The Art of Simple Conversation

Alice Waters is doing a good thing.  She’s been doing a good thing for a long time.  If you are unfamiliar with her work, you have been living under a food rock for nearly three decades.  Chef, author, food aficionado, and most notably famous for her restaurant in Berkeley California, Chez Panisse,  Alice Waters is largely responsible for bringing local, sustainable and organic food practices to the plates of American’s nationwide.   In the 1970’s a food revolution was happening in northern California.  Waters was paving the way along with Ruth Reichl- author,  critic and editor for both the The Los Angeles Times and The New York Times, and the last editor-in-chief of Gourmet magazine.  She laid her roots in Berkeley California where she was co owner and chef of Swallow- an important establishment of the 1970’s food revolution which Alice Waters was pioneering.


Ruth Reichl & Alice Waters

A few months ago, I had the honor of attending The Art of Simple Food: Alice Waters in Conversation with Ruth Reichl at the Art Institute- one of the host’s for The Chicago Humanities Festival where Waters was promoting her new book- The Art of Simple Food 2.   I owe this privileged experience to the good folks at Chicago Foodies who hooked me up with a media pass to cover the event.  CF does not like us to repeat our posts on personal blogs so for that reason, I will send you here  (although I will admit the intros are pretty similar).  However, I will tell you that this was one of the best foodie experiences I have had yet.  Being a big fan of Alice Waters for a long time and having read and cooked from many of her books, I was especially excited to attend.   I have also always been aware of Ruth Reichl’s important presence in the food writing world.  It was an evening where two masterful food philosophers spoke eloquently about food and food practices. I was hanging on every word.  Afterward, Waters signed a copy of her new book.  I asked her to dedicate it to Olive.  I also told her that as an emerging food writer, teacher, and new mother I appreciated being a part of the evening she hosted.  She grabbed my hand, shook it vigorously and  looked into my eyes as if to say she empathized with me.  She signed the book “With hopefulness, to Olive Julia”.

P1070735atH4dzxUovH9DJbjYSoi6xMUgFvUxyKttXCDZQCHwsZMIpPvpKmOLquUG6bX3MNEmCILEDfeyo0YpZPlQM8E3m01cNoY1Pb9W-nXyBkFUcBkhPdxvhSYHX4R_nGXfuqWUjSHERy1awB4ZPA9Aw67=s0-d-e1-ftOn the way home, I took an Uber car.  The driver was from Pakistan.  We talked about food practices in Pakistan versus America, spiritual butchering rituals, goat’s meat, where to eat Pakistani food, and gyros (his favorite food since moving to America).  Our conversation was an easy one to have.  Anyone will talk about food.  It’s a good opener.  It’s what needs to happen in order for our food world to change.  More conversations about where our food comes from and how it is made.  Until then, talk to the people around you.  Ask them what they make for dinner, where they buy or grow their food, or start by listening.  See the video below:

A Visit with Purple Door Ice Cream

P1070562 My earliest memories of eating ice cream are with Bubby, sitting at the kitchen table in our one bedroom, third floor walk up in West Rogers Park.   Chocolate was her favorite flavor evident by her all too often stained house coats and pockets plump with tissue.  Deliberately she would place each spoonful of ice cream into her mouth as she closed her eyes and swallowed.  When the bowl was close to being finished, Bubby would etch the spoon around the bowl as it collected the very last bits of melted chocolate ice cream.  She wasted nothing and savored every mouthful.

During those years, our apartment where we lived with Bubby would often become chaotic and if there were any quiet at all, it usually drifted into the back of the apartment, into our kitchen. There we would sit, among the burnt orange teapots dotting the wallpaper, the lamp above the table whose painted stars we lit for Papa Jack on night’s like his birthday, among the towels which draped from cabinet handles, and the canned fruits and vegetables strategically placed so her blindness would not stop her from knowing what was in her own pantry.   It was there where we sat and munched and slurped and scooped, licked our fingers and wiped ourselves clean.  The simplicity of those moments has never been lost on me, and  with the winter in Chicago being so brutal coupled with working long days and not seeing my Olive as often as I’d like, I have found great joy in the simple moments myself, always highly aware and savoring every moment.

