Watch “The Lonely Critic,” Ruby’s bubble-gum pop ode to “the life.”
Dining critics do not spring fully formed from the head of Zeus; we’re mere mortals—sociologists, teachers, landlords, stay-at-home parents. I, for example, grew up thinking the taco salad at Chi-Chi’s was pretty fancy, and no one disabused me of that idea at home, where we ate fried chicken, flank steak, and maybe eight other dishes my entire childhood.
One summer, my mom, bored with cooking for a bunch of meat-and-potatoes males—and sick of doing all the work—imposed a rule: Every week, one of her three sons would shop for, and cook, dinner. I boiled hot dogs, and I microwaved the buns. Comparatively, this made me the Ducasse of the house: Kenn poured shredded mozzarella and Ragú on rolls and called them Italian grinders; David attempted some kind of barbecued beef, which nearly burned the kitchen down, and then we went to Arby’s. That was the end of the cooking experiment.
When I moved to Chicago, my palate hadn’t evolved much. Far-fetched dreams of becoming an entertainment reporter for the Trib meant I wasn’t terribly interested in food: My cooking repertoire was nachos and pasta. Frozen egg rolls, if I felt like ethnic food.
Two weeks after my arrival, I snagged a job interview with Chicago’s dining editor, Penny Pollack, who had been passed my résumé the day her assistant announced she was leaving. “Do you know anything about food?” Penny asked at the interview. (No.) “Do you know anything about Chicago?” (No, ma’am.) “OK, so what do you bring to the table?” My journalism degree, I said, gave me a writing and editing background. “You know,” she said, “it’s easier to teach a writer about food than it is to teach a foodie how to write.” I nodded. She could have been the diving editor for all I understood.
A week later, I was sitting at a desk, tugging on my $6 tie and fact-checking the dining listings for this publication:
ME: Are you still open Tuesday through Saturday?
LINCOLN PARK BISTRO MANAGER: Yes.
ME: Do you still have private dining for 10 to 125 people?
ME: And Edith Piaf performs there?
LPBM: Yes. Wait. What?
ME: Edith Piaf. It says in the listing: “Edith Piaf warbles old torch songs to sophisticated diners nibbling baguettes and sipping French varietals.”
LPBM: Um. Edith Piaf is dead.
ME: Oh. I’m sorry. Were the two of you close?
After three years of calls like this, Penny asked if I wanted to try reviewing a restaurant: Rainforest Cafe. I jumped at the chance. The food was terrible, but it was the first time I’d actually taken a moment to think about what things tasted like. Once I slowed down and started rolling a Rumble in the Jungle Turkey Wrap around on my tongue and trying to describe it, everything opened up. I turned in extensive notes on the meal, as though I’d been to Everest.
That’s when I began fooling around in the kitchen. I interviewed chefs and read Gourmet on the el. I tried to memorize the entire Food Lover’s Companion. Penny, sensing she was on to something, kept doling out assignments. The more I ate, the more I learned, and the more I learned, the more I ate. The only way I could describe my growth is this: If you try enough French onion soups in a row and you don’t start to know what a good French onion soup tastes like, you’re not paying attention. Next thing you know, you’re sitting at Arun’s, bloviating to friends and into a hidden tape recorder about the amount of cumin in the Mussaman beef curry.
I am a dining critic. It took more than a decade to get to the point where I could say that and really believe it. And I couldn’t go back to the taco salad even if I wanted to. Chi-Chi’s went bankrupt in 2003.
Video: Jeff Ruby and Sarah Abella
Illustration: Kim Rosen