Table Talk

Six of the biggest names in the restaurant world gather to chat about the state of Chicago’s dining scene.

Six of Chicago’s most intriguing chefs come together to sound off on star ratings, copying dishes, and the most annoying chef question on earth

>> Chefs of the roundtable: (from left) Carrie Nahabedian, Grant Achatz, Sarah Stegner,
Paul Kahan, Rick Bayless, Charlie Trotter

Q: Who are friends here?
Nahabedian: We all know each other well.
Kahan: I used to work for Rick.
Trotter: And I used to work for Carrie.
Achatz: And I’m the kid of the group.
Bayless: I’m the old man of the group.

Q: Is the community of chefs in Chicago tight-knit?
Bayless: We’re closer and friendlier than in most cities. There’s that Midwestern sensibility. But we all work a lot and we all have our things that we’re focused on. Do we hang out? No. We do events together, or call each other up and ask questions.
Nahabedian: Eat at each other’s restaurants.
Bayless: Yeah. You want to see what everyone else is doing.

Q: Are there many secrets in the restaurant industry?
Kahan: There are no secrets.
Bayless: You’ve been watching too much food TV.
Kahan: If I call you up on the phone, Grant, and asked you about some technique that you had developed, would you share it?
Achatz: Of course.
Kahan: I wouldn’t be able to do it as well, anyways, but I’d give it a shot.

Q: Some of you own multiple restaurants. How do you keep the quality high, and what about the perception that you should be at every place simultaneously?
Kahan: Drives me crazy. If I open the kitchen at 7:30 a.m. at Blackbird and I leave at 8 p.m., the only way to leave is through the dining room. And people look at me: Where are you going? I’ve been here 14 hours without sitting down! Give me a break!
Trotter: You should have said, “I’m just going next door.”
Kahan: The biggest help is training a great staff that has the same talent or greater talent than I do. The young, enthusiastic kids who put their heads down and work under any circumstances to grow. Those are the people who will hopefully carry me into the future and let me open another restaurant, so I can back off and enjoy the rest of my life when I’m 65.

Q: How many of you are cooking on the line?
Nahabedian: We’re all on the line at some point but you’re certainly not doing service. Because it’s counterproductive.
Bayless: The worst thing in the world is if I were to work a position on the line. There are days when I would love to go back to that. But that would mean I was focusing on one little thing and I was missing everything else.

Q: Do you think there’s a misperception by the public?
Bayless: Well, yes. We’ll serve 800 people a day and they think I’m back there making every appetizer and entrée. They’ll call me over and say, “Did you make this dish?”
Trotter: Me and my 25 helpers.
Bayless: I’ll say, “If I actually made that dish, you’d be sitting here for the next 14 hours waiting for me to get the rest of the dishes out. We’d be serving you breakfast.”
Trotter: Alain Ducasse, who has an empire all over the world, was asked, Surely you can’t cook every day? His response: “I do. I cook in my mind. I am able to articulate a vision to some very capable people, and I visit my restaurants enough that I instill an ethic in the staff.” So it can be done.

Q: What’s the best thing about the star-rating system? [ Silence.]