When I was invited by Lauren and Steve Schultz of Purple Door Ice Cream to visit their new build-out, set to open in mid-March, I was thrilled.  I had first heard of their ice cream on an episode of Wisconsin Foodies.  At that time they were working out of Clock Shadow Creamery, a cheese purveyor  down the street.  Now, with their grand opening around the corner, Lauren and her husband Steve are expanding the team at Purple Door Ice Cream to include a part-time ice cream maker.  “Up until now it was me and Steve making every batch by hand.”  When I asked Lauren about the inspiration behind her store, she said “It had been a dream of mine since middle school.”   It was that same imagination and tenacity that helped bring Lauren’s dream to fruition. What sets Purple Door apart from other ice creams is the simplicity and boldness of its flavor.  Using local ingredients and hand crafting every batch, Purple Door Ice Cream keeps its taste simple, its texture rich, and does not disappoint in flavor.  “We have eleven base flavors, but we hand swirl all of our mix-ins.  We want to keep the integrity of the ice cream.”   The fourteen percent butterfat uses milk and cream from Wisconsin dairy farms while their quality ingredients are carefully selected from local artisans including Anodyne coffee beans, Rishi tea leaves, chocolate and even liqueurs to name a few.   “Sourcing locally provides a lot of inspiration”, Lauren tell us as she pulls pints for Matt and I to sample.  With the expansion of their store, Purple Door Ice Cream will also branch out into local restaurants and stores in Wisconsin and the Chicagoland area including Whole Foods, Mariano’s and Southport Grocery.

Chicago has seen dreary weather for many months now, and although I find myself longing for the sun’s affection, I try to acknowledge the small moments that are my own bit of sunlight; Olive’s infectious smile in the morning, Matt’s grasp as he helps me hurdle the snow, tastes of rich ice cream on a blustery February afternoon.  Our visit to Purple Door Ice Cream reminded me that summer isn’t so far away, and in the meantime I have much to celebrate.  For Lauren and Steve, they are growing their company while staying close to their Midwestern roots.  For Bubby, she celebrated hugs from me and my sister and bowls of chocolate ice cream.  Former Olympic runner and noted author, Don Kardong once said “Without ice cream, there would be darkness and chaos.”  Lauren’s invitation (and the many, indulgent helpings of ice cream) helped bring light to this forever winter, evoking memories with Bubby, who in a time of uncertainty and confusion was always my forever light. 2060_771183305330_3658_n

In Memory of Diran Soulian

A few months back, Matt took me to Top Notch Beefburger for the first time.   Matt’s knowledge of Chicagoland and Wisconsin burgers and their respective restaurants, joints, drive-thrus, and diners is impressive.  His knowledge on what makes a beef burger, well top-notch, is a bit of a family tradition as his father Barry is the true connoisseur.   Talk about a  man who should write a book if not the book on the Midwestern burger, Barry carries a detailed Rolodex of his burger experiences that would fascinate any burger and non-burger foodie alike.  Top Notch Beefburger is Barry’s favorite burger and burger joint, period.   What started out as a good, quick place to grab a bite while covering high school basketball games on the South Side for the Chicago Tribune twenty years ago, became the benchmark that Barry would compare all other burgers to across the nation.  When Barry introduced Matt to Top Notch, a tradition was born, and this being a Chicago staple since the early 40’s, I needed to check it out for myself.   A few months ago I visited and documented my experience in an article for Chicago Foodies.  It was a that time I learned that the owner, Diran Soulian, who had taken over the family business nearly sixty years ago, had fallen ill.  What  I learned a few days ago is that Diran passed away last week.  Grubstreet wrote an article about Diran and his time at Top Notch and showed me a little love quoting my write-up in the end.  In Memory of Diran, I am re-posting my article here.  Thanks, Grubstreet, for showing me some love and thank you Diran for your years of quality service that made everyone from late night reporters to neighborhood families to war veterans like yourself, feel like they were right at home.

