Continuing in our retrospective look back at 2012/quest to give you plenty to kill time with during a slow week at the office, we’ve collected some memorable quotes from some of the interviews we’ve conducted during the last year. We like doing interviews because chefs and other food people are almost always bursting to tell us about what they do. And we like doing interviews online because we don’t have to tighten them up into soundbites to fit the page, but can let our subjects talk and talk and tell us what life in the kitchen (or wherever) is really like. So here are some of our favorite bits from people we talked to at length over the past year; don’t miss yesterday’s slideshow of great food photos from 2012, and come back tomorrow for a look back at our favorite food videos.
Matt Kirkley of L2O on winning back his second Michelin star:
When the inspectors called us to tell us we had two stars, I immediately asked what we could do to get to three. And they said, thank you for asking— you’re the only chef who’s asked that. And what they said was, there was nothing wrong that kept us from three, they just take that kind of jump up slowly. And they confirmed that they started coming more often in the months before the announcement, and that each time was better than the one before. That’s what you want to hear, right?
Chris Nugent, of Chicago magazine’s best new restaurant Goosefoot, on why he left Les Nomades to open his own fine dining restaurant way up in Lincoln Square:
You know, each chef has their own vision. I’ve been in this for a long time, I have twenty-plus years in the business, and I could never walk away from fine dining. I enjoy the experience of having the guests come in, coming for the creativity of the food, coming for a longer meal— that’s why I got into this business. You don’t open a 34-seat restaurant on Lawrence Avenue that’s BYOB to make money. You do it because you’re passionate about food, about cooking and about entertaining people. You might make a little money but it’s really about passion.
John Manion of La Sirena Clandestina on the moment when he knew he wanted to turn a pop-up dinner into a restaurant:
I thought for this, I’m going to cook weird Brazilian food, market-based, and without really thinking about it, there wasn’t a meat course. Didn’t really think it through, but it was hot out— it just felt right. I did empanadas, which I called “Shit I Found at the Market,” went to the Green City Market and found beautiful stuff— I did a ceviche, made a moqueca, which is a Brazilian seafood stew kind of a thingamajig, Plantains Foster for dessert— very easy food for one guy to do. All we did for that room was Christmas lights and a shit-ton of candles, our friend Frank was playing bossa nova records.
And by the end of the second night he’d abandoned the decks and was playing his guitar, one of the bartenders Justin had brought in was a singer and she was singing with him, and I looked across the room and I thought, fuck, man, this is what I want to do. I don’t need to do some big important restaurant kind of thing. I want to do a little joint where I serve this kind of market-driven, Latin focused food.
Paul Virant on who in his family ignited his interest in canning and preserving:
Not my mom, but her mom, and my dad’s mom did. My grandparents on my mother’s side had a pretty good-sized garden, and there was a lot of canning and preserving — and freezing, too. But you know, I grew up on canned vegetables, and I don’t mean the good, home-preserved kind.
Bryce Caron, then of Graham Elliot, on the position of pastry chef:
It always raises my hackles when I hear that I do savory desserts. I do food, I just happen to use a little more sugar. With a tasting menu there’s the opportunity to contribute to the overall balance of the meal— one course is super-acidic, another one is super-sweet. If you have four or five dishes under your control, you can spread out the balance of the dishes.
My goal is to eliminate the position of “pastry chef.” I’m a chef. It’s an exciting opportunity for me, to be able to think about how to break up one palatial experience and make it balanced.
Graham Elliot on small plates:
I hate small plates, by the way. I’m a big guy and I need a certain amount of food or I’m not going to be happy. Don’t give me some little plate for four people where you can’t even get a whole bite, and then at the end of the night you’ve just had a bunch of little tastes of stuff. I want my own plate. Like I went to a place that’s famous for small plates, and I said to the people I was going with, you have to understand, I’m going to order a bunch of stuff, and it’s mine.
Michael Taus of soon-to-close Zealous on the casualization of fine dining:
I think diners are too tolerant now of tight tables, service that’s too casual. You wind up spending the same money, it’s just a more casual environment. It’s tough for me to do casual because I want to give people great service.
My customers are people who want a special night out. Couples like to dress up and show off. My customers get upset when someone in the dining room has shorts on. You don’t have to wear a jacket here, and you can come here and have a great burger— it’s not stuffy about food. But I want to give you a special night.
Andrew Zimmerman of Sepia on the work ethic of recent culinary grads:
I come up to them sometimes during the day and I say, I know that what you are doing seems monotonous. I know you wish you were doing more than peeling fava beans. But all that work has to be done. And if you get that done quickly, we’re going to give you another job, and you’re going to learn quickly. But if you’re going to take forever doing a stupid task, we’re going to keep giving you stupid tasks.
One of the things that I wish they would teach in culinary school is, you have to take ownership of your own career. If you’re just going to go through the motions, and peel the fava beans and feel bummed out that I didn’t ask you to butcher all the lamb today on your first day, you’re not going to get anywhere, buddy.
Ryan Poli of Little Market Brasserie on kitchen spirit:
The way that I was trained, and I talk to my friends and the way they were trained, was that hard French mentality of, you make a mistake and you’re worried about it. People make mistakes. And you train them to get past them. Screaming at people— first, they’re going to hate their job, and they’re going to be nervous, and they’re not going to be producing in a passionate way and getting into the groove of service.
