The Making of a Restaurant

Wednesday, July 30, 2003

One of the better ideas to come out of City Hall lately is a plan to create a "green city" on the West Side, in which the area around the Garfield Park Conservatory is revitalized with an emphasis on horticultural businesses.

National park organizations say a similar concept has revitalized areas around parks across the country, where farmers markets are set up on the periphery and attract other businesses.

"If you look at other parks, like Union Square Park in Manhattan, they started with a green market, and now there are popular restaurants all around the park," said Kathy Madden, director of the Urban Parks Institute in New York. "They brand themselves as using the organic foods they've purchased from the green market."

I hope that's the case here. One of my fondest memories of Europe is the Sant'Ambrogio outdoor market in Florence, where chefs shopped for produce literally steps from their kitchens.

Monday, July 21, 2003

Got a match? The Wall Street Journal takes a look at the demise of the matchbook as more states and cities ban smoking in restaurants and bars. Alternatives include scratchbooks (pads of memo paper shaped like matchbooks), towelettes and mints, but I still like our idea of branded patches.

Saturday, July 19, 2003

Despite being almost two weeks past her due date, a pregnant co-worker has faithfully clocked in all week, to the amazement and wonder of us all. Apparently she's been walking the stairs on her breaks, in an effort to induce. Me, I wondered aloud why the favorite method of extracting baby teeth couldn't be employed to extract a baby: 1. Tie string to doorknob. 2. Slam door. 3. Light cigars. But I'm a guy. Our expertise is the first five minutes of pregnancy, not the last.

It was timely, then, to find this story, nine months in the making, in Friday's Tribune: "So, which foods do induce labor?" Intrepid reporter Monica Eng tried szechwan, Thai, Vietnamese and Jamaican with no success until Korean squid kimchi finally did the trick.

I don't think we've decided whether we'll offer delivery, but perhaps we should keep a good kimchi recipe on hand, just in case.

Eng's amazing output this month hasn't been limited to children. She's had great stuff on jibaros, under-the-El food and how to eat downtown for $5 or less, plus a fun interview with Calvin Trillin and a look back at a preschool she helped build in Nicaragua. In June, a Tribune Magazine guide to picnicing lamely ventured no farther than the Jewel deli. In July, Eng countered with a Friday section round-up of ethnic eats to go, featuring hidden Greek, Puerto Rican and Korean treasures. (Sadly, little of her work remains online.)

Many food journalists are foodies, but Eng is a bona fide chowhound, and it's no wonder she has so many fans there. Next time Trillin is in town, it's he who should interview her.
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Friday, July 18, 2003

My old roommate Mikal now lives in an alternate dimension, one in which one gets fast, friendly service at an Arby's. (It's been a fast-food-free millennium for me, but I remember Arby's being notorious for employing the mentally disabled. Friendly, sure, but oh so slow).

Kottke also has an anecdote of good customer service: a do-it-yourself change drawer. In addition to building trust, I bet the practice earns Ralph more tip money from regulars who don't feel like fussing over a few nickels.

I love the Arby's idea of the "ring if you appreciated our service" bell. We should have a "ring if you enjoyed the food" doorbell near an exit that sets off a buzzer in the kitchen. We could also have a "ring if you didn't enjoy the food" bell, which of course would return an eye-level squirt of water.
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Thursday, July 17, 2003

It's a few weeks behind us already, but Neil Steinberg's screed on the horrors of Taste of Chicago is still worth reading. (Already shuffled off the Sun-Times' site, I've linked to Google's cache of the page.) It's a perfect breakdown of what both Luke and I abhor about the whole spectacle. Why spend a sweltery, crowded afternoon overpaying for mediocre food when you can experience it in its natural setting any other day of the year? As Steinberg puts it:

You want a Taste of Chicago? Go to Petterino's on State. Sit looking at the caricatures of Chicago politicians and celebrities. Order the Potato Pancakes Sam Braverman--at $3.95, they're practically a meal in themselves, with the little brushed steel pots of sour cream and cinnamon applesauce on the side.... Order the corn chowder, or the snapper soup--it's only $2.50; I doubt you could buy a hot dog at Taste for $2.50.... Go to Russian Tea Time on Adams. Try the pumpkin-stuffed vareniky. The onion black bread is the same stuff they eat in Heaven. Get the tea-flavored vodka. They serve it in a chilled glass though, if you insist, I'm sure they'll put it in a plastic cup and you can drink it on the sidewalk.