Post from Chicago Foodies with part quoted by Grubstreet highlighted below:

There are a few things we as Chicagoans know when it comes to food.  We know that mustard is the only condiment one needs on their hot dog (and celery salt, if you ask me).  We know there are only two things that are important when ordering an Italian beef sandwich; sweet or hot peppers…dipped or double dipped.  We know pizza comes one way; deep dish, piping hot from a fourteen inch pan, oozing with cheese and slices of Italian sausage.  And although you can get a decent burger throughout this entire food-loving city, the original of all beef burgers comes from a little joint with a big heart for doing things the old-fashioned way.  Top Notch Beefburgers has been serving up the South side community since 1942.

This diner style establishment located in Beverly,  does not stop at the South Side community.  In fact it reaches Chicagoans from all over the city as well as burger connoisseurs from all over the nation.  Books have noted Top Notch as one of the best burgers in the country.  Newspapers and magazines have written glowing reviews alike.  But what keeps Top Notch at the top of their game are the families that have been eating their mouth-watering burgers and fries for generations.  From the minute you walk in, it is clear that family and friendship are the priority here and that has not changed since Diran Soulian took over the family business in 1954.  But us Chicagoans, we have our opinions.  And beyond the inviting atmosphere that Diran and his staff care so much about, Top Notch does indeed make one of the best if not the best burgers in town.  What makes them so darn good?

For starters, they grind their meat in house.  That’s right folks.  There is nothing frozen or being reheated here.  Sure, a lot of burger spots are doing that now, but they have not been doing it since 1942.  One could say that Top Notch served as the pioneer for every other freshly made burger in Chicago.  And that same philosophy goes for the fries, too.   Really, they should be called the-best-fries-you-will-ever-have-in-your-life-fries, because they are exactly that.    These crispy bites are sliced fresh daily from whole potatoes and then fried to order.  What makes them really special?  They fry them in beef tallow, people!  Essentially rendered beef fat, beef tallow gives these fries that same off the grill taste.  It beats duck fat, oil, or anything else you can fry a potato in by a long shot.  The burger and fries are straight forward, honest diner food that not only satisfy your belly with each juicy bite, but warms your heart in the mix of it.  And to wash it all down, do not miss out on their milkshakes and malts!  Thick, smooth, ice cold liquid velvet in every slurp and gulp.  The perfect compliment to your fresh off the grill burger and salted, piping hot fries.  Of course, if burgers are not your thing, Top Notch has an entire menu also serving breakfast from 8am – 11am every morning.


But why people come here and keep coming here is for the total experience.  Top Notch is one of the last standing classic Chicago diners who truly care about their customers.  While head chef Sam graciously invited me into the kitchen to show me where the heart and soul of Top Notch lies, Jim (current restaurant manager) walked me around the restaurant telling stories and sharing pictures of Soulian and his family.  They both made me feel that I was somehow part of the Top Notch family even though it was only my first visit.  For that, I will always be grateful because us Chicagoans we love our food, but we love it more when we feel like we are at home.

Valerie Bolon: Culinary Yogi

Valerie Bolon is the cat’s meow.  Don’t believe me? Check this: In the culinary world, Bolon has worked with some of the greatest chefs including Emeril Lagasse (Emeril’s New Orleans), Mindy Segal (Hot Chocolate), Don Yamauchi (Gordon), and Shawn McClain (Spring). Previous Bravo TV Top Chef contestant and now personal chef, Valerie is one of the coolest chicks in the Chicago food scene.  Last week, I had the honor of sitting down with Valerie at The Map Room, a fitting scene for this experienced globetrotter, to talk about her background in food, personal endeavours, her childhood crush on Jack Tripper, yoga, and her latest project with business partner Rachel Winpar, Culinary Speakeasy.  What started out as an interview for a write-up turned into the beginning of a friendship…something that is easy to do with a gal like Valerie.

