by John Ryan
From early in May to just a couple weeks ago I was visiting restaurants, double-checking business hours, which credit cards are accepted, and writing descriptive blurbs about 800-plus Chicago restaurants for a new guide that will come out in November. Mind you, I didn't eat in all those places, I just visited them and tried to capture what each restaurant was about. I had only a brief paragraph to describe whether the atmosphere at Mambo Italiano is casual, dressy, or funky, and then give a sense of what the kitchen is up to—if it is traditional or on the cutting edge of hip. (As an aside, I highly recommend walking into restaurants and just looking. It feels a little weird at first, but most restaurants don't mind. You don't have to spend long, just pop in and ask to look at the menu for future reference. within seconds you'll know if you want to come back or not.)
When I got started on the project I assumed that I'd use the usual list of cuisines, French, Indian, German.... But I quickly found that the standard list needed updating. Obviously, saying that a restaurant is Italian is a start, but there are Italian places where you'll find red & white checked tablecloths and candles stuck in raffia-covered bottles of Chianti. There are also stylish places with sponge-painted walls and waiters that wear floor length white aprons. And there are the establishments where the decor looks like a cross between cathedral and bordello.
I think calling both the cathedral/bordello variety and the red & white checked tablecloth places "Italian" or maybe "Italian/American" is fair enough because they both serve pretty much the same menu. In fact, when I asked owners for their specialties--the dishes they were most proud of--I felt like I was listening to a broken record. Literally, just about every owner said "We have a great fried calimari, and for an entree nobody beats our chicken Vesuvio, and for dessert...tiramisu. We have the best tiramisu in Chicago." Apparently more than half the Italian restaurants in Chicago have the best fried calimari, chicken Vesuvio, and tiramisu in Chicago. (For out-of-towners: if chicken Vesuvio doesn't sound familiar, don't worry, I've never seen it anywhere but Chicago. Not that it's terribly unique, but more about Vesuvio this winter.)
The problem I had was with the whole group that might be called "Northern Italian," the stylish places that shun tomatoes. The sub-category was invented to set these restaurants apart from spaghetti and meatball joints. After a while just about anyplace that served pasta in a cream sauce called its cuisine "Northern Italian." But such a broad sub-category doesn't really do justice to the way cooking has evolved.
I found chefs who were Italian and committed to recreating authentic flavors from specific regions. Some of those regions are in northern Italy, but others are only north in relation to the equator. It seemed unfair to simply lump everyone who didn't make veal parmigiano or fried calimari together as Northern Italian. But it also wasn't practical to create a cuisine category for each region in Italy. So I fell to calling them "Regional Italian."
I also discovered chefs at Italian restaurants who used Italian recipes as a starting point for their creativity. Over the course of the summer I labeled these restaurants "Contemporary Italian."
The difference? To make a musical analogy, some conductors go to great lengths to play a Beethoven symphony the way it would have been played in Beethoven's day. They demand that musicians use original instruments and gut strings. These conductors, given a budget to indulge such things, make every effort to recreate the ambiance that Beethoven's audiences would recognize. To fully appreciate these performances it helps to imagine what it would be like to have grown up listening to Bach and Vivaldi. To an audience in 1800, a Beethoven symphony was a radical explosion of unexpected harmonies and themes.
But putting our ears anyplace but the present is hard. Even the most casual listener has heard jazz, rock and roll, heavy metal, and all manner of ethnic music. Beethoven sounds old fashioned. So most conductors take advantage of modern instruments that can play louder and demand breathtaking tempos to make such music fresh and exciting.
I don't want to push this analogy too far, but food can be approached in the same way. The regional chef tries to create dishes that taste the way they would in Florence, Szechwan province, or Oaxaca, Mexico. Whereas a contemporary chef--having wasabi, maple syrup, and myriad chilies available--wants to use these ingredients to take surprising turns with traditional recipes. However, I don't want to confuse "contemporary" cooking with fusion. Fusion is a Frankenstein of a dish stitched together from different cuisines. Think tuna tartar with guacamole and cottage fries or Dover sole in a wasabi beurre blanc served atop corn chips. Thankfully, fusion seems to have been a youthful stage that is being replaced with a more mature use of global ingredients and styles.
So the future of dining? Twenty years ago most chefs were American and got ethnic recipes from magazines and cookbooks. Today it's common to find chefs from all over the world cooking food that they grew up on. Once upon a time all Chinese restaurants served pretty much the same things. Then we were offered Mandarin and Szechwan cooking. No doubt, we'll see the same thing with other Asian cuisines. In particular, there is more to Japanese food than just sushi. And watch India, I think we'll soon see Northern Indian restaurants and Southern Indian restaurants.
And the future of cooking? In the last ten years we've seen a steady stream of cookbooks detailing the cooking of practically every village in Italy. I don't think we'll see quite the same enthusiasm for France, Germany, and Spain, but no doubt authors will continue to mine the regions of the world for authentic recipes. And we'll continue to read about strange ingredients and cooking utensils.
But in the shadows we'll see a contemporary cooking emerge, one that uses ingredients from around the world. I believe that "authentic cooking" will stay in restaurants so that getting, say, eating an authentic curry will be like going to a museum. At a restaurant we'll be able to order the proper side dishes and condiments and even sit in the appropriate chairs. Of course, the same way we can buy posters of great art, we'll be able to find watered-down versions of authentic dishes. But what I'm thinking of as contemporary cooking is using global ingredients to create entirely new recipes, recipes suited to our eating habits and cookware.
Both chef and musician, John Ryan wrote the Just Good Food blog from 1996 through 2001.
This page created 1997. Modified August 2007.
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