Behind the Soundbite

Behind the Soundbite: Crunching at Carnivale

Mendez reaches for some (still-crunchy) potatoes at the Green City Market.
Mendez reaches for some (still-crunchy) potatoes at the Green City Market. Photo: Helen Rosner

You might recognize this Grub Street guest editor from our work as the host/producer of the Chicago Public Radio series Soundbites, which examines how Chicago chefs use sound, everyday, on the job — the electronic blips of their equipment, the chatter of their staff, the sound of food cooking, and, of course, the kind of music played in the restaurant. Here’s a peek behind-the-scenes at some of the experiences we had during season two that didn’t really translate to radio. Today, we’re at Carnivale, with a personally embarrassing out-take that never made it to the final cut.

Mark Mendez has been Carnivale’s executive chef for six years. He recently announced his imminent departure from the restaurant in order to strike out on his own. He’s a talented chef, and also a most animated and engaging conversationalist. He waxed particularly rhapsodic about one particular sound: crunch. Mendez is known for his love of top-quality produce, and we wondered whether he could tell the difference between a fresh and a not-so-fresh vegetable by sound alone. “Oh, absolutely,” he said. “One of the first things that comes to mind is asparagus. We get asparagus from Mick Klug twice a week, and it’s usually less than a couple of days old, and you notice right away. It’s so sweet and it’s so fresh, that we just eat it raw, especially with the younger, smaller pieces. And you can tell by the way it snaps how fresh it is.”

“My wife loves potato chips of any kind, and I know when you get those super crunchy potato chips or like the chips we serve with our guacamole, they enjoy that crunchiness and we fry ourselves as opposed to like buying chips, which believe me I tried and it’s just not the same. It’s a lot of work and I tried to find ways to get around it and there really isn’t. I find that if you fry them yourselves ever day it holds up better with the guacamole … One of the things we try to do here is a lot of the main courses, we serve little salads, or sometimes what they call in Spanish escabeches, sometimes can be pickles or a little salad, and I think that crunch helps take away from the richness of the dish and I think you need that crunch.”

Of course, Mendez doesn’t like all sounds:

Hammond: This friend of mine, a chef, has this theory that making noise when you eat…like nyum, nyum, nyum…actually makes the food taste better. Have you ever experimented with that?

Mendez: No. I know when I eat I’m very self conscious about making noises, so I try to be quiet, but I know in Asian cultures, it’s okay to slurp your noodles and I remember going to New York to Momofuko with my wife, and I was thinking to myself, there is no way I could eat this bowl of ramen without slurping or making noise, and I felt uptight, but ultimately it tasted so good that I didn’t care.

Hammond: I actually tried that technique, of nyum, nyum when I’m eating, and I don’t know whether it’s the vibration of the palate, or whatever, but it actually seems to make the food taste more distinct…

Mendez: To me that seems like something Homer Simpson would do.

You can listen to the new season of Soundbites starting tomorrow, August 18, on Eight-Forty Eight, which runs from 9AM-10AM, and repeats at 8PM-9PM, on 91.5FM. As with all Chicago Public Radio programming, it’s also available for listening via streaming audio.

Behind the Soundbite: Crunching at Carnivale