly, and few are places anyone I know eat at on a regular basis.  Now, most of the starred restaurants are pretty pricey and not really the kinds of places that I, or the people I know, can afford to eat at on the regular. And that's fine.  Are they good restaurants? Well as a friend of mine said today "Michelin is still a too-short , patchwork list of bad-to-OK-to-good one stars" And I think this nails it. Where Michelin does hold some relevance is in the 2 and 3 star list. Of course not so much for Chicagoans, but for people traveling here. Where should you go for a blow out, price is no object meal on your trip to Chicago? Look to Michelin's two and three star list.
But that really doesn't hold any relevance to me.
Then there are the "Bib Gourmand" award winners. This award is supposed to be given to favorite restaurants that you can get two courses plus a glass of wine or a dessert for under $40. Again, this list is pretty wide ranging, but when you get to these kinds of places I can see a wider range that won't necessarily mesh with my opinions.
All of that being said, what really has me questioning the relevance of Michelin, for diners like myself, is that of the half dozen or so restaurants that I would consider myself a regular at, not a single one is on either list. Now, I'm not talking about places that fall outside of what Michelin typically reviews, super hidden little gems, odd ethnic places, or far off suburban locations. These are restaurants that are widely talked about, doing quality creative food, and their absence on either Michelin list leaves some very knowledgeable food people dumbfounded. Look, I dine out quite a bit, more than the average person, heck, I dine out more than I ought to, and there's a reason I go back to these places over and over again. They're really good. The food is often seasonal, the service is professional and friendly, the dining rooms are comfortable, and the wine/ drink lists are well done. But what it's really about for me is the food. And that's what Michelin says too. So how can we have such a wide gap between what Michelin thinks is worthy of their little awards and what I (as well as those very knowledgeable food people I mentioned earlier) think? Clearly they're looking at these places from a different point of view than I am. Since Michelin fails to recognize some of these outstanding places their list is really irrelevant to me. Again, that's not to say that award recipients aren't doing good, even great food. Often they are doing just that. They're just not places I choose to, or can afford to dine at regularly. And I'm OK with Michelin not giving the places I like their stars. But people who run these places work really hard and not making the list, at least to some of these people, hurts. What I would say to them is "Keep doing what you're doing. You're great at it and your customers appreciate it. After all isn't that all that matters?"

Michelin confounds.

And speaking of food, how is it Michelin continues to ignore  maybe the most important restaurant in the country, Next. Last year Michelin went on about how Next was too difficult to get into with their ticketing system. OK, I can sort of see their point. But should that really exclude Next? No, it shouldn't because Michelin says it's ratings are all about the food. This year getting tickets to Next became much easier.  This year again, Michelin left Next unrated. Why? Well this year a Michelin spokesperson said in an interview "it's hard to get in there and it hasn't been open long." Excuse me? Virtually every day tickets are available. Tickets are slowly released throughout a menu run and not all that hard to come by.  And not open long enough? Come on! This is the end of Next's third year in business. Grace on the other hand, which deservedly received two stars today, has been open for less than a year. As Mike Gebert wrote in the Reader today "If you can't figure out how to evaluate a restaurant which has sold out every night for 2 years, you're apparently the only one with that problem."

My friend Josh sums it up nicely in his blog

"1. Chefs and some media folks start posting about their excitement, anxiety, and predictions
2. The rest of us either join in or start complaining that Michelin is stupid (note: the latter group is no fun and should be shunned)
3. Some of the list leaks. Nothing leaked is remotely surprising
4. The stars are officially announced. Some choices are good, some are not so good. Glaring omissions are made
5. Everyone goes back to what they were originally doing, since honestly who cares what Michelin has to say about Chicago."
So that's what I'm going back to doing. Eating at great restaurants that I really enjoy, regardless of what some anonymous inspector grading places on mysterious criteria is doing.
Oh, those places left off either of Michelin's lists that I love (in alphabetical order)
That's my list of stars and it's probably irrelevant to you.

That's how lists like these work I suppose.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Oh Food Blogs!


It seems that Food Blogs are like assholes; everyone has one, and they stink.

Well that’s not entirely true, they don’t all stink.