13-year-old Moto stagier Jack Flaharty on cooking what he’s learned at home:
I’ve tried some of the stuff that Moto and iNG make at my house. It’s interesting to try and see what I can accomplish on my own. I experimented with some different chemicals that I ordered online, and saw how they work, then saw how a pro kitchen puts them to use.
Recently I made pea ice cream— I used peas and dehydrated carrot puree, buttermilk gel, and some bacon powder. I wouldn’t say that was to any extent as cool as what the guys at Moto and iNG are doing, but I thought it was interesting.
J. Spillane of Armitage Pizzeria on whether his pizza is authentic East Coast style:
Hell if I know. This is the pizza I had when I was growing up in Worcester, Massachusetts, so I just started calling it that. It was shorter than any other way to describe it. I put the sign in the window and I immediately started getting people saying, is it really East Coast style? Can I see it? They’re so desperate to be able to get their kind of pizza here. I had one woman demand for me to open somebody’s box before they picked it up and show it to her. East Coasters are kind of mental about their pizza.
Janine MacLachlan, author of Farmers’ Markets of the Heartland, on regional differences in farmers’ markets:
There are definitely cultural differences by region. In Indiana there’s a lot of popcorn, popcorn to cook yourself, kettle corn to eat at the market. In Minnesota and in Wisconsin you have a lot of Hmong vendors. For the most part they sell familiar vegetables, but if you go to a Hmong vendor and they’re selling carrots, for instance, they will all be lined up perfectly. You can tell it’s a Hmong vendor before you ever see the people.
Oh, and one thing you always see— cinnamon rolls. You could do a whole visual essay on the cinnamon rolls for sale at farmers’ markets all over the midwest.
Iliana Regan of Elizabeth on how she got started at farmers’ markets:
You know, I started at the farmer’s market in Crown Point [Indiana], because the regulations were so much easier, made it easier to cook on site. And it was all things I grew myself. Even when the pierogis took off as a business, they were filled with things I grew or found.
I think that’s one of the things people love and enjoy about the food. Even in the winter, 70-80% of the garnishes are homegrown or foraged. In summer it’s even more.
Abraham Conlon of Fat Rice on vegetables:
I believe in the beauty of vegetables, and the contrast of proteins and vegetables. We’re looking to have a nice blend of things on the plate, that’s thoughtfully prepared, reasonably inexpensive, and reasonably good for you.
Val Benner of the Palmer House on her rooftop garden— and beehive:
We started with two hives, but one of the queens got sick and we incorporated them into one hive. They make wicked awesome honey. I cracked a little bit of the corner of one of the honeycombs so I tried it. It was just crystal clear, beautiful, golden… I think urban honey has better flavor, frankly. It comes from more diversity in the flowers and tree pollen that they feed on.
Danny Grant, then of RIA, on local eating in France vs. the midwest:
My GM and I went to Paris for a week recently, ate at a bunch of three stars. One thing we noticed is how they utilize so well everything from their area. You sit down anywhere and you know you’re in Paris. So we’re trying to do the same thing in the midwest, to represent the food of our region in a particular way. Like, we have an amuse we call cheese curds. It’s a super-thin fried globe that we fill with a light cheese mousse, so it’s a long ways from a fried cheese curd, but it uses midwestern cheese and it’s served in the box the cheese came in. So that’s our way of embracing the midwestern tradition of starting a meal with fried cheese.
Rodelio Aglibot on the challenge of combining a personal vision with the needs of a hotel restaurant:
Sometimes it’s things that take you back to your childhood— you know, for chefs it’s always about childhood foods, recreating your childhood. There’s one dish— they ate porcupine meatballs in the 19th century. Well, I don’t know where you’d source porcupine or who’d order it in a hotel restaurant, and I never ate that as a kid, but I did eat lots of rice, so I made “porcupine meatballs” with a meatball and rice sticking out all over it. There’ll be a spam musubi at the raw bar. We’ll have chop suey as a side. Let’s eat some food that people love.
I mean, it’s a hotel, so you’ve got the list of things you have to have— there has to be a steak, and a chicken dish, and another steak and another chicken dish. But you can surpass expectations. Surpass expectations, don’t be too serious, disarm your guests and put them in a good mood. There should be a good vibration that comes from the food.
Natalie Oswald of Chilam Balam on what she thought Mexican food was before she went to work for Rick Bayless:
I thought I knew Mexican food before I went to Frontera. And you know, in Ohio we don’t have hardly any local restaurants. It’s getting better, there’s farmer’s markets now, but not when I was living there. So I thought I knew Mexican food, I thought I liked to go out to eat it, but I didn’t know. It was even funny, when I moved to Chicago, someone asked me, oh, can you go to the store and get some tortillas? And I was like, they don’t have corn tortillas at the grocery store. What are you talking about? They had to take me to the store and actually show me that they had corn tortillas. In Ohio, they only had flour tortillas in the grocery store. No way you could ever get a corn tortilla.
Bette Dworkin of Kaufman’s Deli on why she had to reopen after a fire:
After we reopened, there was a woman who came in— an old customer, and her mother was an old customer, when the mom passed away we had catered her shiva. And for some reason she brought in her mother’s check register from the 80s, and she was showing my cousin all the checks she’d written to Kaufman’s— this was back when we took checks!
And my cousin was looking at it, and it occurred to her that there were all these checks to businesses that were famous once that don’t exist any more— Marshall Field’s and Wieboldt’s and Stop and Shop and so on.
All these independent Chicago businesses were gone, except us. It’s all chains now. That’s why we had to reopen.