Born and raised in Glenview, Illinois, Valerie comes from a very close family, a set of people she often referenced as being the core to her strength throughout all of her culinary and travel experiences.  Every night at 6:30 sharp, dinner was on the table, no exception.  This type of tradition taught Valerie from a young age that food equals people coming together.  In fact, Valerie would tell you that the beginnings of her desire to deconstruct and” build something from nothing” -as she refers to her excitement when cooking- can be credited back to her working with her dad on building and fixing things around the house when she was young.  Years later that same desire to dissect things manifested itself in the world of food science at the University of lllinois.  Valerie completed her program and received her degree, but something inside told her she was cut out for something else… something off the radar and definitely out of an office.  The summer after she graduated, she took a job at a bakery and soon realized that this was the something different she had been looking for. Working with actual food, not only the science of it, would provide her the avenue to play, build, break down and put things together again.  After completing culinary school, Valerie left the states and traveled- an evolving passion and something she would return to time and time again to find inspiration and creative energy.  Upon her return, Valerie set off for New Orleans to work for the infamous Emeril’s.  She credits his restaurant as the place where she learned the most about what it takes to be a chef.  Thrown into the fire, working every station from pastries to the hot line, Valerie had to learn fast. She quickly realized there was a hierarchy in the kitchen and in order to succeed, you needed to put your head down and get the job done…humbly and without question. This was the different that Valerie had craved.  After a year and a half at Emeril’s, Vaerie set off to travel once again in order to find the inspiration for her next journey.  She says food has always been the best way to learn about different cultures , and this has always shaped each of her new adventures.  Most impressive to me was Valerie’s uncanny recollection of her travels including details of all of the places place she has visited, how she got to those places, the strangers who became close friends and the food that served as a vehicle to the rest of the world.  It was fascinating to hear speak so vividly about travel and one can tell how inspired it has made her as a chef and as a person.  Learning about cultures in different places has continued to encourage her work as a chef, having traveled to over thirty-five countries by the age of thirty-six. Impressive, indeed.

When she returned from traveling, Valerie made her rounds in Chicago going from noted restaurant Spring to the infamous Hot Chocolate.  She continued to travel in between, but she describes working at these restaurants as another milestone in her career.  At Hot Chocolate, Valerie says she really began to understand the invaluable tool of working with desserts.  Anyone who is a serious pastry chef will tell you the specificity involved in a recipe is downright a science…something Valerie was familiar with from her days at U of I.  Through these experiences Valerie learned how to be a good leader, and if she had a philosophy it would be, as she puts it “Just get involved in life” and get involved she did.  When Bravo producers came to Chicago to scout potential cast members for the fourth season of Top Chef, Valerie was recommended by Mindy Segal as an ideal addition to the cast.  Bravo reached out, Valerie accepted, and the rest is history.  Although, she was voted off early, Valerie does not regret the experience and was very happy for her Chicago friend Stephanie to take the title as Top Chef winner.  She said the biggest lesson she learned was to always remember to be more confident because when you are confident, you win in everything.  Being from the Chicago area and with season four being filmed here as well, I asked Valerie if the city she calls home as influenced her craft.  She answered “People make a place beautiful. People make life so interesting”.  This is when I fell in love with Valerie.  This is where her and I see eye to eye.  Now a practicing yoga instructor, Valerie has found a way to balance her energy while still promoting her enthusiasm for life.  She emanates an energy that is alive yet peaceful.  Her tremendous charity work has helped her to give back to communities while spreading the joy of life to all that will join her.

Currently, Valerie works as a personal chef and is half of the team for Culinary Speakeasy- a supper club event held several times throughout the year at her business partner Rachel’s home- a stunning and sprawling downtown apartment with five balconies and views to die for.  The menu replicates the beauty of the atmosphere in its simplicity and taste.  Using seasonal and local ingredients, Valerie and Rachel know how to throw an elegant yet warm, sophisticated yet down to earth event that highlights amazing cuisine.  There is no shortage of food on their five course menu and guests are invited to purchase wine to accompany their meals.  Most recently, Valerie led the team in the first ever Farm to Fork dinner in Naperville.  Taking her leadership skills to a whole new level, Valerie led a team of mostly strangers to head up one of last season’s most exciting farm dinners with a guest list that well exceeded three hundred people.

