- Dennis Lee
- New frontiers in dining are being explored.
Celebrity chef Marc Vetri of Philadelphia is the latest chef to write a cranky old man anti-food-journalism-as-it-exists-in-2015 piece, for the Huffington Post, of course. He hits all the usual get-off-my-lawn notes, recalling a lost era when one learned reviewer for the local paper waited a month before reviewing, with invariable respect, the latest hometown-hero restaurant. And now you have these kids with their snark on Twitter and their lists! (What he’s really bemoaning seems to be that there isn’t one reviewer who can make a restaurant’s phone ring off the wall like there used to be, when in fact the multiplicity of outlets is evening his traffic out, which ought to be a good thing from a business perspective.) It’s a pretty clueless piece, and it certainly doesn’t look at anything from the point of view of diners, who might find it beneficial to have so many more perspectives—but at the same time, he’s not wrong about many things. Indeed, you’d be hard pressed to find a food writer who disagreed with this:
Food journalism in today’s world is all about a “best” list, a “what’s hot and what’s not” or a restaurant ranking system. It’s about what we need more of, less of and what we better start doing right away. They tell us a chef’s favorite holiday treat, favorite knife, favorite gadget, favorite song, favorite thing to do after work, favorite late-night snack, favorite morning ritual. Instead of stories, we get inventories.
I’ve certainly said similar things, and noted the lack of places for what we now call “long-form journalism” (we used to just call it “journalism”), which is not just a lack of space but also a lack of time to think about a story long enough and really dig into it. Yet a funny thing occurs to me: a lot of food writers—some I know personally, others by byline—have written pretty interesting, thoughtful, and long things in the past month or so. Some were for “publications,” some for blogs (remind me again what the hard line between the two is), but either way, I’ve been doing a fair amount of local reading lately. So naturally, I thought I should turn it into a list! Irony noted, but here are some recent things of substance that were written about the Chicago scene, not always long-form per se, but longer than a list at least:
• Dennis Lee wrote about some kind of gnarly stuff as the Loop dining correspondent for Serious Eats Chicago, but his blog the Pizzle (slogan: “Eat an actual dick”) gleefully covers things that are even worse, as in the post that may define it forever, “Which Bum Wines Pair Best With MREs?,” in which he, yes, pairs cheap shitty wine with the kind of premade camping food that only people suffering oxygen deprivation could eat (“It had the texture of compressed cat food, with the flavor of compressed cat food”). So at first glance, this is exactly the kind of Letterman-humor snark that Marc Vetri would hate. But sometimes Lee’s efforts to suffer for his blog backfire; he actually enjoys Medieval Times, and an effort to make an Italian-beef-tasting Bloody Mary is surprisingly successful. More than that, there’s real pathos in the telling of many of these stories, a rant-about-duvets-in-Fight Club note that says something about the weird world food writers find themselves in writing about our packaged, processed lives.
• The centerpiece of Chicago magazine’s bar issue is this portrait of Billy Goat Tavern bartender Jeff Magill by Tom Chiarella (the Esquire fiction editor who Shia LaBeouf got in trouble for plagiarizing). The irony, I’m sure at least somewhat intentional, is that it’s a vintage New Journalism-style piece about exactly the place where the last of the old New Journalists would hang out: a Sinatra-era watering hole whose tale is told with the kind of Sinatra-era hard-drinking swagger that was always threatening to tip New Journalism over into macho bullshit. But you have to give it credit for a perfect fusion of subject and style, that’s for sure, and it does a great job of capturing a man who understands his audience better than they understand themselves:
A woman steps up, leans on the bar, and asks Magill for a wine list. He guides her toward beers instead. “I could show you the wine list,” he says. “But it’s a red-or-white thing, basically. Two choices. This is not the place to get wine. It just has to be said.” He gives her a taste of a dark lager, and she is oddly happy. It’s a good read on his part.
• Tony Magee, the owner of Lagunitas Brewing, which has a facility in Chicago, gets a lot of play for his anticorporate, Lebowskian stoner persona. So when he did something very corporate (briefly threatening to sue Sierra Nevada for trademark infringement for setting “IPA” in big block letters) it set off a lot of activity in the authenticity-obsessed craft beer world. And nobody is on that like Michael Kiser of the blog and podcast Good Beer Hunting, who thinks through the issues—and Magee’s act—with the same exhaustive (and sometimes exhausting) thoroughness he brings to his podcast.
• How do you pick cheese for a cheese course? That’s exactly the kind of question you like to see answered, and Erika Kubick hangs out with Blackbird’s ace pastry chef Dana Cree to go through the process in this Chicagoist piece. But as long as we’re talking Dana Cree and writing, it’s worth nothing that she’s one of the last chefs still running a regular blog, the Pastry Department, which is excellent.
• It’s not exactly news that fine dining has gotten more casual here, but writing about the evolution of fine dining in Chicago for the release of Zagat’s annual guide, Sarah Freeman gets some frank talk from local restaurants about the finance side of fine dining and who’s making money at it, or not, or barely.