This Father’s Day…

As this is the first Father’s Day since I started my blog, I’d like to reminisce on my dad’s impact on my relationship with food.

My dad didn’t cook much. Not because he couldn’t manage his way around the kitchen, but more because it was never his passion. He and mom largely followed traditional family roles, and his passion was his family and taking care of them. He helped eagerly whenever asked. He was quick with a kitchen knife, and during the two years my family went vegetarian, he became indispensable to my mom with his talent for chopping veggies.

To this day, I’m a sucker for a well-chopped salad. There’s nothing more frustrating than paying for half a cucumber, tomato wedges and big leaves of lettuce dropped on a plate and passed off as salad. If the ingredients are in the salad, they should be in every bite, otherwise, I’m paying someone to let me do all the work. But I digress.

I’m not sure when it happened, but my dad became obsessed with hot stuff. My mom used to make him a special homemade salsa with twice the peppers she used in the family jar. He once told me he drank a bottle of tabasco sauce on a dare. I barely managed a shot. These days, it’s quite challenging to serve up something too hot for him. I almost succeeded with my messed up posole.

My dad was never a drinker. Well, not that I can remember. There may have been a little something in the house in the early years, but I can’t remember ever seeing anything in the house by the time I was ten. There have been hints over the years at a rough patch in his teen years, and he served in Vietnam, so I can’t imagine there wasn’t at least a drink or two on leaves. Yet it seems he’s recently begun exploring wine again. Of course, I had to be respectful when he dropped a couple ice cubes in his merlot when I took him to Cooper’s Hawk for his birthday. As passionate as I’ve become about wine, I’ll take whatever shared experiences I can get.

This year, my dad is at home caring for my mom so my brother and his family can travel. So Cathy and I are bringing down the dinner special from work for him to enjoy, while we spend time with him. After all he’s given me over the years, it’s the least I can do to show my appreciation to the man who gave my life such flavor. Happy Father’s Day, Dad! I raise my glass to you, now and always. Enjoy!

Mahalo, indeed.

I stopped in at Tom & Eddie’s today. I checked them out about 1.5 years ago, but a few things have changed. I didn’t notice any slider combos anymore. So I went with the Mahalo Burger, paired with sweet potato fries and Boylan Creamy Red Birch Beer. The very tasty burger was made with  ground pork, topped with grilled pineapple, a slice of ham, and asian bbq sauce. The fries were well seasoned, but not overdone, and it was nice to have a cane sugar option, since I’m getting away from HFCS. They actually have a half dozen Boylan choices on tap.

Every time I eat a ground pork burger, it takes me back to the first time I had one. It was the late eighties, and I was hanging out with a buddy, Brent, from youth group. He grabbed a portable grill and all the fixings, along with some ground pork, and we headed out to a local model airfield. We grilled burgers while we watched the enthusiasts fly their planes. My memory of the burgers may be fuzzy, but I can still see them pale and sizzling on the grill. I have no idea what we had on them, but I remember them fondly. Enjoy!

“I’ll bring my ______….”

Have you ever noticed that a great many people seem to have a signature dish? Green bean casserole, seven(or more) layer dip, pfeffernusse, marinated cucumbers, buffalo chicken dip and queso dip… These are just some examples of dishes I’ve seen repeatedly from family and friends over the years. Anyone who fancies themselves able to do more than boil water and spread peanut butter seems to have that one thing they’re so good at making they don’t need a recipe. It could be their consistent success with the dish, it could be the secret/special ingredient that makes theirs stand out, or it could just be the thing they want whenever possible, so they’ve learned to make it themselves.

Either way, it fascinates me how people become attached to a specific dish so strongly, that much of the success of the dish is driven not by it’s potential to impress others, but by the sentimental value we attach to it. The emotional attachment to a given dish becomes very apparent once the dish has been repeated annually at any holiday function, especially if the dish is not known to be traditional for that holiday. Many attach sentimentality to turkey and stuffing at thanksgiving, for example, but less common on the table might be a pea salad or barbeque-glazed corndogs.

