Blackboard Eats, which offers email subscribers in Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York free deals on carefully selected high end restaurants and artisanal food products, officially launches its Chicago edition today. (Disclosure: we have worked for the Chicago edition.) The opening deal is a prix fixe on the flavor tripping dinner and cocktails at iNG.
Boding well for the caliber of future offers is that the editor of the Chicago edition is Louisa Chu. Chu is one of those Lois Weisberg-Kevin Bacon type people who seems to connect the whole world— she was a producer for Steve Dahl & Garry Meier and for Gourmet’s Diary of a Foodie TV show, she’s been a chef everywhere from El Bulli to Alaska, she was the one who showed Anthony Bourdain around the markets in the Paris episode of No Reservations, and later joined Bourdain and Eric Ripert at L2O in the Chicago episode (after taking Bourdain to Calumet Fisheries). And she’s judged Iron Chef, famously clashing with Michael Ruhlman over whether zucchini actually has any flavor.
Blackboard Eats is only one of two new gigs for her— she also just took over Steve Dolinsky’s food blog slot at what was Vocalo but is now, apparently, WBEZ.org. We spoke with her about all of this:
So what makes BlackboardEats different from all the other deal sites out there (rhymes with Grey Poupon)?
First and foremost we’re by food people and for food people— and drink people too. Ultimately our goal is to work together to help support our community sustainably.
How do you pick the things that are going to be offered?
I have to admit that a lot of it is based on, “ooh I want to eat that”— or drink that. Or it’s to recapture a feeling— especially for places that change their menus all the time.
This is a big month for you, also taking over Steve Dolinsky’s food gig at what was Vocalo but is now WBEZ.org. What do you want to use that to focus on and call attention to?
I’m just hoping to continue the good work with little stories and big picture stuff, plus add some of my personal perspective since I’ve been ridiculously lucky with my work in the food world.
You wrote in the Sun-Times about, and later did a live interview for Chicago Foodways Roundtable with, Ken Hom, the Chinese chef who’s famous, and from Chicago— but not famous in Chicago. Tell us who he is and how you got interested in him.
Ken’s life could be considered Chinese operatic if he weren’t so humble. He’s like the Chinese Julia Child to the rest of the world. I remembered his shows on PBS when I was a kid but I had no idea he was from Chicago until the Peninsula here invited me to meet him at a small dinner in his honour a few years ago. I learned that he came back at least twice a year, no matter where in the world he was, to visit his elderly mother, who just passed away last year.
I wrote a Sun-Times Food section cover story about Ken and through interviews Charlie Trotter told me about his Chinese cooking lessons with Ken; Ming Tsai said he left his job at the Inter-Con here to go work with Ken; and Fuschia Dunlop said Ken was an early and active supporter of her books. So Ken is one of the original television celebrity chefs— who also just starred in an award-winning hit Korean food and travel television series— a worldwide bestselling author, cookware multi-millionaire, philanthropist, but grew up extremely poor in Chicago’s Chinatown where he still revisits twice a year and walks virtually unknown in his hometown and this country. I’ve walked down the street with him in Paris where Asian girls literally ran screaming through traffic, “Ken! Ken Hom!” All that and he’s fun to be around.
So Alaska’s food scene fascinates me because it seems like what the food world was like a hundred years ago— local and directly connected to food out of sheer necessity for survival. How do you get from Paris to Alaska?
Cooking. My childhood best friend’s boyfriend at the time was a fishing captain and small lodge owner. His chef was arrested the week before the season was about to start. They called me on a Friday to help them find a chef somewhere. As I was calling around I thought, “I’ve always wanted to go to Alaska.” Plus when I staged at Alinea I learned that a cook there, Josh Habiger, had left to work in Alaska. (Josh is a chef to watch by the way.) By the next weekend I was up there cooking - and I was cooking for clients who were really hungry after fishing cold, rough, rainy waters every day. Literally and figuratively speaking, they wanted to eat Alaska every night.
Who’s funnier in person, Bourdain or Ripert?
They’re both pretty fun and funny in their own very different ways— but you pretty much see who they really are on camera too. But I don’t think I’ve ever seen Eric really lose it on camera. He has this laugh - probably because of something Tony’s said— where he just doubles over in silence and practically comes up in tears. It’s like a total joyous Buddha laugh.