Cooking is — literally — elemental. Earth, fire, and water determine the character of a dish: the terroir of local produce and proteins; the presence (or absence) of heat, both in terms of temperature and flavor; and water as the integral component to every life form (whether animal or vegetable), recipe, and cooking method. A cook’s job is to make use of these essentials, but the mark of a great chef is the ability to manipulate those elements to create a finished plate that is at once balanced, beautiful, and delectable.
What, then, separates the merely tasty from the exceptional? How does a truly spectacular dish evolve? As it turns out, there are many factors in play, as we learned from talking with four of Chicago’s top culinary talents. Flavor and technique are at the very top of the list, of course, but inspiration comes in many forms. For some chefs, it’s the memory of a dish they loved, or one with sentimental meaning; for others, it’s a favorite cookbook with dog-eared pages. It might be the season that stirs the senses, a new ingredient, a local purveyor’s product, or wine that begs for a food pairing. The culinary creative process is endlessly inventive and relentlessly challenging, and we are its most willing beneficiaries.
Acadia, Ryan McCaskey
Cabbage, Clam, Apple, Dill, Horseradish
What inspires chef Ryan McCaskey of the two-Michelin-starred Acadia? A lifetime spent visiting New England and the rugged midcoast of Maine. Fittingly, some form of New England clam chowder has graced every one of his menus since he first opened this serene and lovely spot in the South Loop.
“I like to keep looking at chowder from a different way,” says McCaskey. “Our original was blanched leeks that were quenelled, with oyster cracker puffs filled with potato purée, then bacon gel, fried clams, and parsley. Tableside, we’d pour the chowder. We also served that original dish with a poached piece of cod. All things you might see in a mid-coast Maine chowder.”
The idea of the dish has evolved over the years. Sometimes it has a more obvious “soup” component; other iterations revisit classic elements of the dish, but with different textural elements. Such is the case on his most recent menu with “Cabbage, Clam, Apple, Dill, Horseradish,” flavors that evoke the feel of late winter in Scandinavia.
Influenced by a cabbage dish at Daniel Humm’s Eleven Madison Park, this “chowder” starts with a mousse made of littleneck clams from Maine’s Penobscot Bay, which is near McCaskey’s home on Deer Isle. The mousse is spread between blanched leaves of white cabbage, then “reformed” into a head of cabbage using a sphere mold, and cooked sous vide to set the mousse. The cabbage is sliced into wedges and served with “apple snow,” a granita made with Granny Smith apple juice, and garnished with dill fronds. Tableside, the server pours a dill-and-horseradish-infused clam milk broth. The result is sublime, at once simple and complex.
The flavor profile is McCaskey’s usual jumping-off point for a dish. “I think about how those flavors match with each other and play with each other,” says McCaskey. “Two trains of thought here. Do I mimic a certain flavor profile or do I contrast it? For example, if I’m thinking about scallops, I think about buttery, vanilla, fat. I think of things that invoke that and play along with it. Or I think of things that would contrast. Something maybe that cuts through. Lastly, I [consider] the plateware and the look of the dish. By the time we make the components, plate it, and serve it live, the dish has already been really well thought out and is usually 99 percent there. Maybe we’ll tweak it once or twice. I think all of this comes with lots of experience, dining, and just knowing flavors.”
Prairie Grass Café (Northbrook), Sarah Stegner
Wild Striped Bass, Green Garlic Chives and Pea Shoot Purée, Mushroom Duxelle, with Pea Shoot, Raw Mushroom and Rhubarb Salad
Local and sustainable are the watchwords that chef Sarah Stegner and her partners George Bumbaris and Rohit Nambiar live by at Northbrook’s Prairie Grass Café. Stegner, who has been involved with Chicago’s Green City Market from its inception, has long championed Midwestern farmers and producers. Her two James Beard Awards are testimony to her talent and technique, while the thoughtful way she builds her recipes is a tribute to her perceptive palate.
Each component of her Wild Striped Bass preparation is an ode to our local spring: pea shoots and garlic chives from Tracey Vowell at Three Sisters Garden in Kankakee; a variety of mushrooms from River Valley Ranch in Burlington, Wisconsin; and rhubarb from Klug Farm in Saint Joseph, Michigan. All three of these farmers can be found at the Green City Market along with many other local farmers markets. The striped bass itself is a sustainable fish selection, which protects our source of fish for future generations.
“When I am putting together a dish, particularly fish, I like to have the fresh crunchy texture of a small salad component that reflects what is cooked in the dish,” says Stegner. “To me, using the pea shoots, garlic chives, and mushrooms two different ways enhances the intensity of flavor. I like that the rhubarb is used in an untraditional way and creatively adds a bit of delicious sweetness to a savory dish; I also like that there is a subtle underlying message that the dish is healthy.”
