The Innovators

> The Innovators Four groundbreakers who are embracing the future

Michael Carlson
Schwa 1466 N. Ashland Ave.; 773-252-1466

chicago chef michael carlson
Michael Carlson

In his words
age
32 hometown Lombard, Illinois how long he lasted in cooking school one semester why he left “I decided to go to Europe. I spent almost two years in Italy working.” early mentor Paul Bartolotta at Spiaggia where he was ten years ago“I don’t even know.” where he’ll be in ten years“I think I will always be here. I love Chicago.” first gourmet meal “I was, like, 12 years old. We went up to Quebec and stayed at this enormous hotel that had some old-school French chef. Duck with blueberries. I remember that.” last meal on earth foie gras cookbook he loves Thomas Keller’s The French Laundry Cookbook if he could cook with any chef “Jacques Pépin is the coolest cat in the world. I would like to spend a little time with him.” restaurant he can’t wait to eat at El Bulli: “I think that’s every young chef’s goal.” culinary philosophy “Just make everything taste good.” working hazard “Every once in a while you lop a quarter inch off your finger.” in his fridge at home“Maybe a couple of condiments, if even that. If they’re in there, I don’t know if I would want to eat them.”

In our words
It’s been a great year for Michael Carlson. He got named as one of Food & Wine’s best new chefs for doing exactly what he wants: working in a tiny BYO restaurant with a tiny staff that includes two buddies, his sous-chef/partner Nathan Klingbail and cook Blake Bengsch. His Italian- and Achatz-influenced contemporary food incorporates powders, foams, congealing agents, and other high-tech chemistry; and he’ll do sous vide slow-cooking on about anything he can stuff into a vacuum-sealed pouch. If you want to taste astonishing flavors, get over to Schwa, where Carlson has been known to rock diners’ souls with the likes of pea soup with morels, lemon, and lavender, and beef rib eye three ways—braised, pickled, and raw.
–D. R. W.

Grant Achatz
Alinea 1723 N. Halsted St.; 312-867-0110

In his words
age
32 hometown St. Clair, Michigan what he did for his 30th birthday He worked. “Ever since I graduated high school, I told myself that I would own a restaurant by the time I was 30.” (He missed by two weeks.) cooking school Culinary Institute of America favorite high-school class mechanical drafting: “I was thinking about becoming an architect.” ten years ago he had just started at The French Laundry. in ten years “I’ll be at Alinea. There will be other things going on, but this is home.” morning ritual e-mail and latte first job When he was five, he washed dishes at his grandmother’s diner on weekends. meal that floored him his first at The French Laundry: “I recognized cooking as art. I had gone to school and read about it, but that was my first experience taking it in.” last meal on earth oysters and pearls from Thomas Keller, Achatz’s own homemade tagliatelle with shaved white truffles and butter, pizza from Homemade Pizza Company most-used cookbook Culinary Artistry by Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg in his fridge Diet Coke, Champagne, pickles, yogurt daily quandary “Should I concede to the philosophy of never repeating a dish, or do I have the maturity to use last year’s tomato dish until I come up with a better one?” time-honored prank sending an extern to another restaurant in search of a toast “debrowner.”

In our words
Achatz has toned down what he called his initial “relentless push for evolution” into a more mature style, keeping his mad-scientist vapors and carrageen gels in check—but he continually pushes forward into territory where no chef has gone before. Right now he might be playing with his industrial homogenizer—the kind used for mixing antibiotics—giving nuts and raw root vegetables a silky mayonnaise-like texture. And there’s still plenty of fun stuff, too, like a cold potato soup that arrives in a custom-made paraffin bowl pierced in the side by a long pin suspending a hot potato morsel, a butter cube, and a truffle slice. Just pull the pin through the bowl and let his brilliance drop directly into your soup.
–D. R. W.

