In the Know: Louisa Chu

Michael Nagrant / 05.20.08

Culinary journalist Louisa Chu’s training and education are like the equivalent of a CNN war correspondent who graduated from West Point, fought in Desert Storm and served on the Joint Chiefs of Staff.  She’s cooked at El Bulli in Spain and Alain Ducasse in Paris, and staged at Moto and Alinea in Chicago.  With a bachelor’s degree in journalism and Le Grand Diplome from Paris’ Le Cordon Bleu, she’s the perfect culinary correspondent, a studied interloper and curious participant. These rare chops have earned her a spot as field producer for the Paris episode of Anthony Bourdain’s Travel Channel show “No Reservations,” as a correspondent for Gourmet’s “Diary of a Foodie” on PBS and most recently as a judge on “Iron Chef America.”  We recently caught up with the intrepid Chu, who splits her time between Chicago and Paris.

Q. What’s the best Chicago-related advice you’ve ever given or received?

A. Given:  Go beyond downtown and Lincoln Park.  Get out to Hot Doug’s [3324 N. California], Johnnie’s Beef [7500 W. North, Elmwood Park] and Burt’s Pizza [8541 N. Ferris, Morton Grove]. Bonus points if they make it to Jimmy’s [4000 W. Grand], my Proustian dog.

Received:  Get out on the water.  I grew up on the Northwest Side, so I didn’t learn this until high school.  I went fishing for the first time last fall.  I can’t wait to go scuba diving in the lake this year.

Q. What’s your favorite hidden gem in Chicago?

A. Gourmet Food [210 W. 23rd St.] in Chinatown, hidden in plain sight and known to every Chinese person within a 50-mile radius.  Gourmet Food serves huge rice boxes filled with home-style Chinese comfort food.  My base meal is the minced beef on rice with a fried egg, plus another order or two.  Each box costs less than $5 and feeds two or three people.

Q. If I came to your neighborhood, where would you insist I visit?

A. Sol de Mexico [3018 N. Cicero], Smoque [3800 N. Pulaski] and A&G [5630 W Belmont].  There’s nowhere else on the planet where the great cuisines of Mexico, American barbecue and Eastern Europe converge quite like this.

Q. You’ve spent time with arguably the greatest chefs in the world, from Alain Ducasse to Grant Achatz.  Is there a common thread that defines their success?

A. Staggeringly hard work with what can best be described as flashes of pure magic.  Both Ducasse and Achatz have access to the best ingredients in the world, from Italian white truffles to American fish roe, but what they do with them instills wonder.  They also surround themselves with people who work just as hard with the great chefs looking over their shoulders as they do alone in a back room.

Q. You recently judged “Iron Chef America.”  What was that like?

A. It was like becoming a video game character but a lot more filling.  The second I walked in to Kitchen Stadium, blinded by the lights and smoke, I was absorbed into that world, furiously trying to follow along with the omniscient Alton Brown.  It was ridiculous fun but terrifying too.  Imagine eating with a camera in your face, trying to think of something insightful to say about the food that’s still in your mouth before you’ve had a chance to swallow.  I can’t wait to do it again.