How I Became a Food Freak

Michael Nagrant / 03.25.08

I was not a precocious genius, like, say, a 2-year-old Tiger Woods ripping a tee shot on “The Mike Douglas Show.” There was no creme brulee epiphany at the foot of my grandmother. It took me twenty-eight years of school and aimless work to discover food writing.

Though my mother was a fine scratch cook, I ate quite a bit of Hamburger Helper, Spaghettio’s and Campbell’s Soup. My only culinary experience was making pizza alongside a crew of shaggy-haired, though engaging, stoners in high school. Luxury dining meant the Admiral’s Feast at Red Lobster.

I really owe my interest in food to the Blackstone Hotel on Michigan Avenue. In 1997, while most of our college friends headed for the drunken shenanigans of Florida or Cancun, my girlfriend and I headed to Chicago for spring break. Having scored bargain-basement hotel rates, a frigid destination in the middle of February sounded good.

When we arrived at the Blackstone, our cheap-fare status was apparent, as the bellhop showed us to a room with the charming vista of a brick wall. He registered our disappointment, and told us not to unpack, and left. Minutes later he returned, grabbed our bags and whisked us to a suite. Though the rich wainscoting and period fixtures of a once-grand hotel remained, the damask curtains were threadbare, plaster was cracked and the fireplace mantel was askew. But, now overlooking the majesty of Grant Park and the Lake, we would have slept in a refrigerator box.

As we considered dinner plans, I’d found a Wine Spectator in our room, where I read about Everest and their pre-theater menu. We made reservations.

We ascended multiple elevators to the fortieth floor of the Stock Exchange building, and walked into an expanse of alabaster, gold and leopard-spotted carpeting. Damn, I’d landed in Liberace’s palace. Though he didn’t really have one, in my mind, the Maitre d’ was wearing a monocle. All I could think was, thank god I wore a tie. We were seated by magnificent plate-glass windows overlooking the glinting expanse of the western suburbs. On repeat visits, I’ve never again scored a window seat.

There was a tuxedoed Indy 500-size pit crew of food runners, captains, waiters and sommeliers. A food runner brought out the “amuse” course, and before I could protest, he spat out the magic words “Compliments of the chef.” Back then “a muse” was an artistic inspiration, not a way to start a meal. This particular bite was a cauliflower puree topped with caviar. I had visions of over-steamed chalky pap and nasty fish eggs. I’d never been more grossed out and fearful of a spoon.

Not wanting to look like the 21-year-old rube I was, I threw it back like a shot of Jaegermiester. The rich cream-and-butter-infused puree rolled over my tongue and each bubble of caviar popped between my teeth, setting off a cascade of salty fireworks. My misconceptions about cauliflower and fish eggs were transformed. I’d wondered how many good things I’d rejected because of ignorance. I didn’t know it then, but I’d become a food adventurer.

This article first appeared in Newcity