Q: OK, the worst thing.
Bayless: So many people don’t read the reviews; they only read the stars. Like somebody from heaven has given you three stars and suddenly you’re in that category. Nobody knows quite how it happens but that’s all they remember.
Nahabedian: Or sometimes you’ll read a whole review and it’ll be positive from start to finish. So, OK, why does this guy only have two stars?
Kahan: There are no set rules. I realize it’s subjective, but there need to be some guidelines that say, in order for a restaurant to get three stars-and I’m not talking about anyone in particular-you need to have a wine list.
Nahabedian: Or you need to have service. If you chose not to have a wine list, that’s great, but at least have people who are knowledgeable serving the wine. Anybody could just serve food. I could cook the plate, walk it out, and walk away, but what are you getting from that?
Achatz: But that in itself is an experience. I assume that we’re all talking about Schwa. [ Note: The Chicago Tribune and Chicago magazine both gave Schwa three stars out of four even though it’s BYO and doesn’t have white-tablecloth service.]
Trotter: First of all, anybody who wouldn’t have a wine program is leaving so much money on the friggin’ table, you’re crazy! That’s where all the money is.
Nahabedian: How do you take half a star away from someone for bad service, then you hand three stars to someone who isn’t giving traditional service?
Bayless: It’s not just about the food. It’s about the whole experience, attention to every detail. The food has to be stellar, but so do the wine program and the service.
Achatz: Of course I’m going to argue the opposite direction because both of those guys [Schwa’s Michael Carlson and Nathan Klingbail] worked for me for a long time. It is stupid that they don’t have a wine program and several people have told them so-but they don’t want to do it. But, as Rick said earlier, the guests think I cook every plate that comes out of the kitchen. At Schwa, they do. And they serve every plate. That gives the guest the opportunity to look the chef in the eye and say, “What do we have here, and how’d you do this?” They make up for lacking in certain areas by offering an experience that’s unique.
Kahan: Just for the record, I love Schwa.
Nahabedian: Everyone loves Schwa.
Kahan: I think it’s so cool that the chefs serve the food. I said it should be called Smells Like Teen Spirit instead of Schwa. But the question was stars. The only problem I have is it’s inconsistent.
Stegner: The review of Schwa made me want to eat there. Fifteen years ago, I ate in Mario Batali’s restaurant in New York, a little hole in the wall where he was cooking in back with one other guy. Now look at what he’s done. So, write about how this guy is brave enough to do it this way, and let me decide if I want to go have that experience.
Nahabedian: The stars tend to intimidate people. We have a server who went to Trotter’s, and she said, “I don’t know why everyone says it’s so intimidating. He was so nice, and the servers couldn’t have been nicer.” Four stars intimidate people. Three stars, they don’t quite know. God forbid you get one star.
Bayless: Even one star says you’re doing something that people should pay attention to, but I think people would say, “A one-star place, oh, I’m not going to go there.”
Stegner: They have a preconceived idea about what those stars mean. And that does affect our businesses.
Bayless: Oh, very much. And from the chef standpoint, if it’s a two-star review you should be able to see in that review what you need to do to raise the level of stars you’ve been given. And very frequently you can’t tell anything from it.

Q: What dining review word makes you cringe?
Nahabedian: “Concept.”
Achatz: There are several for me. “Science.” “Gimmickry.”
Kahan: Some reviews put you in a personal light that you don’t want to be put in. Like, Paul Kahan is this guy or that guy or he’s this certain way-and they really don’t have any idea. Why don’t they just talk about the dining experience?

Q: The celebrity chef thing: does it annoy you?
Bayless: It doesn’t really have anything to do with me as a chef. We play a role in the culture, so I do what I have to do for that. But in the long run, I have a bigger mission that I’m trying to accomplish and it allows me to do that.
Trotter: I don’t think anyone at this table got into the business because they thought they’d become a celebrity. Along the way, things happen and opportunity comes your way. But, as Rick says, it doesn’t change what you do. You’re still devoted to a much higher good. I keep pushing forward to refine what I do. It’s dreadful when you’re interviewing a person and you ask why he wants to be in this business: “Well, I see myself having a TV show.”
Kahan: That’s happening more and more. It’s creepy.
Trotter: You should go into this business because you love touching food and caressing food and cooking food-and you love to serve people. And you better love to serve more than being served. But we’re blessed because we have opportunities. We’ve benefited from what Paul Bocuse started in the sixties, and it just keeps going. I can only imagine what the situation will be in 15 years.
Bayless: It also enhances the livelihood. You figure out how much you have to do and how much you don’t have to do.
Stegner: Sometimes you feel like you can make a difference so you say yes to charities that touch you. But it’s a time management thing. Since my child came along I’ve pulled back a little bit. You just have to make time for it.
Nahabedian: Your daughter comes by the restaurant, doesn’t she?
Stegner: Yeah.
Bayless: My daughter was raised in the restaurant. When she was born, we made a room just for her. When she comes home from school, she comes to the restaurant. So when I have a few minutes, I’ll sit down and talk to her. All her friends come over and hang out.
Stegner: They sure eat good.
Bayless: Now that she’s a teenager, she’s lovin’ that. She called me on Saturday night-she was out at Lollapalooza with some friends-and she says, “Can we have a table, please, at ten o’clock.” And it’s like, “OK, I’m glad you want to come here.” So she brought her friends for dinner.
Kahan: Must be nice.

Q: Do you cook at home?
Kahan: I like sitting in the backyard, drinking a beer or a bottle of wine with my wife. This week I’m making pizza on the grill. I have stones, I have this woodburning piece of crap, and I get it up to about 800 degrees and make a pizza with banana peppers and eggplant and olive oil and whatever I can pull out of my yard or grab from the restaurant.
Stegner: We do a lot of grilling in the summer.
Bayless: I have people over a lot. I had 16 people for dinner last night. I made the barbecue from my parents’ restaurant that I grew up in. My daughter and my wife and I try to have one meal every week where we each cook a dish.