These days, Valerie admits she misses working with a team and is seeking out new projects for her career.  She will also tell you the only way to keep moving forward in life is to hone your craft.  Valerie lives food as she also admits it is what she thinks about all the time.  Yoga practice centers her thoughts giving them a depth that they have never had before.  This is what makes me most excited to see where Valerie’s adventures will take her next. “What matters is the effort. I measure myself against myself”, Valerie says as we finish our beers and chit-chat with everyone from the bartender to the bouncer who gives us some of his homemade chili before we end our night at the Map Room.  She even has her name written on the one of their infamous chalkboards above the bar.  Of course she knows everyone here.  Of course the Map Room is her neighborhood watering hole. Yep, exactly my kind of gal.

Peep some photos from October’s Culinary Speakeasy with Valerie and Rachel.

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Beyond Cooking: An Interview with Andrew Zimmern and Graham Elliot

When the opportunity to interview two of the leading culinary experts in the country came up, I was – needless to say-  thrilled.   Not only would this be my biggest interview to date, I would have the once in a lifetime chance to sit down and talk about what I find to be very important in the world of food with two people who have helped shape exactly what that is today.  While filming for MSN’s Appetite for Life, Andrew Zimmern (Bizarre Foods, Andrew Zimmern’s Bizarre World),  along with good friend Graham Elliot (Graham Elliot, g.e.b, Grahamwhich, Top Chef Masters) sat down with little ole’ me to discuss everything from the Beastie Boys to the North American rustbelt to the way our children eat to their love for Chicago.  Saddle up B&Y’ers.  This interview might just change the way you think about food and food culture in America and beyond.

B&Y: Both of you have extensive travel experience.  What is it about Chicago that keeps you coming back or why you have made it your home?

AZ: I live in a smaller version of Chicago called Minneapolis.  We are our own culture and our own place, but we are not as big a city.  So the nearest big city is Chicago.  Me and my family come here for weekends, we do our holiday shopping here, I’ll do a romantic getaway with my wife here.  To me, this is an exciting big city.  The coolest thing for me from moving from New York and now living in Minnesota for twenty years is seeing how much Chicago has grown.  Every other month I come here for three or so days, but what is happening here is staggering.  Just pointing up and down the street and having Graham go through the list of the restaurants just on this road.  Also, as a globalist, Chicago was never on anyone’s top twenty list of great global food cities.  Now it’s on everybody list of top twenty food cities.

GE: And what is so interesting too is looking at it politically, as things have evolved, like Detroit, Pittsburgh, and Cleveland.  So many of these rustbelt cities that have fallen to the wayside, but Chicago continues to evolve and attract artists and different people that keep that feeling of the energy growing

B&Y: People seem to be heading out of the big cities and venturing into smaller towns to source ingredients and start restaurants.  In your opinion, are there cities or towns we should be looking towards in the future?  Who is doing it right?

GE: Kansas City, Traverse City, Michigan…there are so many great products that come from there and good food generally stems from that.

AZ: Ten cities that off the radar that I am impressed with.  Milwaukee is amazing.  It’s radical what is going on there.  Portland, Maine.  Obviously Austin, Texas and Portland, Oregon, which were two cities that five years ago everyone was talking about, but that have not become artificial or over hyped yet, which I think is good.  Charleston, South Carolina, Savannah, Georgia a really big one.  St Louis is going to be that next city that everyone is going to be talking about.

GE: I know a couple of chefs that were in Chicago that moved down there just because they wanted to stake it out as their territory.

AZ: There is a lot of that lower Midwestern thing going on.  When you start talking about Arkansas, Missouri, Kansas, those heartland states that so many good cooks and cool folks left to go check out the coast and have now come back …I think that’s a good litmus test for that kind of thing.

GE: Nashville.