Do I have a signature dish? Not yet. Over the years, I’ve become attached to so many signature dishes created by others, but I’ve not come up with my own. When I do, I’ll be sure to post the recipe here. In the meantime, of all the signature dishes I’ve come across over the years, and there have been many great ones, I’m still going to put deviled eggs at the top of the list. Current faves include a particularly creamy-yolked version from one friend, and a tarragon and truffle oil version from another. Man, I love those addictive little morsels! Enjoy!

In Memoriam

My Aunt Sue passed away on May 22nd, 2013. Of my dad’s three sisters, she was the oldest. She was the aunt who attended my wedding. She was probably the first of my dad’s siblings to relate to me as an adult, when I worked my first serving job with her at Cracker Barrel in 1995. For many years, she and her husband, Rob, hosted Thanksgiving at their house in Steger. I remember those meals fondly, the sights, smells, and flavors. The spread, though modest, always held a few surprises, like Rob’s homemade bread and pea salad. I’ll miss those dinners, not for the impressiveness of the dishes, but for the heart and passion that went into them. No matter the quality of the food, the best home meals almost always come about as a result of the love of the hosts for the guests.

Thank you, Aunt Sue, for the love over the years. Goodbye for now. Save a plate for me at heaven’s buffet table.

Enjoy life, enjoy love, enjoy family, while they are here to be enjoyed. Share a meal with family as often as you can and preserve the relationships. Enjoy!

The Dining Experience

I currently work for Cooper’s Hawk. It’s been a great job at a great restaurant. Many of the principles of what goes in to making a great restaurant can be found here. Delicious and diverse food, top-notch service, fun atmosphere and a distinctive concept. It all elevates the process of eating and turns it into a dining experience. This is the thing I seek out the most when I dine out.

I first explored this concept in depth back in 2001, when I went to work for Buca Di Beppo. Back then, it was the fastest growing restaurant chain for three years in a row. It was peaking and I was there to see why. The concept was unique among italian places, and stubbornly so. They only served family-size portions, based on specific recipes that emulated the southern italian immigrant experience. No single-serve portions, no parmesan or alfredo (those are northern italian) and plenty of quirky decor. The service dynamic was very team-based and the staff was well-managed by a great general manager (aka paisano partner) who shared leadership and success insights with his staff, so they could grow as he did.

He was the first person to talk to me about the dining experience, how eating out was about more than just the food on the plate. During training excursions to corporate, he and other GMs would venture out to the competition, to see how the brands were represented at the store level and look for ways to improve Buca’s own approach. At that time, Buca had a strong brand and vision and stuck to it. It was the key to their success. Over the years, I’ve applied the principles I learned there to both my own service efforts, as well as how I view dining, branding and dealing with the public.

I haven’t frequented Buca as much in the past few years. They lost sight of what made them work, introducing less than their best alfredo, single-size portions, and menus on the tables instead of on the walls. They got carried away the moment they let themselves be less than what they were by trying to be more to more people. In my opinion, they, and the many companies like them, should be content with a smaller pure brand than a larger diluted one. In late 2002, when I left, they had close to 80 locations. Today, they have about the same.

Oh, and my old GM? He brought much of what he learned to Cooper’s Hawk. He’s now a Senior VP, and much of what we both learned back then can be seen as part of the foundation for what makes the company successful today. In fact, I’m still convinced he’s the reason we have a Chicken Saltimbocca at the Hawk, because it was one of the best dishes Buca offered back in the day. Enjoy!

Wined and Dined

I’ve spent more of my professional years being the “vendor”. So, those few times being the “client” have stuck in my memory. About ten years before my trip to China where I was treated like a big shot, I got my first taste of “bribery” while working at my first major industry gig in the city. After impressing management as part of the night crew, I was asked to fill a specific role during the day, beta testing a new asset management software. There’s a long story there unrelated to food, so I’ll skip to the good stuff.