Q: So you’re not trying out concepts for the restaurants?
Bayless: I’ll pull stuff out of the garden, and that’ll find its way onto the menu. I’m always playing around with things.
Nahabedian: I don’t have food in my house. I just can’t deal with grocery shopping. What I want to eat is never what I have. I like to cook for the moment.
Trotter: We all taste for a living, even more than we cook. You’re tasting constantly. Adjust this, tweak this, add more citrus to that. So you get home late and you don’t always want to cook.
Bayless: There are days when you’ve tasted 70 different things-and you might go back to the same dish six times trying to get it exactly where you want it. At the end of the day, all I want to do is just have a piece of lettuce.

Q: What do you think of the city council telling us what we can and cannot eat?
[ Silence.]

Trotter: I’ll take that. [ Laughter.] We have a classic case of longtime politicos who think they know what’s good for other people. Personally, I’m the staunchest libertarian in North America. I’m all about freedom of choice, and the enlightened consumer can choose what they want to do. I’ve become the de facto poster person for the No Foie Gras movement, but that was never my intention. We haven’t served foie gras in four-plus years, and I got in a small spat with a colleague of mine, though we have since made peace. But I was never in favor of banning. We’re also a no-smoking restaurant, but I don’t think there should be a smoking ban. If people don’t want to dine in a restaurant that permits smoking, then don’t go there. This is a slippery slope that’s never going to end unless we put the brakes on it. We don’t need the government meddling in every little thing.

Q: Do you all agree with Charlie?
[ Murmurs of agreement.]

Q: So as restaurant owners are you going to complain?
Trotter: I haven’t been in a public newspaper fight in about three weeks, so I may have to drive down to City Hall and just open a can of whoop-ass.
Kahan: Dressed up like a giant lobe of foie gras? A-grade, of course.

Q: Next, they might ban 12-ounce portions of meat.
Stegner: What if they said it was illegal to treat animals inhumanely?
Bayless: They’re not going there because they want to keep that stuff under wraps. There are all kinds of issues with the way we raise cattle in this country, but it’s easier to focus on foie gras than focus on the thing that everybody’s eating all the time. How many people in the country eat foie gras?

Q: Anthony Bourdain said recently, “I don’t care if my tomato was raised in a lab or some hippie’s backyard. I don’t even care if it causes the occasional tumor in lab rats. I only care that it’s the best tasting damn tomato available.” Reaction?
Bayless: Consider the source.
Kahan: It’s idiotic.

Q: But which is more important: the taste or the origin?
Kahan:
Ultimately it’s the taste. But taste and where it’s produced run hand in hand. It’s rare to get a great tomato from anywhere except a tiny little farm that specializes in it. We all care where they come from.
Bayless: The comment that you read is totally narcissistic. I want to be number one based on flavor, because that’s what my guests will remember. But I support people who bring more than just great taste to me, people who take care of the land and their own communities.
Nahabedian: Consumers are more knowledgeable than they were ten years ago. They’re going into a supermarket and they’re asking, “Is this vine-ripened? Was it gassed?” And the person selling it better have all the answers. So if he’s getting a tomato that causes tumors in rats, it wouldn’t be on the market.
Kahan: There’s less of everything: fish, for example. The earth is in much worse shape than it was 20 years ago. Flavor is the number one thing, but I do this with a conscience. At least I think I do.

Q: What advantages do Chicago chefs have?
Bayless: We get to live in Chicago.
Stegner: We’ve got a fragile but developing local food system that’s moving in the right direction. And we’ve got a large pool of talent.
Nahabedian: And the talent stays.
TROTTER: We have a discerning client base and a vital business community. Chicagoans aren’t as fickle, maybe, as West Coasters or New Yorkers.
Bayless: It’s not just about the hot new trend. If it’s good quality and it’s up-to-date, they’ll keep coming back. They won’t be the lemmings that go on to the next hot restaurant. I think that happens a lot more on the coasts.

Q: What are the disadvantages?
Nahabedian: Ten percent sales tax. We live in a great city and we pay for it.
Stegner: I wish that we had higher-quality fish from Lake Michigan. I wish that it were cleaner and safer.
Trotter: When we have European chefs here, they always think we’re getting fish from Lake Michigan. And we have to break the news.
Kahan: Chicagoans have turned some of the disadvantages into advantages. There has been a push lately for locally raised produce in the winter. Last year was the first year I was able to buy from Wisconsin Homegrown [a Madison-based organic farmers’ cooperative] year round.
Bayless: Yeah, all the farmers are jumping on that bandwagon.

Q: Grant, you do a lot of local food sourcing. It seems like no one ever talks about that part of your food.
Achatz: Of course they don’t. I make it all in the laboratory, in test tubes and petri dishes.

