To see who’s making the best food in Chicago now, check out our 50 Best Restaurants special issue, on newsstands now, and join us on July 25 at the Shore Club for a special feast in honor of the issue—participating restaurants include Blackbird, Publican, Bellemore, Big Jones, and more.
Long before “celebrity chef” became a catchphrase, Chicago was home to some of America’s most famous cooks. In his recent book The Culinarians, David S. Shields profiles 175 influential chefs and restaurateurs who shaped American cuisine between 1790 and 1919—including nine prominent Chicagoans. Shields, a former Chicago resident who’s the Carolina distinguished professor at the University of South Carolina, talked with us by phone about these stars of Chicago’s early dining scene.
John Burroughs Drake hosted a massive game dinner once a year at his hotels—first at the Tremont House and later at the Grand Pacific Hotel—from 1855 to 1893, with just a few gaps in the annual tradition. “As a rail hub, (Chicago) was the place which had the best supply of game in the United States. John Drake’s famous game dinners at his hotels were extraordinary events that couldn’t have existed unless you had rail transport available into Canada and the West Coast and into Central America. The scope (of Drake’s game dinners) was stupefying, and certain items were virtually unique. He had an ibex ham one year, that I thought was just over the top. The juniper-soaked bear is something that struck me as interesting. (Game) was considered the height of fine eating—particularly among the ‘flash bachelor’ set that operated as the prime clientele for these institutions.”
Jessup Whitehead, a London native who’d run hotel kitchens in the West, built a publishing empire in Chicago in the 1880s, printing books for culinary professionals. “He had great deals of sympathy for sub-first-tier public dining—that is, the world of boardinghouses and things like that. He decided that all of the information that he gathered, and all of the proprietary sort of stuff that was held in secret by the big-name chefs, he would just lay out. His various books, like the book on hotel meat cookery, have more concrete information on how to produce stuff, how to process meat, than any book that’s available in the last part of the 19th century. Some of those books are republished 50 times.”
Agnes Moody was a slave when she was born in Maryland in 1840. After escaping to Canada, she settled in Chicago in 1866, where she gained renown as a caterer. In 1900, she presented traditional American corn dishes at the world’s fair in Paris. “She operated in a world that was very important for African-Americans—the world of the black clubs and associations. She would give the public address during the meal as well as prepare the meal. She was very much a political creature. It’s difficult to think of another Chicago woman of her generation that had such international visibility. When she performed her extraordinary educational errand in Europe, she almost single-handedly made French cookery recognize maize as an important dimension of cooking.”
Joseph Seyl, an immigrant from Prussia, ran the kitchens at the Palmer House from 1871 to 1917. “He’s sort of the consummate professional. He’s in charge of one of the very biggest venues in the city. The Palmer House is considered one of the temples of hospitality. He makes it a place where common people can get solid cooking, and he can cover the high-end things as well. He would write his menus in standard English, and translate French into an English equivalent. He was very interested in American regional cooking as well. He’s a member of a German cooking community in Chicago, which in many ways is more potent than the French cooking community.”
Charles E. Rector opened his seafood restaurant, Rector’s, at the corner of Clark and Madison in 1884, and it was an instant success. In 1899, he opened a New York restaurant with the same name. “He’s the creator of the ‘lobster palace.’ A very, very significant figure in national dining. He perfects the Champagne-and-crustacean dinner with merriment and a glitzy surrounding. If you were a businessman on the rise or a showgirl, that was the fancy place you went to—Rector’s in Chicago, and then Rector’s in New York.”
Urban Sobra was the chef at the Hotel Richelieu from 1887 to 1894, before presiding over the Auditorium Hotel’s kitchen from 1895 to 1896. “Some people considered him the very finest French chef in America. He was admired from coast to coast.” But as Shields writes, Sobra became just as famous for scandalous news stories involving his wife, “a large, voluptuous, and passionate woman with a love of court proceedings.”
Rufus Estes, an African-American originally from Nashville, served celebrities and even Presidents Grover Cleveland and Benjamin Harrison as a chef on Pullman train cars. And in 1911, he wrote the book Good Things to Eat, as Suggested by Rufus. “Just like African-American Pullman porters were very significant figures, many of the chefs on the national lines were African-American. And they produced this extraordinary, resourceful cuisine that made use of ingredients captured along the way and prepared while moving. They did it in high style. High-end railroad cookery was revered. Estes is the one person who wrote a book which captured that entire moment in the repertoire of cookery.”
Adrian Delvaux was a French-trained chef in Chicago from 1890 through 1893, cooking at the Chicago Club, Congress Hotel and Auditorium Hotel, before finding even greater fame in Kansas City, Missouri. “When he does the Hotel Baltimore in Kansas City, he models it on the Palmer House. He becomes a kind of publisher on a national scale of aphorism and recipes. The creation of newspaper chef-oracles is something that happened at the very beginning of the 20th century.”
Walter George was an African-American chef on the Pioneer Limited train between Chicago and Minneapolis in the late 1890s, which gained a reputation as America’s best meal on wheels. Starting in 1902, he was chef at J.L. Slaughter’s New Turf European Hotel and Restaurant in Milwaukee. “So far as I know, it is the northernmost restaurant in the Midwest which has an African-American proprietor. It was an entirely black enterprise.” Shields says that George and other African-American chefs on train lines “had a broad enough range in terms of their repertoire that they could do the standard dishes. But they always introduced a couple of signatures from the African-American tradition.”