Chefs You Should Know

Andrew Zimmern Talks Chicago Eats (and None of Them are Bizarre)

Andrew Zimmern presents his veal tongue slider with tonnato sauce. (Photo: Robin Bennefield)

So, you probably already know Andrew Zimmern from his weekly “Bizarre Foods” exploits on Travel Channel, where he slurps down extreme ingredients that most would never dream of digesting. But he’s not just that guy. He’s also a Chef-in-Residence for Food + Wine magazine with refined tastes inspired by his far-flung feasting.

I caught up with the James Beard award-winning host during filming for Renaissance Hotel’s “The Navigator’s Table,” a dinner conversation held at the Renaissance Downtown Chicago for the Chicago Food + Wine Festival. It’s safe to say that he’s a bonafide fan of the food in this meat-loving town. And as a frequent visitor, there’s probably no better person to tell you where to eat in the Windy City, so consume his following food recommendations heartily.

How would you describe Chicago’s food scene? What makes it distinct from any other city?

There’s been a chip on Chicago’s shoulder for decades. It’s never gotten its due as a culture, food leader or Midwestern locale, but over the last few years it’s become one of world’s great food cities. And, the best part is that part of the chip is still in place; it spawns more creativity and excitement than the smug satisfaction of some other food towns. Chicago is blue collar and brawny, and doesn’t take any sh*t from anyone.

Iconic Chicago eats: Al's Italian beef, Lou Malnati's deep-dish pizza and Superdawg hot dogs. (Photo: David Miller)
Iconic Chicago eats: Al’s Italian beef, Lou Malnati’s deep-dish pizza and Superdawg hot dogs. (Photo: David Miller)

How often are you in Chicago? Have you seen the food scene change overtime? Where has it been and how far has it come? What do you think is next?

I am there several times a year and I have been going to Chicago for 30 years. You have to remember that modern fine dining started here at Charlie Trotter’s; ethnic cuisines flourished. This place has birthed many trends. It’s come a long way. Now, several of the top 10 restaurants in the country are here along with some of the best fun food, best ethnic eats and best hot dogs on the planet. I think Chicago is going to spread horizontally not vertically over next few years. Less high-end and more diversity in the neighborhoods, You can see it already with everyone opening outside of downtown proper and following the Lula’s or Big Star models.

Have to ask about pizza. Deep dish or thin crust? Who does it best in Chicago?

For me: Pequod’s Chicago-style pie. It’s that crispy, cheesy crust. Although, I really don’t eat pizza in Chicago, I’m a New Yorker.

Zimmern bites into a deep-dish slice, even though he prefers New York style. (Photo: David Miller)
Zimmern bites into a deep-dish slice, even though he prefers New York style. (Photo: David Miller)

You can only visit one neighborhood in Chicago. Where do you go to get the best taste of the city? What are the best restos in that ‘hood and why?

I go to the West Loop for my standbys—Next, Publican, Girl & the Goat, Au Cheval…. Those places aren’t going anywhere and will always be in the top 10 for a reason.

Logan Square is definitely the place for up-and-coming chefs who may have worked in those standbys or some high-end places all around town. They are food-focused, chef-driven and more affordable hot spots. Fat Rice, Lula’s, Longman & Eagle, Parson’s Fish & Chips – that kind of place. For the late night cocktail crowd, don’t miss Scofflaw.

You need three square meals: breakfast, lunch and dinner. Where do you go for each in Chicago?

For breakfast: Pauline’s and M. Henry in Andersonville, Lula’s or Orange – all neighborhood joints with killer food. Cellar Door Provisions, in Logan Square, has some of the best croissants and baked goods in the city.

For lunch: Au Cheval for the best burger in Chicago, Franks ‘n Dawgs for anything on their menu or Publican Meats…Joong Boo Market for Korean.

For dinner: I could eat at Spiaggia every night of my life and be happy – Nico’s, Next, Fat Rice, 42 Grams, Sepia, The Bristol, Boka, Publican, Blackbird, and about 100 others.

When you’re not tasting the best that Chicago has to offer, what do you like to do in the Windy City? Any places you like to relax and unwind that are distinctly Chicago?

The architectural boat tour is the best way to see this amazing city. I also enjoy heading to the Signature Room at the top of the Hancock Building to see the best city view. Everyone loves goofing off at the Bean and I love walking through Lincoln Park, the zoo and the Green City Farmer’s Market. You can go to a different neighborhood everyday in Chicago and have a completely different experience. And, I love The Field Museum and the Art Institute of Chicago. It has some of my favorite Seurat paintings there. Bears and Blackhawks games, too.

Zimmern relaxing in the lobby of the Renaissance Downtown Chicago. (Photo: Robin Bennefield)
Zimmern relaxing in the lobby of the Renaissance Downtown Chicago. (Photo: Robin Bennefield)

Read that you play electric guitar. Any place that you love for live music?

The Metro is the longest running and best place to see anyone play. It’s the First Avenue of Chicago. Ravinia up north is a beautiful place to see some killer acts in an amazing setting. Underground Wonder Bar on Clark has some great talent that comes through.

What place in the world most inspires your style of cooking? Flavors have a way of transporting you back to a place, which do that for you?

Chengdu China, and its smoke of the wok and the burn of the chili oil, the numbing and the heat.

What’s your earliest travel memory? Is it connected to food?

Sitting on the dunes in Amagansett in September of 1968 with my mom watching the fishermen pull their boats down from the top of the beach to the ocean to set their nets, pull some nightlines and lobster pots. Listening to my mom tell me that before too long this way of life would be over. And she was right. And I’ve tried ever since to honor that memory and tell stories through food.

Zimmern poses with his parfait. (Photo: Robin Bennefield)
Zimmern poses with his parfait. (Photo: Robin Bennefield)

What’s your earliest Chicago food memory?

The very first memory I have of Chicago: It’s the ’60s. I’m at The Berghoff with my dad and we’re having beers after a football game. We came to see the New York Giants play the Bears. I remember it because it reminded me of some of the old places in New York that he really liked to go where you could have a beer and the guys behind the bar that poured your beer would also walk over and slice the meat for your sandwich. It was really a wonderful neighborhood-y kind of place.

Even though the place exists, it’s not the way it was. It belongs to a whole class of restaurants that have grown old and in some cities they have survived. They tend to be so special. They have great memories for me and there are great stories about them, and I think that’s what makes for great food. If you love food and travel you need to seek those places out. It’s not just whatever the hot new place is. You should look for some of the oldest places around. It’s why I love Gene and Giorgetti’s here. It has a history.

About the Author: Robin Bennefield, managing editor of Marriott TRAVELER, travels for food. Some of her favorite food experiences include tasting taro-leaf-wrapped lau lau in Honolulu and digging into a messy torta ahogada in Mexico City while wearing a plastic glove.