Advanced swoosh technique by Pat Sheerin (then at The Signature Room)
  • Michael Gebert
  • Advanced swoosh technique by Pat Sheerin (then at the Signature Room)

The current Key Ingredient challenge with Blackbird pastry chef Dana Cree marks the 100th installment in the Beard Award-winning series (the full archive’s here), which has pitted chefs against some oddball (or innocuous) ingredient and then given them the chance to pose a challenge of their own to another chef. The feature started in December 2010, and along with giving readers and viewers a look into the thought processes of lots of known (Achatz, Virant, Hot Doug) and not-so-known (Gaytan, Berens, Nardulli) chefs, it’s also served as one of the most comprehensive records of a city’s contemporary dining scene ever. Based on the culinary anthropology captured in the series, graduate papers could be written on swoosh techniques alone!

The feature—which was suggested in outline by Mike Sula, given its name by then Reader editor Kiki Yablon (my suggestion was “Stick a Fork in It”), and worked out in practice by Julia Thiel and me—has proved to be pretty ideal in terms of being just enough game-show gimmick with occasional gross-out value to be showbiz, yet loose and realistic enough to let chefs be themselves and capture what they really do without artificial drama. In other words, there’s no Padma to walk in and announce that they suddenly have to work Swanson chicken stock into their dessert course. Occasionally wacky ingredients aside, it’s a pretty straightforward look at how chefs puzzle out what to make with something and how they think about how flavors work together to make a satisfying dish. For me it’s been a great experience in terms of going inside the city’s kitchens (which are all cramped, except the hotel ones) and observing the chefs, almost always without a minder present, at work.

Much restaurant history has gone by onscreen during Key Ingredient’s three years. You saw the first days of restaurants like Vera (still called Uva then and with no working appliances) and La Sirena Clandestina (chef John Manion’s Key Ingredient dish was literally the first food ever cooked there; we weren’t sure until the last minute if the stove would be installed in time). You saw chefs before their restaurants existed (Iliana Regan of Elizabeth, cooking at her apartment, Phillip Foss still using his El Ideas kitchen for his food truck); you saw places that don’t exist any more (Avenues, Ria, One SixtyBlue, City Provisions, Leopold, Urban Union, etc). The articles and videos are all pretty much how it happened, so you might think there are no secrets to spill on 100 episodes. But there are a few insider facts you would never have known watching or reading it all these years. And here, for the first time, I reveal a few of them.

The first episode . . . or is it? The first Key Ingredient was with Grant Achatz, right? Yes—but the first one shot and written was actually with Phillip Foss. He agreed to be our test subject, to see how the concept worked. Once the series got going, John des Rosiers made Foss (a buddy) his pick and worked him back into the sequence. This partly explains why the video for Foss’s challenge has some tricky-trendy effects (c. 2010, anyway) that were quickly dropped.

Where is everybody? Somehow the date for the Alinea shoot got screwed up, and Grant Achatz was ready for us a week before the actual shoot, sitting there with his kluwak kupas wondering where the hell we were. Thankfully, we managed to go 99 more episodes before a similar mix-up struck again.

The episode so nice we shot it twice My camera malfunctioned (unbeknownst to me as I was shooting) during the shoot at Sepia, leaving no usable footage. And Julia was leaving the next day for South America! Chef Andrew Zimmerman, who is a saint, was kind enough to let me reshoot the entire thing the next week solo (and to absorb the cost of another hunk of lamb); I dubbed one line from the alternate audio track to make it sound like Julia was present behind the camera.

Is there a woman in the kitchen? The lack of women chefs in the early days was a concern among both Reader staff and commenters, but since the chefs pick the next chefs and it tends to go from buddy to buddy, it was tough for Julia (who coordinates it all) to do anything about it. Finally, she nudged Cary Taylor (then of the Southern) into picking someone female—he chose Mindy Segal, whom he’d met once—and that broke the spell. Since then women have continued to turn up, Stephanie Izard and Paula Haney among them. Otherwise, we’ve had a fair number of Asian chefs (no fewer than three chefs named Kim alone, in fact) and a few Latinos, but we never have had an African-American one; someone needs to pick Brian Jupiter or Erick Williams or an up-and-comer one of these days.

Don’t mention it The chef most embarrassed by his final dish remains David Posey of Blackbird, who was challenged by Foss with bull’s balls. They tasted fine but were kind of chewy. Like rubber band chewy. He pretty much mentions it any time I see him, and it came up again while we shooting our next challengee, Publican pastry chef Anna Shovers . . . who’s engaged to Posey.

The dish that grossed out even the chef Sometimes a commenter will criticize Key Ingredient for being just about finding the grossest ingredient. First, why is that even a criticism on the Internet? But second, every one has been something that humans eat in some form somewhere, so it seems entirely justified to me to see how Western fine dining chefs approach foods from radically different culinary traditions. Anyway, the chef most grossed out by her ingredient was easily Kristine Subido, then at Wave in the W Hotel (now at Pecking Order). She got stuck with balut, cooked embryonic duck served in its shell, and she just couldn’t face it—even though she’d eaten it as a kid in the Philippines. (My fear was having to pick feathers or bits of bill out of my teeth.)

The dish that grossed even us out Fish genitalia (sperm included) have been known to turn up in Japanese bars in Chicago as shot-glass dares. Julia and I consider it a point of pride—as well as a necessity for her reporting—that we taste everything, but that was one neither of us was looking forward to. Sure enough, cod milt (as it’s called) turned up as the ingredient for then Rootstock chef Duncan Biddulph. (The English apparently spread it on toast.) Besides being the Ingredient We Wanted to See the Least, it also proved to be the Ingredient That We Could Still Smell on Our Fingers the Longest.

The keyest drunk ingredient ever The goal for the Key Ingredient videos is to tell the story in five minutes. The only time we went significantly over that was for Schwa; they made so much stuff and, besides, chef Michael Carlson is so funny that we not only ran over six minutes but put up a bunch of outtakes. That was the drunkest shoot too (well, Carlson’s ingredient was Malort).

You want me to do what? Relatively few chefs have turned Key Ingredient down. A few have had schedule conflicts, and a few just plain didn’t want to do it (there’s one Michelin-starred chef whose former and present staff keep suggesting him, and he’s not even bothering with excuses anymore). But well upwards of nine times out of ten, they’ve been game.

The best rejection was from chef Bernard Cretier, who’s run the far-northwest-suburban French restaurant Le Vichyssoise in McHenry County since the mid-70s; Luke Creagan of Pops for Champagne, who’d gone there as a kid, suggested him. Julia called Cretier and explained the concept. His first question before turning it down: “What ees a Chicago Reader?”