Putting His Stock In Soup

Michael Nagrant / 02.17.10

“This guy makes the most incredible soup and I can’t remember his last name.” 

Dion Antic, co-owner of Bagel on Damen, 1252 N. Damen 

Delano Crawford’s soups are that good. After a slurp or two of his Supa Zuppa gourmet brews, a guy might forget a lot: the wretched, condensed, canned glop he’s eaten forever, his worries and even a skilled soupmaker’s last name.

When I ask Antic who’s responsible for blowing my mind with a vegan, curried, butternut squash and Granny Smith apple soup at his new bagel shop (I generally feel the same repulsion for vegan dishes that vegans reserve for leather shoes), Antic says, “This guy [Crawford] sneaks in the back during construction. Lots of people come in with promises, so you think, oh great. But we taste his short rib beef barley, and we’re like, ‘We’ll take everything.’ ”

A week later, after spending a couple of hours watching Crawford cook, I find Antic’s oversight even more amusing. Crawford, a former swing trader who says he once made $100,000 in one hour of options trading (he got wiped out in 2000), is one of the most unforgettable people I’ve met.

Though gray hair retreats across his head, Crawford at 52 is lean like a yoga master and tan like a spring breaker, with the energy of a 27-year-old.

He’s made a habit of breaking in through the back door. In 1983, after graduating from Florida State with a bachelor’s in finance, he moved to Chicago. Having worked in restaurants since he was 13, he figured he’d wait tables until he got a finance gig.

“I always believed you find the best place in town and you go ask for a job,” Crawford says.

So he ambled over to the now-defunct Le Perroquet and asked chef Jovan Trboyevic for a job. Trboyevic told him to return in a few weeks. He did; Trboyevic asked for his phone number. Crawford didn’t have a phone, so he gave the number for Fontano’s, a sub shop near his apartment in Little Italy. Trboyevic called that afternoon and offered him a job.

Crawford worked his way up to head captain at Trboyevic’s private dining club Les Nomades, where he says he served filmmaker Oliver Stone and remembers writers Allan Bloom and Saul Bellow regularly jousting over politics.

One night, Julia Child was mopping up the juices of a deconstructed Nicoise salad with bread. Crawford says Trboyevic tapped him on the shoulder and said, “The only thing that makes me happier as a chef is to see a distinguished fat man with juices dribbling down his chin.”

Trboyevic’s lobster bisque was the spiritual inspiration for Crawford’s soup business; a chorizo-stuffed corn dumpling Crawford uses in his deconstructed tamale soup is a nod to a cheese quenelle garnish on that bisque.

While at Les Nomades, Crawford bought a four-flat in Little Italy and rehabbed it. After Les Nomades closed, he waited at a string of places, including the Saloon Steakhouse and Fortunato. This was the ’90s, when traders “bought 100 bottles of wine like it was Coca-Cola,” Crawford says.

After Fortunato shuttered, he sold the four-flat and took five years off to raise his son.

With his son now in high school, he was looking for a challenge.

“Soup seemed like such a neglected part of cuisine,” he says. “If I ask 100 people, ‘Do you love soup?,’ 99 people say yes. Then I say, ‘Where do you find good soup?’ No one ever has a good answer.”

Crawford wants to create the Haagen-Dazs of soups. If there’s any reason he would be overlooked, it’s because he’s not the typical rabid foodie drooling over organic produce and aspiring to cook with water culled from virgin’s tears or the meat of heirloom unicorns.

He’s still into quality — he prefers locally produced ingredients and refuses to use preservative-packed products — but he also is fine with buying from the corner grocery.

He doesn’t even make his own stock. He knows this is taboo and doesn’t want me to mention it for fear that people will misjudge his food. But that fact just makes his stuff more extraordinary.

His coriander goat soup — a riff on the Indian dish Rogan Josh and a nod to one of Crawford’s favorite meals from the defunct Loop spot Bukhara — is layered with hot notes of black pepper and coriander and a floating red wine perfume. By caramelizing his vegetables and meats so heavily before adding liquid, he creates a secondary light stock in his soups.

Crawford mines inspiration from his travels. Caribbean goat plantain, a thick yellow brew flecked with red chili spice and rounded off by the soothing lull of sweet coconut milk, is a nod to the flavors he experienced while in Puerto Rico, where he honed his golf game. He had hoped to break onto the senior PGA pro tour, but says the siren call of island paradise derailed his training.

While the golf gig is one more adventure Crawford has left behind, the soup business looks like it just might stick. If it does, I expect that a lot fewer people — or maybe a lot more who, like Antic, find themselves befuddled by great flavor — will forget Crawford’s name.

This article first appeared in the Chicago Sun Times in a different form.