She produced a wintry version of this dish for a program honoring and supporting the “Women of Washburne,” female culinary students she is mentoring along with fellow James Beard Award winner Carrie Nahabedian (Brindille). For Stegner, it’s an opportunity to step in and help other women succeed in the profession she loves. “I want to show the students that through our culinary skills and feeding people, we can support the environment, protect our oceans, support our local farmers who have become friends and colleagues in the food world, foster enthusiasm for people to grow their own food and cook, have a sense of playfulness in what we do, celebrate who we are as leaders in the food community, and nurture and feed our guests, family, and friends healthy, delicious food,” says Stegner.
The Purple Pig, Jimmy Bannos Jr.
Lamb Saddle with Shrimp Mousseline, Bagna Cauda, Pickled Green Strawberries, and King Trumpet Mushrooms
Fourth-generation restaurateur Jimmy Bannos Jr. has already been graced by a James Beard Award and eight consecutive Michelin Bib Gourmands for his inventive-yet-approachable take on Mediterranean cuisine at the Mag Mile’s Purple Pig (which will relocate a block south later this spring). His newest spot, the fast casual Piggie Smalls at Wells Street Market, was a hit out of the gate, and he made People’s 2017 list of sexiest male chefs. All of this to say, the man’s got skills.
His office is strewn with cookbooks: old and new, international and regional, written by award winners and unsung heroes alike. It’s where the magic happens. He pores over them like novels, absorbing techniques from one, plating from another. It was James Briscione’s “The Flavor Matrix” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018) that provided Bannos and his ace sous chef Kevin Stack the stimulus for this unusual dish combining lamb, shrimp, mushrooms, and strawberries. “I like looking at the surprise pairing on the flavor wheel,” says Bannos. “I mean, lamb and shrimp? Then, I start to connect the dots.”
“We had our mind set on doing something special,” says Stack. “We spent months trying different combinations. We went through cashews, strawberries, and granola. As the seasons changed, we still hadn’t loved it completely so we explored different sauces. The addition of the bagna cauda, which contains lamb stock and chicken stock paired with anchovy and vinegar, is what really brings the combination of lamb and shrimp to a whole different level. Seafood loves acid and salt, and lamb picks up a little more pop with the same sauce. The green strawberries, pickled last spring, came to this dish by adding acid and earthiness, and mushrooms go super well with lamb.”
They bring in the lamb from Pinn-Oak Ridge Farm in Wisconsin as a base for this recipe. “Juan, our in-house butcher, is so crucial to this dish and so many others at the Pig,” says Bannos, who is quick to praise his team. “The brine on the lamb, and the cut, have to be just right, and he nails it every time.”
Yügen, Mari Katsumura
Chawanmushi with Santa Barbara Uni, Hudson Valley Foie Gras, and Asian Pear
To say that industry people were surprised when Mari Katsumura — who had made her name as a pastry chef in some of Chicago’s most respected kitchens (Blackbird, Acadia, Entente) — was named to helm the fine-dining restaurant replacing the late, lamented Grace on Randolph Street, would be an understatement. But Katsumura, who had actually been on Grace’s opening team and was very familiar with the kitchen, had an ace up her sleeve: She’s a star on the savory side as well. Yügen, her paean to Japanese cuisine and French technique with decided (and deserved) Michelin aspirations, is an homage to her father, the late, great chef Yoshi Katsumura. A recent meal there told the tale: this woman is a unique and special talent.
The 13-course tasting menu has many highlights, but the Chawanmushi, a luxurious riff on the traditional Japanese egg custard flavored with soy and dashi, has special meaning. Her father would prepare it for special occasions at his Lakeview restaurant, Yoshi. “I was actually inspired by a foie gras and crab dish I had a year ago, and wanted to play with the rich flavors of land and sea,” says Katsumura. “With the opening menu taking place in the middle of late fall, it was also the perfect time to utilize apples and parsnips, which I look forward to using every year. We were getting apples from a lovely woman from Iowa who was first discovered by Charlie Trotter. Her apples are amazing and really enhance any dish.”
The eggs for the custard are from nearby Slagel Family Farm. Fresh tongues of Pacific uni are brought in from Santa Barbara, California; Hudson Valley, New York, foie gras is made into a rich, savory ganache, and the fat smoked with apple chips to further layer the flavors. A piquant Honeycrisp apple gastrique, pickled Asian pear, and dehydrated and fried chips of parsnip, apples, and dashi kombu complete the dish.
“I think despite the richness of the key elements the dish is actually very clean tasting, and each bite is different depending on what components are on your spoon,” says Katsumura. “I think it’s a nice harmony of ingredients and each plays a very important role. The canvas of the egg custard allows the uni and the foie gras to play well together, and inherently I believe they are all similar in the way the palette receives them.” Perhaps that’s why the dish makes such an extraordinary impression.
Julie Chernoff, Make It Better’s dining editor since its inception in 2007, graduated from Yale University with a degree in English — which she speaks fluently — and added a professional chef’s degree from the California Culinary Academy. She has worked for Boz Scaggs, Rick Bayless, and Wolfgang Puck (not all at the same time); and counts Northlight Theatre and Les Dames d’Escoffier International as two of her favorite nonprofits.