Homaro Cantu
Moto 945 W. Fulton Mkt. St.; 312-491-0058

chicago chef homaro cantu
Homaro Cantu

In his words
age
30 hometown Portland, Oregon where he plans to spend his 40th birthday in space. “There might be the space hotel by then.” cooking school Le Cordon Bleu, Portland earliest kitchen disaster “I started my first fire when I was 12. I was frying a frozen hot dog in butter.” creative inspiration Linking things to food that have nothing to do with food on science “I would rather create an interesting bottle for hot sauce than ‘Homaro Hot Sauce’ itself.” first gourmet meal Benihana: “I was nine. I thought it was cool that the guy threw a shrimp in his hat.” most memorable meal “On our honeymoon, we stopped off at a little café in Savigny-lès-Beaune [France]. We had moules frites and a crêpe stuffed with ham and cheese.” if he could cook with anyone “My grandmother. She made amazing flour tortillas that I still can’t make today.” dish that failed “We took squid ink and battered calamari with it. It tasted like a classic fried calamari, but the entire dish was pitch black. It made people’s teeth black.” philosophy “Don’t do anything that you’ve done before.” dangers of experimentation “We were playing around with some pressurized gas and some guy left a valve open. A hose exploded: 1,000 pounds of pressure. Everyone thought that was the end.”

In our words
You could hardly blame diners for not knowing what to make of a chef whose menu is written on a strip of asiago flatbread. One taste, though, and it’s obvious that flavor is Cantu’s master. He’ll probably always get more press for his egghead ideas (“nachos” made of kiwi, mango, mint, and maize) but beneath the zaniness beats the heart of a skilled chef fearlessly pushing forward. Where the Trotters and Tramontos compulsively perfect every last element of a dish, Cantu’s obsession is
experimentation. When you taste a bull’s-eye—like Moto’s triple-seared beef with smoked kielbasa purée and mustard-braised cabbage—you can almost feel your mind expanding along with his.
–J. R.

Graham Elliot Bowles
Avenues The Peninsula Chicago, 108 E. Superior St.; 312-573-6754

chicago chef graham elliot bowles
Graham Elliot Bowles

In his words
age
29 birthplace Seattle cooking school Johnson & Wales (Norfolk, Virginia) first amazing meal The Mansion on Turtle Creek, Dallas: “My girlfriend, who is now my wife, had come to visit me, and I wanted to impress her.” cookbook that changed his life Charlie Trotter’s Cookbook number of states he’s been in 47 longest meal El Bulli, 2002: “It lasted about seven hours; $300 for the two of us, including wine. An absolute steal.” creative inspiration art museums, movies, books, stoplights last meal on earth mom’s boiled cabbage and potatoes with corned beef, and yum-yum pie on his girth “I look like I ate my brother or something.” kitchen superstition wearing red socks culinary philosophy “It’s a manifesto. I’ll e-mail it to you.” dish that failed seaweed soda pop and sea urchin ice cream: “It was creative: like eating an ice-cream cone on the boardwalk and you get hit by an ocean wave. But would you really want to order that?” guilty pleasure The Laughing Cow cheese by the time he’s 50 “I hope to be running a country. I have large political aspirations. I have my eye on Alderman Joe Moore’s seat in Rogers Park.”

In our words
Bowles is obsessed. “You see a red stop sign,” he says, “and think of doing something with tomatoes or cherries. It consumes me 24 hours a day. It’s more of a sickness than anything else.” And now diners can enjoy Bowles’s obsessive magic without risking the dreaded morning-after food coma. Unlike his fellow avant-gardists, Bowles has given up lengthy tasting menus, perhaps because a four-hour commitment to dinner doesn’t fit the core clientele of a hotel. He’s still creating haute dishes incorporating Corn Nuts, Rice Krispies, Pop Rocks, and candy canes—and by now you’ve probably heard he garnishes lamb with crushed Altoids instead of mint jelly. In some ways he’s the perfect experimental chef: equal parts Ferran Adrià and a 12-year-old boy
–D. R. W.

photography by Lisa Predko

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