I'm not sure how one gets to host a booth at the Taste, but even if it was possible for us to do, we'd obviously skip it. For all those people who'll miss our appearance there, we'll offer a local Taste Special: any dish on the menu, but your portion will be cut in half and your price doubled. And we'll put it on a stick.

(Thanks to Levi for the tip.)

Wednesday, July 16, 2003

Dad sent me a link to this great story about a restaurant opening in Los Angeles. Grace doesn't sound like my type of place, but it's a fascinating idea, tracking a restaurant dream from inception to grand opening. (The L.A. Times gives it a ho-hum two stars.)

Says one partner: "I keep trying to explain to people that I want a socialist restaurant. I don't want any kind of exclusivity at all." Funny thing to say about a restaurant whose entrees start at $16.

Coincidentally, Chicago once had a restaurant named Grace, also named for the owner's daughter. Ted Cizma named his suburban Elaine for a daughter, too, but recently sold his interest.

This clinches it: If I ever have a daughter, I'm naming her The Dangerous Kitchen.
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Tuesday, July 15, 2003

It is with the joy of a proud parent that I announce the full ripening of the first tomato on my very first home-grown tomato plant. It was nearly two months ago when Sarah and I brought home our little filly of a tomato shoot home, potted it, and set it on the back porch to grow. The little bugger's grown into quite a piece of work, rising several feet into the air and sporting for herself over a dozen budding tomatoes. During a routine watering one day last week, I looked down at the plant and saw... color!

It was at this moment I was struck with a dilemma previously unforecasted: "What now?" Presumably the intention in raising your own tomatoes is to be able to eventually eat them, but I was able to do no such thing. These were my babies; eating them would be tantamount to consuming my very own pet. But as Sarah pointed out to me, if I let the fruit linger on vine, it'd just rot into nothingness, or worse, be eaten by an adventurous rodent. It was I who'd transplanted this piece of nature onto my porch; it should be I who is reponsible for its ultimate fate. And so it was with a trembling hand I plucked the little Pinball (yes, I named him) and packed him into my lunchbag for a midday treat.

It was delicious, of course. A sweet, earthy ball of tomato-y goodness. Perhaps not empirically better than a store-bought tomato, little Pinball was filled with love, and that counts for a lot. I'm now excited to taste the rest of this year's yield, some of which Sarah is making into a tomato and mozzarella salad right this very moment.

It occurred to me later that I had one other option at my disposal: vaccuum-seal the tomato and freeze him until next summer, whereupon we'd feast upon him as we plant next year's crop. Or, even better, we could even have used him as seed, thus keeping our tomato crop in the same family bloodline from year-to-year. To those out there with thumbs greener than mine: is that even possible?

Wednesday, July 09, 2003

Chicago's Green City Market, which "connects local producers and farmers to chefs, restaurateurs, food organizations and the public," is in the middle of their third annual celebrity chef auction, where they offer up cooking classes and private dinners with many of the city's famous chefs and culinary experts. The list of packages up for auction is amusing to look at, because apparently the services of some chefs can be accurately valued (e.g. Ted Cizma goes for $1500) while some are priceless (e.g. Bayless, Trotter). Everything on the list is well out of my price range, and that's probably for the best, for if Charlie Trotter were required to prepare a meal in my kitchen, with my $20 pots and Jewel-bought potatoes, he'd surely have an aneurysm on the spot.

Thursday, July 03, 2003

I encourage fellow Chicagoans to read this week's Reader cover story. It documents the success of Wicker Park's Red Hen Bakery, insofar as success is defined as "insanely popular but barely profitable."

Ever since I read this great story about bakeries near my hometown, I've thought highly of artisan bakers. There's something mystical and ancient about the craft, and I admire how quality always trumps quantity. Bakers seem much more attuned to their product, with much less margin for error than most food preparation. For artisans like Carey, the fundamentals haven't changed much in the past few millennia, and yet she continues to hone the perfect baguette.

It was interesting to read of her evolving attitudes toward staffing. At first her progressive instincts led her to a diverse workforce, as she was wary of her kitchen becoming the Hispanic ghetto that typifies the restaurant industry. Her outlook quickly changed once she had to fire one gringo slacker after another. It turned out that Mexicans were not only the most capable and hardest working, but they were the most fun to be around. Small wonder more than one person has told us the first thing a would-be restaurateur should do is learn Spanish.
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