There are a number of very good ones out there. Some of my favorites belong to folks that have become friends of mine. So, if you’re looking for some good Bloggage (I just made up a word!), without having to wade through a sea of horribleness,  check out these. They’re each different, written by good people, whose opinions you can trust, they’re not filled with horrible looking, dimly lit, out of focus food porn photos, and are blogs I read on a regular basis.

Sky Full of Bacon comes from James Beard award winner Mike Gebert. Mike is a great writer and film maker who has written for the likes of The Reader, Time Out Chicago, Saveur.com, and was the editor of Grub Street Chicago.  Mike’s unique point of view and compelling writing style make this a blog to read on the regular. Mostly revolving around local dining from dives to high end, but he also delves into local farms and markets, searching out info about where the food we eat comes from. This guy really knows food, but better, knows food people and gets them to talk about their passions. Dig deep and you'll even find a good number of celebs. If you're not so much the reading type, Mike produces some great videos and the sight is peppered with them.

From Belly to Bacon is written by my friend Mark S. This blog is all about cooking. Mostly about curing and preserving, but other methods are certainly explored. Mark brings readers into his very creative thought process in coming up with fantastic ideas in cooking. He takes you through the formulation and execution of dishes that you’d often never consider making, and makes them very approachable to the home cook.  Some of his projects take months or longer to execute (Ham!), some are made with items he forages, some are even right out of cook books. One thing that really compels me about Mark’s blog is that in the past few months I was researching ideas I had in food and twice(!) From Belly to Bacon came up on the top of my Google search. If you enjoy cooking you must read this.

OK, so this next one has a name that isn't exactly family friendly but F*ckerberg on Food is written by my friend Kenny Z. Now, Kenny is opinionated, to say the least, but he’s super funny, often in a sarcastic way, and super knowledgeable about food. He even cooked professionally for a time. Kenny is very good at telling you what he doesn't like, and why. I may not always agree with him, but I always enjoy reading his blog. When Kenny does like something, you should sit up and take notice, because this guy really knows food. The story of how this blog got its name is a good one. Kenny tried out a new sandwich place opened by celeb chef Graham Elliot Bowles. Kenny didn't like what he had to eat and, in that special Kenny way, tweeted about it. G.E.B. didn't like that and called him "F*ckerberg" during the back and forth banter.  So when Kenny started his blog, he already knew the name. He totally embraced it. If you're looking for no-holds-barred restaurant blogging, this is the one for you.

Finally here's a new comer to the Blog Party. Stuff I Eat by my friend Josh. There's only two posts, so there's not much I can tell you about what it is or will be. But what I can tell you is that Josh is smart, funny, and can talk food with the best of them. He has a level head, calls out silliness, and is sure to entertain and inform.

There are certainly more popular, celebrated, and perhaps even better food blogs out there, but these are some of my favorites.

You should check them out.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Is Sustainability Sustainable?

A business closed today. 

I guess some of you are thinking "Yeah, so? Businesses close everyday."

While you're absolutely correct, this one was different. This one was important. The funny thing is, while I did occasion this neighborhood shop, I was by no means a regular. I didn't know the staff like I do at a lot of places I shop. I didn't go in and ask what's good today or anything like that.  But knowing they're gone has affected me emotionally.

Why? Well, read this letter from the owner. 

It's sad, you know. Here's a guy who passionately went after the thing that's important to him and it just didn't work. But these things happen. Sometimes very little things affect the viability of a business. Espescially a small local one. So they close. It happens. 

But the one line of the whole letter that really got me was this one "...in the end I found that sustainability - an undying commitment to what that means - wasn't sustainable."

Can that be true? Are we doomed to fall prey to Big Ag feeding us GMO poison?

I say no. No we're not.

And what this really tells me is that while Mr. Friedman is the one suffering the loss of his dream, it's not he that failed, but us. We failed.

We failed to not buy our meat where we buy our toilet  paper.
We failed to support local business.
We failed to work a little harder and pay a little more for the food we eat.
We failed to support local farmers.
We failed to eat locally, seasonally and organically.
We failed.
Not him.

Why? Because it's cheaper and easier. We failed.

And that's too bad. It's too bad that our food system has lied to us and told us that food is cheap and easy. It's not. Well, not if you want to eat good food.

