Calling for Culinary Common Sense

Michael Nagrant / 07.08.08 can I contradict myself next? Maybe I’ll totally bash that whole raw food movement I supported. It never caught on anyway.

Chefs are the new rock stars, and as such, some of them have been honoring that heritage by acting like first-class liquored-up self-indulgent retards. I figured since this is the common-sense issue, I’d try and bring a little balance to all things silly and culinary.

The first object of my ire is David Chang, Chef of the Momofuku empire in NYC. As much as he’s been covered by the national media, you’d think he’d got cancer of the tongue, recovered and won Best Chef America honors from the James Beard Foundation. But, unlike Grant Achatz, all Chang had to do was bring a little high-class pork belly and some poached egg to humble Asian noodle dishes like ramen. Once he did, he became a first-class media darling, so much so, that he’s been able to launch three restaurants in the last four years, including his newest, a twelve-seat pre-fixe-style chef’s bar, Momofuku Ko, where the chefs cook and serve your food.

Chang’s status as culinary Jesus rankled me a bit, but I earned newfound respect for him when in a New Yorker profile he acknowledged that he didn’t understand the instant accolades, and even questioned them. Likewise at Ko, his reservations policy promised no favors and an egalitarian Web-only system. I thought, ‘Hey this Chang dude is pretty cool.’ But, then last week, he went all Gestapo and banned patrons from taking photos of the food at Ko.

According to a recent Trib article, Chang said, “We don’t want to sound like totalitarians, but it just sort of got out of hand.” He added. “And so my cooks and I decided we had to stop it.” This from a guy who was BFF with uber foodie blog, and has probably benefited from the proliferation of Flickr streams of his silky noodles and steamy broths as much as any chef in the last few years. Live by the chef’s knife, die by it, I say.

I agree that some folks have gotten out of hand, what with bringing mini-tri-pods and retina-burning flashes, but those are the folks who should be managed. Banning cameras in restaurants punishes the majority of folks who are discreet, palm-sized-camera-wielding, no-flash-using diners excited about their food. These are the people who are raising awareness of great eats and celebrating the culture of dining out, making it possible for chefs, who were once only blue-collar stiffs, to be important cultural icons.

Of course Chang doesn’t have anything on our own local contrarian Charlie Trotter, who will say anything to further his personal gain and reputation. To me, Trotter’s primary offense was selling out his heritage as a chef by refusing to serve foie gas. This pronouncement came after he served it for years and suddenly got a conscience when he sensed an opportunity to ride the wave of the Chicago ban and the glory of animal-rights activists. Post-ban, he may have maintained his stance on duck liver, but the current menu on his Web site features “Maine bluefin tuna,” which according to some news reports and science journal reports is an over-fished species which is declining in health.

Trotter also doesn’t serve spirits in his Lincoln Park restaurant, taking a cue from the late and legendary Michelin-starred chef Fernand Point citing the impact of spirits on dulling the palate before a meal. Though it’s more likely that was just a cover for the fact that Trotter’s restaurant was near a church and zoning laws did not allow him to do so. (Consider the fact that his new restaurant in Vegas proudly serves vintage pre-prohibition and modern cocktails.)

Maybe my favorite Trotter moment though is when he denied that Grant Achatz ever worked for him in this Newcity story, but these days now that Achatz is a star, he’s latched on to his coattails, even inviting Achatz to cook at his nineteenth-anniversary celebration. Just to keep things interesting, though, Trotter also bashed Achatz and another former cook, Homaro Cantu of Moto, calling their cuisine “nonsense on stilts” in the New York Times magazine.

Of course, Trotter’s not the only local culinary loco. King Richard Daley, who manages to get a finger in everything, found a way to mess up in the food world. Probably, in his zeal to showcase Chicago’s world-class dining status for the International Olympic Committee, he threw his support behind Chicago Gourmet, a hyped upscale Taste of Chicago, where for a mere $150, you and your six-figure-earning friends can taste the wares of Chicago’s top chefs this September. Does the Olympic committee really care about Rick Bayless’ mole acumen?

The mayor could have saved the city some time, effort and money if he directed the world to the already extant Green City Summer BBQ, where for only $50, you’ll get to feed on the wares of twice as many of Chicago’s top chefs as you will at this fall’s uber-fashionable mega-nosh.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I ate some Chicken McNuggets last week (and enjoyed them), and I’ve got some pepperoni pizza Hot Pockets in my freezer as I write. I guess we can’t all be perfect, at least culinarily anyway.

This article first appeared in Newcity’s common sense issue