Andrew Zimmern always knows how to make an entrance: He raced down the Chicago River on the back of a Jet Ski to host the first episode of “The Navigator’s Table,” a series of dinners in which the celebrity chef gathers a city’s culinary influencers to discuss its food culture.
“That is the only way to deal with rush hour traffic,” Zimmern jokes. “Trust me.”
For the first dinner, the “Bizarre Food” host invited Food and Wine publisher Christina Grdovic; restaurateur and nightclub owner Billy Dec; Boka-chef Lee Wolen; TV personality Louisa Chu; and food blogger Kara Lichtenstein to join him inside the smartly redesigned lobby of the Renaissance Chicago Downtown Hotel.
With a table of Chicago locals on hand, Zimmern wanted to know the way a real Chicagoan might experience the city.
In addition to heading into the kitchen to crack open some sea urchin, Zimmern was also tapped guest Navigator of the Chicago property. Renaissance Hotels Navigators are local experts who have been hand-picked to help you find what the guidebooks can’t tell you.
“The one superpower that I have is knowing what to do and where to do it,” says Zimmern, who served his guests three recipes with a twist, including a take on his grandmother’s tomato aspic, this time with sea urchin and crab.
When friends come to visit, Dec likes to “walk down the beach,” before hitting up world class shopping at Oak Street within six or seven minutes. “As you go, there are a ridiculous amount of places to stop and eat,” he says.
Dec loves how Chicago’s River North neighborhood has transformed.
“There are a number of crazy diverse places that have packed River North over the last decade,” Dec says. “It’s just jam-packed with things to do—great cocktail bars, you can get Indian, Mexican, a crazy craft beer scene.”
Chu is attracted to “the places that have a real history and connection to the city,” she says, citing Bang Bang Pie as a great place to grab breakfast for under $10.
Lichtenstein has been spreading the gospel of Chicago food through her blog Hungry in Chicago.
“My jam is the West Loop,” she says. “You can do lunch there and go all day bouncing from spot to spot.”