• Julia Thiel
  • Lobby at the Peninsula chef Lee Wolen’s durian custard

“I love the Reader. But that column where people cook with yak phlegm? That’s terrible. It’s gotta go.” So said a friendly bartender at the L&L Tavern late last year, unaware that he was talking to a group of Readerites including Julia Thiel, who writes our chef-to-chef challenge, Key Ingredient. We’ve been running the feature since December 2, 2010, when Grant Achatz kicked things off with kluwak kupas, the first and only ingredient to come from us (more specifically, from food writer Mike Sula—”damn Sula,” said Achatz, who’d never heard of the nuts). The chefs themselves have been responsible for issuing the rest of the challenges, and while it’s true there have been some ingredients suitable for the witches’ pot—duck tongues, rabbit lungs, bamboo worms, sea cucumber—there have also been lots of ordinary foodstuffs, from flour to bananas to confectioners’ sugar (Stephanie Izard made a “rustic and badass” steak with the last). Scores of Chicago chefs have participated along the way, and a generous and wildly creative, sometimes foul-mouthed and frequently funny lot they’ve been. In 2011, Julia and videographer Michael Gebert won a Beard award for the multimedia feature.

Now we’re throwing a party: the Key Ingredient Cook-Off, which will bring together 26 Chicago chefs for a challenge based on the series.