During the next six months, the software maker’s sales rep would come out for meetings from Minnesota, sometimes staying in Chicago a couple days. Sometimes we went out for pretty impressive lunches at a stretch of local upscale restaurants located along Randolph, west of Halsted. What was even more impressive were the dinners. Since the sales rep had nothing to do but hang out in his hotel room, he’d often request someone to hang out with him on his dime to kill time, and I jumped at the chance. Some of the memorable dishes from those meals included martinis and steaks at Jilly’s, a warm watercress salad at Marche’s, and a chocolate mousse-like dessert with gold fleck that looked like modern art on my plate (can’t remember if that was at Tocque’s or Vivo’s, but both were awesome places.) Discovering live jazz at the Back Room after Jilly’s was an added bonus.

As much as I don’t miss the corporate world, I do remember fondly those awesome meals, and the best part was they were all free!

Having those experiences, and the many others since, have made me sometimes dream of being a food critic and visiting new places and trying new things. Maybe I’ll find myself in that position someday, or at the very least, in a position of being courted for my business. For now, I explore as much as reason and budget allows. There are merits to both sides. So long as the experience is memorable and the company enjoyable, I’m not really picky. Enjoy!

Hi Honey, have you eaten?

To this day, I still joke that those were the first five words out of my grandma’s mouth whenever I came in the door. I lived with her for a few years right out of high school, but even before then, I can remember many an evening with her standing by the stove stirring pots and opening the oven to check on holiday meals. Or even Sunday meals. Many times, after church, we’d stop by the grandparents for authentic chorizo and eggs and refried beans. I firmly believe my partiality to corn tortillas is a direct result of her cooking.

My earliest exposure to the notion of food culture came from those visits. While my mom had integrated Mexican cooking into her repertoire, at Grandma’s it was all Mexican, all the time. Yet that didn’t mean it was nothing but tacos. There was hearty meat and potato picadillo, quesadillas with chihuahua cheese, gazpacho, fideo soup, and so many more unique food and beverage options. Even when the holidays were filled with traditional American fare like turkey and stuffing, the table was accented with tasty tamales, chicken mole, and rompope. ¡Muy delicioso! Enjoy!

I do so love to share!

Tonight I got a chance to share my love of food with two new guests sitting in my section. Talking them through the options they were considering, and in some cases offering better choices based on their input, I helped them achieve a truly great dining experience. In doing so, I sparked a deeper conversation about past food adventures.

When the gentleman described visiting Baja California and enjoying amazing seafood tacos purchased for a pittance from a shack on the beach, it reminded me how some of the best meals come from the most unexpected places, and are usually served up by the most passionate people. These aren’t always people who are passionate about food specifically, but about life in general. My mom used to say about her great cooking was that her secret ingredient was TLC. Like that surfer in Mexico who only opened the shack when the waves weren’t worth tackling, her passion wasn’t so much for the food as the joy of sharing. That’s why I love to talk about food, because I love to share the good things in life with anyone who will let me. Enjoy!

Almost Heavenly Convenience Store Fare

As I’ve gotten older, my snack preferences have gravitated away from candy and cookies to goods with a little more substance. Most convenience stores offer hot, salty meat and bread options or soggy, cheaply made sandwich options. Few of these are palatable at best. The one exception I’ve found locally is 7-Eleven.

Taking a more serious, deli-quality approach to their pre-packaged food, 7-Eleven offers some delightful sandwiches with clearly marked freshness dates to ensure fresher, drier bread, lettuce with little to no wilt, and moist meats and cheeses. My current favorite is their Smoked Turkey and Jack Cheese on Cracked Wheat with Southwest Mayo. The toppings are generous and the flavor is tangy, making it a real treat to enjoy late at night. Price is reasonable for a healthy alternative to a burger or burrito. Plus, unlike a trip thru a late night drive thru, the sandwich is ready to go when I walk in. Enjoy!

A tribute to a Rockin’ joint.

A few years ago, my friend, Vojn, finally realized his dream of owning his own fast food restaurant. He first broached the subject with me while working for one of the chains, either Noodles or the Belly, I can’t remember which. A former San Francisco native, he was convinced he could bring California-style mexican to Chicago. Having lived here most of my life, I thought he was in for a rude awakening, but his success taught me an important lesson. No matter how crowded the field is, a great dining experience will always stand out.