AZ: Nashville, a great one.  Now I’m going to get the letters but Nashville is too Disneyfied in a sense.  I know I’m pimping out the home goods here, but Minneapolis and St. Paul are other secondary cities.  I’ve been talking to my Food and Wine colleagues for awhile about doing a Minneapolis article and when they finally did and I saw it in print, I was like “Oh my God.  We have some amazing stuff going on here”, and four out of the previous Beard winners were from the Twin Cities.  There is really cool stuff going on there, very much like Milwaukee.  There are lots of hidden neighborhoods that have evolved.  I think cities that have had an economic downturn four or five years ago mean the chefs leave the downtown and go to places where the rents are cheaper and the people are living and that is when miracles start to happen.

B&Y: What about Detroit?

AZ: I think Detroit is the coolest cultural story in America.  To go from a city of 2.5 million to 1 million over twenty years and there is no city budget for anything and it is literally the people and the communities bonding together to do stuff.  In our Detroit show we found these guys called the Lawnmower Gang, and they take their tractor lawn mowers and mow all of the city parks for the kids and afterward have a barbeque.  It started as a fun way to have a barbeque and now it’s like their tricking out their lawn mowers.   The city market there on weekends has so many entrepreneurs.   People making their own ice teas or curing their own sausages…

GE: It’s like the virgin territory.  It’s like the Old West.  You can come in and make it your own.   There are so many good ingredients that come from Michigan and I think if you want to keep it local, you are going to see Detroit blossom into a cool scene.

B&Y: Switching gears, I would love to talk about food writing and music.  On your podcast you have mentioned your advice to new writers is to “write like you are mad”…

AZ: I try to harness that myself.  It was a lesson that was taught to me a long time ago by an editor and he said to me if you’re not going to have a point of view about what you are writing about and if you cannot convince the person who is least likely to believe that what you have to say is worth listening to, then why bother?  What I tell young writers, because anyone can be a food blogger, is get a fucking opinion, get mad.  Some people dance around it.  Get mad and care about something otherwise you are going to get lost in the sauce. The best news is the web has democratized food writing and blogging and television for millions of people. Anyone with a camera and twenty-five dollars can put up a website and produce content.  However, the flip of side of that is now there are a million voices and you have to have something different.

B&Y: How has that changed the landscape of what you do and food culture? It can be a really positive thing, but can it ever be a not so positive thing?

GE: Sure, anyone can write something negative about you, but what is great is the positives outweigh the negative because we have just as much of a voice as a writer.  They can write something and I can get on twitter and fight their points.  It’s not sour grapes anymore.  It’s being able to get on and say  “these are the ingredients in the dish”,  “they got these wrong”, and really call people out and stand for what you do.  I think it changed that narrative where the customer can critique what you do but then it’s an open road to have a dialogue as opposed to just being a big target for people to give their opinion.

B&Y: Music is a big part of my life as a cook and a writer.  Does music influence you in any way?

GE: I have a band.  All of the music on my website is mine. And at g.e.b all of the menus are on records, we have a record player, and we have playlists where everyone on the team contributes something to the list.  We curate Lollapalooza and cook for all of the bands.  Everything we do is music inspired and it’s the first question we ask someone when they are applying for a job.

AZ: I’ll piggyback on what Graham said.  The person who set the tone for that nationally is Graham ‘s restaurant group.  What started it, cause it pre-dated the opening of your first restaurant, was Mario Batali plugging his first iPod in at Babbo, but that turned that lights on for people to say, “Oh my God I can do that”.  The most plugged in and integrated food scene with music is at your restaurants.

B&Y: You played guitar with Buddy Guy last time you were in Chicago?

AZ: I am probably the worst guitar player food person who is known for playing guitar.  I can play three chords.  I now keep my guitar and my amp in my office far away from my wife.

B&Y: Your son listens to the Beastie Boys, which I thought was very impressive.

AZ: He is obsessed with it. Thank God we are over the Baby Beluga phase and into License to Ill.