Q: In March, an Australian chef made news for copying dishes, without attribution, from several restaurants, including Grant’s. Is this stealing or flattery?
Nahabedian: I think stealing’s a little harsh. If it’s out there and Grant’s doing something that’s so innovative that a chef 15,000 miles away felt compelled to do it, it’s flattery. To say it’s your own: that’s a different story.
Bayless: All the time, a chef will create a dish, and everyone starts making their own variation and then the next thing you know, it’s in the public domain. That’s a great tribute to a chef.
Achatz: In this case, it was stealing. He claimed it was his. He also copied Moto’s dishes and WD-50’s dishes. So, I go to this guy’s Web site and in the photo gallery, 17 dishes from Alinea were exactly the same-even the china! He bought some off our Web site. He staged [had an unpaid internship] with us for two weeks; he staged with Homaro [Cantu, from Moto]; he staged at WD-50. Then he went back to Australia and replicated everything-menu descriptions and all.
Kahan: He sounds like a scumbag.

Q: If someone does an identical presentation, is it still homage?
Bayless: People have done it to me. They’ve taken copy from our menu. My favorite was the one where we had one word misspelled and they took the copy and misspelled the same word.
Trotter: These people don’t really have the wherewithal to sustain something in the long run. They might be able to mimic, and since he’s halfway around the world he’s not going to be as readily discovered. [ To Achatz] Let me ask you a question: How does this affect your permitting visitors into your kitchen?
Achatz: Not at all. So the guy stole. Whatever. What is he going to do the next time he needs to change his menu? Is he going to fly to the States and go to Charlie Trotter’s or French Laundry? The trouble is, you’re dealing with an industry that’s supposed to be monitored by integrity, so when somebody breaches that-especially a stagiaire that came in and was very respectful and did a great job-you feel very deceived.
Trotter: We used to be very, very open. You could come for a month or a day or whatever. After a while we began to feel taken advantage of. People would take pictures; then they’d be gone and you’d see approximations of things on their menus. Now we insist upon a donation to our foundation, and they’ve got to spend at least a week in a structured program.
Nahabedian: At the end of the day, when they put their head on the pillow, what are they achieving?
Bayless: By the time they get back to wherever they’ve come from and get those dishes on their menu, we’re already on to something new. They’re still chasing our tails.

Q: Did you take any action against this chef, Grant?
Achatz: No. Nowadays it’s self-policing with the Internet and the popularity of food blogs. Food writers and editors visit all those sites. So what’s left for him? All of his local food media knows.

Q: How much time do you spend reading all these foodie message boards-egullet, lthforum.com, et cetera?
Kahan: None.
Nahabedian: None.
Achatz: I do. For me, it’s a valuable tool to understand the guest. They bring certain issues to light that would never come about, because those people who post are probably never going to write a letter.
Bayless: You gotta slog through a lot of stuff to get to the valuable things. Twice a year, I’ll just go through the sites just to see what people are saying.
Kahan: There are crazy people out there who spend all their time doing that.
Bayless:
A lot of times these are the people you try to get away from at parties. They just go on and on about their opinion about everything. Why would I want to read their stuff on the Internet?

Q: What’s the hardest thing about working at your level?
Nahabedian: At any level, if you’ve made the commitment to open a restaurant, you do everything it takes to make it successful. If it only works when you’re there, it doesn’t work at all. You’re instilling into your employees that this is also their restaurant. I tell them: “Cook as if you were cooking for yourself,” because cooks are so critical when they go out to eat.

Q: As an owner, is it hard to give up control?
Bayless: I don’t think it’s letting go. It’s the opposite: you’re actually extending control. It’s empowering people.
Trotter: You’re training leaders. You want them to take complete ownership.
Kahan: Investing time in people and going through highs and lows-and then they leave. I’m going through this right now. A guy who’s given himself to the restaurant for six years-who I’ve seen go from a child to a man-it takes me weeks to move on and figure out who’s going to fill that position.
Nahabedian: You can’t mate for life.

Q: The constant staff turnover must be exhausting.
Kahan: There’s a lot of good attached to it, too. Every new person who comes in brings a different set of eyes and taste buds and skills. It’s really exciting when someone comes in from New York or somewhere and can teach me a few things. We don’t have infinite creativity.

Q: What’s the next dining trend?
[ Groans.]

Bayless: You asked earlier what dining review word makes you cringe. Well, that question makes me cringe. I can answer really quickly: If we all knew what it was we’d be out doing it, right? We’re creating it in some ways, the people at this table. We’re following our muses. Sometimes we react to things and sometimes we simply create them.

Photograph by Andreas Larsson
Location: Prairie Production Rental Studios

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