Cleetus Friedman is a hero, who, as my friend Mark said, was a guy who "fought the good fight."

So let's all try a bit harder this time. Shop at a local butcher. Buy your produce from a farmers market. Stay away from products with non organic soy and corn that are nothing more than GMO products forced down our throats by the makers of Agent Orange (and these things just might make your pubic hair fall out.)

Work a little harder to shop locally. Ask about the food you buy and eat. If it came from half way around the globe how good can it really taste anyway?

Mr. Friedman, you likely won't read this blog, but I wish you all the best and keep fighting the good fight. I'll try not to fail you in your next venture.

Follow Cleetus on Twitter @CleetTweet

Saturday, January 26, 2013

No, It's Not All About You

OK, this post isn't so much about food or cooking so if you are looking for that you can stop reading now.

The food world has taken a funny turn over the past few years, and a few events in the Chicago food scene in the last couple of weeks highlight a lot of wrong in it.

So it got me to thinking, just where did it all go wrong?

From the time I was young what fascinated me about food was not only the act of cooking and eating, but  more how it brought people together around a table enhancing family and community. And as the food movement grew, and more and more folks got interested in eating and cooking well, a community of like-minded folks grew. We talked with one another about what made a certain restaurant great, or about how a certain ingredient or technique could make a dish you like to cook so much better.  Tips were exchanged, friendships were made. It was really great. The media became interested in our passion and the community grew.

Then somewhere along the line things changed. No longer was food about gathering and enjoying the sense of community. It was all about "Look at me!"
 "I'm eating something or someplace that you can't. That makes me cooler than you."
 "I was the first to eat at so and so's new restaurant."
The focus turned from community to self. And that makes me sad.

These people seem to look at the food world as a way to enhance their own self esteem.  Somehow people with very little idea about food, who rarely, if ever really cook something, can appoint themselves "experts" or "reviewers" because they can post their (often misguided, ill-informed) thoughts on sites like Yelp.

A perfect example of this, and one of the events I mentioned earlier that took my brain down this path, was a "review" of a highly anticipated new restaurant in Chicago. The author of this "review" was the very first customer this restaurant ever served.  So what does he do? Frankly, he pans the place. Now, I don't know this person, and he may be a perfectly nice guy. He may love to cook at home. But, his "review" (notice I use the quotes whenever I use that word?) shows a clear lack of understanding about the very nature of this type of restaurant. But he trashes it while standing atop a pillar of self appointed authority. Basically he's saying "Look at how cool I am, I was first in the door and the chef didn't kiss my ass while I snapped photo's of him, while he was trying to work on a very important night. I could have used some bread too." Sigh. Do you see a sense of community here? What I see is a lack of understanding and an attempt to boost ones own ego.  Sad.

The other event that got me to thinking about all of this was an actual review by a paid critic. In this review the critic spent 4 of 13 paragraphs writing about his fellow diners at this restaurant where the seating is communal. Whether what he wrote about these folks is true or not is unknown to me, but what sparked from the review, sadly, was a lot of chatter on various food chat sites not about this restaurant or its food, but rather outrage from the people written about, and who knew more, who was right, and who was the better diner and person. Again we see this "It's all about me." And that's sad.

Many of these people (or people like them) refer to themselves as "Foodies." DAMNIT! I hate that word. If you ever hear someone refer to themselves as such it's highly likely that they are an insufferable jerk.

Finally, this last event takes the cake. This one is so absurd that there's actual discussion about whether or not it's all just a big ruse. I'm not going to even discuss it because writing about it more makes me feel like I need to shower. Read it for yourself, but remember I warned you, it's slimy. If you are ever in the presence of someone with this card please, do us all a favor and tell them how disgusting they are. I sure will.

It's like these three episodes are all some sort of joke. The food community has actually become a parody of itself.

Where did it all go so wrong? I don't know. Actually I don't even care.  But I just want people to remember, food isn't about exclusivity, or who's first, or who's right or wrong, or who knows more. It's about taking an active role in community and family. It's about sharing, it's about friendship. Next time you eat or cook keep these things in mind.

It'll make for a much more enjoyable experience.