GE: My two year old has a drum set and a little piano and he just yells to try and sing and my five year old, cause we are always listening to the radio in the car and it’s always on 80’s.  He loves Taco, “Putting on the Ritz” and Eddy Grant’s “Electric Avenue”,  and then he realizes how cool the music was in the 80’s.

B&Y: Do you cook with your kids?

GE: When we are at home.  There is a lot of travel.

AZ: It is really sweet.  Your oldest is five and Noah is seven and a half so the difference is now I can trust him with a small knife, cutting one thing in half, where when he was little it was like “dump that in there”.   It was like arts and crafts time.  I am just glad my kid has preferences.  We will be at Whole Foods and I will say “Skirt steak or salmon?” and he will pick something and it does not have to be nuggetfied.

B&Y: And it gives them ownership over the food.

AZ: I wrote about this topic a lot and it’s a part of my new kids book, which drops Oct 30th and will be available on presale on Amazon, but there are no picky children.  Some parents will say “Well my son came out of the womb picky”.  Well no, your son in his first eight or nine months of living heard you saying things about food.  When an American child doesn’t eat fish, they say he’s picky, but there is nothing genetically different between a child that is nine months old in Chicago and a child that is nine months old in Japan or Finland and guess what, they are eating fish everyday.  It is how we talk about food, what we expose our children to and when you give them ownership over anything, they want to do it.

GE: That is what I have seen too.  My five year old, there are a lot of things he likes to eat and he doesn’t, and I think a lot of that is his personality but you take him to the market or the store and you see all of these different ingredients and all of the sudden its “I want that and I want this and try” and if we go home and cook together and let him cut the asparagus or peel it or do something then he will enjoy it more.  Having a hand let’s them make a decision instead of you just saying to them “eat this”.

B&Y: Do you think that is where food culture is changing?  Is it changing to educate young people on the ownership of food and what food is?

AZ:  It’s changing on a small percentage of what used to be elites and what now has dropped into a top percentile.   The worst thing about America is that eating well is still a class privilege, and when I talk about eating well, I’m talking about from a health perspective, a well-being perspective.  My love of food and the food world and the reason why I do what I do and the reason I respect the hell outta what Graham does with his restaurants and his television program is that it doesn’t fetishize a world of cuisine.  It actually is opening the doors to people.  And I think there are a lot of food snobs that complain about the entertaining value of Bizarre Foods or Master Chef or other brands we are associated with, and that pisses me off because I think what that does is prevent the largest group of Americans from participating in a full food life and if we can treat people with dignity and respect who are below the safety net, who are underserved in this country, the best way to do that is to give them the warm embrace that everyone talks about when it comes to food.  You know, food is how we show love for each other; food is why we respect each other.  I got news for you.  In restaurants, that is not why the line cook is serving me that plate of pasta.  It’s their job.  The best way we can do that is to express to the largest group of Americans how to eat locally, to eat what’s around you, and to cook and have food be a part of their foods with their families.  I think that, to me, is the mission.  I am not worried about anyone in this restaurant and whether or not they are getting enough arugula.  That is less interesting to me than getting kids across America to eat a more balanced diet.

GE: And the thing is you read these facts.  I just read that prisoners get a more balanced meal double the offering of fruit and vegetable than a kid at public school does, and also the idea that it’s cheaper to buy a happy meal than a bag of carrots.  All of these things have been set up against people that are the ninety-nine percent.  If you go to Whole Foods and see who is paying thirty-five dollars for wild mushrooms versus someone who has never eaten uncanned mushrooms, I mean that is interesting.   It is about starting young, and that is what Alice Waters has done.  That is her deal, and she started it forty years ago just educating people.  Look at what an eggplant is, and look at how many colors there are and look at this.  And as a kid, it can be “Wow that is cool”.  It’s like coloring.  There are so many things you can eat and different fun things you can work with.  For me growing up seeing a snail on a menu was like “Wow I can tell everyone I had a snail”, and I think that kind of stuff is exciting for people at a younger level that can then build for the next generation.

