Overcooked pasta okonomiyaki Credit: Mark Steuer

Mark Steuer called me a jackass.

Chefs do curse me every now and then, but usually it’s the result of something unflattering I’ve written in a restaurant review. If memory serves, I’ve written nothing but nice things about Steuer throughout his career at restaurants such as Hot Chocolate, Carriage House, El Che Bar, and most recently—and currently—Funkenhausen.

But I never ordered a dish of mushy spaghetti from any of his kitchens before.

A few weeks ago as underworked or out-of-work chefs across the land continued to flood social media with self-isolation home-cooking videos shot on their phones, Steuer suggested to me that the time might be right to reboot the Reader’s acclaimed Key Ingredient series. OK, I decided. But I’ll make you regret it.

Key Ingredient was a cooking show produced by then-Reader staffer Julia Thiel and food writer/filmmaker Michael Gebert, in which Chicago’s baddest chefs challenged their colleagues to redeem unusual, underappreciated, or often abhorrent ingredients by showcasing them in beautiful plated dishes that might or might not have been edible.

It all started in 2010 when I challenged Grant Achatz with Indonesian kluwak kupas—the seeds of the kepayang tree—and he produced a Tom & Jerry cocktail with them. Achatz threw Chinese black beans at Curtis Duffy, who then punked John des Rosiers with geraniums. Thiel and Gebert won a James Beard Award for their work that year, and they went on to produce a total of 177 episodes, featuring the city’s most talented and disgruntled chefs, cooking with everything from Malort to natto to balut to whale vomit, before gracefully retiring Key Ingredient in 2018.

Steuer took his turn in 2011, when he was the chef at the Bedford, making a jibarito with bananas because his old boss Mindy Segal (sorghum syrup) knew he hated them. They’re “reminiscent of old lobster, like when it gets overcooked,” he said.

That gave me an idea.

This time around the chefs will be their own videographers, and it seemed natural that Steuer would take the first challenge in what we’re calling Key Ingredient: Pandemic Pantry. So I rewarded his initiative with mushy overcooked pasta, something I figured he rarely confronted but that lots of isolated home cooks might be contending with a lot lately.

And then he called me a jackass, and got to work. 

His dish? A version of the savory Japanese pancake okonomiyaki, which cleans out the fridge and crisps up those soggy noodles you left in the bottom of the pot overnight after you drank all the hand sanitizer and passed out on the kitchen floor.

Steuer has kept the lights on at Funkenhausen in Ukrainian Village by 

offering delivery or curbside pickup through a contactless window from a relatively broad menu that includes a version of the kick-ass smoked Amish chicken I loved so much when I reviewed it

The restaurant’s also sponsoring a GoFundMe and selling gift cards in support of its staff, which would certainly benefit from your attention.

Still, the chef found time to shoot his video, which you can watch online after a brief introduction to the reboot—from me. In it, I’m sheltering in a secret location that is in no way an illegal speakeasy, wearing one of the elaborate disguises I used to adopt whenever I’d go out on a restaurant review. 

Haven’t been doing much of that lately. (Thanks, COVID-19 . . . Thanks, Trump.)

Will Steuer be putting the pasta okonomiyaki on his carryout menu? “We will not,” he says. But check out his recipe below for the next time you forget that there’s spaghetti boiling on the stove. 

And don’t worry: you won’t be seeing me again.

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🍽 For the first time in the Reader’s storied history, senior food writer Mike Sula is coming out from behind the page!⁣⁣ ⁣⁣ Key Ingredient is a cooking show that was originally produced by former Reader staffer @JuliaThiel and food writer/filmmaker Michael Gebert, in which Chicago’s baddest chefs challenged their colleagues to redeem unusual, underappreciated, or often abhorrent ingredients by showcasing them in beautiful plated dishes that might or might not have been edible.⁣⁣ ⁣⁣ 🍝 Today, the saga returns as Key Ingredient: Pandemic Pantry! First up, @MikeSula challenges @chefMarkSteuer of @FunkenhausenChi to make a dish with overcooked pasta.⁣⁣ ⁣⁣ Tune in and read the full (back)story at the link in our bio. The recipe (overcooked pasta included) is there, too. ⁣⁣ ⁣⁣ 🥚 Next up: @chefErickWilliams of @VirtueRestaurantChi is challenged to pickled eggs.

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Who’s next:

ERICK WILLIAMS of Hyde Park’s VIRTUE, cooking with pickled eggs. “Because I love pickles,” said Steuer. “And I love eggs. But I don’t know why anyone would do that to an egg.”  v

Overcooked Pasta Okonomiyaki

Chef Mark Steuer, Funkenhausen

1 cup all-purpose flour

¼ teaspoon baking soda

½ teaspoon salt

1 cup water

1 cup overcooked spaghetti (or whatever you overcooked)

2 tablespoons minced garlic

2 tablespoons diced Fresno pepper

½ cup sliced mushrooms

½ cupshredded cabbage or brussels sprouts

2 tablespoons diced onions

2 tablespoons rice wine

1 tablespoon soy sauce

For the batter, whisk together flour, baking soda, and salt, then whisk in water until smooth. Allow to sit for 20 minutes.

For the noodles, in an oiled nonstick pan, sweat all vegetables until soft, then deglaze with rice wine and soy. Reduce. In a bowl, pour over noodles and stir to combine. Set aside.

Clean the pan, andover medium high heat, pour about 1 cup of the batter and swirl the pan to evenly distribute. While the batter is still wet, add the noodle and vegetable mixtures to evenly cover the batter. Once the batter starts to set, press down on the noodles lightly to make sure they adhere. Cook for about four minutes on medium, then flip the pancake (use two spatulas if you need to).

Add a little more oil to the pan and cook for about five more minutes.

Invert onto a cutting board and cut into quarters, then transfer to a plate and garnish with any or all of the following:

  • Fried egg
  • Scallions
  • Okonomiyaki sauce
  • Hot sauce
  • Mayo
  • Fried garlic
  • Fried shallots
  • Sesame seeds
  • Bonito flakes