AZ: There are so many different places the public dollar touches when it comes to food.  Senior homes, schools, prisons, hospitals to name what I think are the big four and our military bases.  These are the people that you could arguably make a very good case for – children, seniors, first responders, the people who keep us safe.  Those are the folks that should probably be getting the most attention when it comes to food, and the message that we send when we throw some slop on the tray in a prison – look, I get it.  It’s really hard to build a PR campaign around let’s make better food in our jails, but with a recidivism rate like we have and when nothing is working, nothing else is working… as someone who has been in jail before, as someone who has been in psych wards, as someone who had a mother in a public senior facility, whose kid goes to public school in Minneapolis, that food has touched my life in a lot of different ways.  I think we oughta pay a little more love and attention on the food we have in those communities rather than throwing it away.  I was down in Florida, and you know I am an alternative protein geek and you know when I see alligator meat being tossed into the garbage, let’s feed that to people, and I am not doing that because I am fetishizing alligator meat.  It’s a healthy lean protein and when it’s fresh, it’s actually pretty good.

GE: Its just interesting when you look at pink slime and ammonia and things like that and that is what is being served in most of these places.  When you really get back to it, it was the Senator in Iowa or Nebraska where the beef is created, lobbying to utilize the scrap that we can add a ton of chemicals to so we can make it edible so that they can get more money.  No one had an interest of what is healthier or what makes the most sense.  It’s simply who has the most money to lobby and push for something and then that affects everyone.

B&Y: When you started your journey into food, did you imagine you would ever have a political responsibility?

AZ: Let’s be very clear about something, and this is a new discovery for me, and I’ve said this a lot.  When my TV career is done, I would love to run for political office in Minnesota, and help our community.  There is a difference between being political where there are two sides that are being oppositional, with being civic-minded. I think what Graham and I are talking about is good civics, not politics.  To me what we do with our food lives is a civics issue.  It’s a national wellness issue.  It’s something that no one should be against because who isn’t for wellness.  Civics and the study of civics allow us to provide solutions that everyone can embrace without ranker and I think what you are talking about is being civic-minded.  You don’t think the way the two of us do without growing up in an environment that emphasizes the importance of civic solutions.  Speaking personally, once I got a platform of a certain size, I felt an obligation to give back that way.  And it’s not because I want to be political, it’s because I am civic-minded.

GE: It’s interesting.  I think Andrew is a few steps ahead of me on this, but I have often said the same thing.   I am thirty-five now, maybe I cook till I am forty, but then it’s how to give back and run for office or do some kind of thing because politically, on a national level, you can see how everything is broken, but as a chef or a TV personality, if you are able to create a vision and change people’s minds and see things differently and follow you on a small scale, why don’t you apply that idea but on something larger.  Instead of convincing everyone to eat meat X, it’s being able to say look at the ton of acreage in the city.  It’s just empty lots.  How can we create jobs and with that turn these lots into farms and have that food put into the school system.

AZ: I think it’s interesting that you say I’m ahead of you.  At first I was nodding my head in agreement, but that’s not really the case.  When I look at all of the people in our business that are thinking and talking about these things now, it changes when you get married and have children, and when you get married and have children and own your own business, you’re thinking of your life here as a native Chicagoan as a businessman as a taxpayer.  Your kids are now involved and that changes everything.  Absolutely everything, and it did for me.  We are kind of the same age that way, and it comes at a different age for everyone in their lives.  When I was a single guy, I was out there, partying, hustling, successful to a certain degree, you are thinking of yourself.  Now, I have learned through my family, extended family with my employees and the people around me that it is a much different way of looking at things and that is a big wake up call.

GE: I think it’s big picture and long term.  Everything was goal and date-oriented.  By twenty-five I’m this and by thirty I’m that.  Then you have kids.  You know I say on my team or on my crew, everyone has strengths and weaknesses.  Let’s put this person here so they can succeed.  I kind of do that self- analyzation too, and say ok, it was great to get to this level, but now how do you do something important for your kids, for other people?

For some behind the scenes moments, peep the slideshow below:

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