The Best of 2012: The spectacular food coming from Midwestern kitchens

 If there is anything I can say about this year for sure, it's that I ate well, perhaps better than I ever have. I had meals that went beyond what I ever imagined food could be in terms of intricate qualities, each ingredient like little clockwork pieces, gears whirring together perfectly in tune. I'm particularly thinking of two chefs here in Chicago: Iliana Regan, once of One Sister supper club now of her own restaurant Elizabeth, and Justin Behlke of Thurk supper club (named after his grandfather's last name). Now that Iliana has a restaurant, the merits of it have been debated in various reviews, but I think what is missing is the realization that this is something you can only get here in Chicago. I see that particularly as a bit of an outsider, having only lived here for a year. Sometimes I think back on New York City, not missing it, but thinking (not always fondly) of experiences I had there that I cannot have here. What defines a place, particularly the foods?

I have perhaps been thinking about this all year, seeded by my trip to Stockholm, where I ate at Frantzen/Lindeberg, a meal I still think about often. And then later by meeting Magnus Nilsson of Faviken and reading his cookbook. This New Nordic movement in Scandinavia has undoubtedly influenced Elizabeth and Thurk, but at this point it's a matter of how this translates to our own environment and how in turn it shapes the environment. What is so striking about the New Nordic movement is how it upends assumptions about local food, how it instead of just buying local for the sake of local, it has seeded the genesis of food businesses that are both local and striving to supply such restaurants with the highest possible quality foods, not just in the area, but possibly in the world. 

I was talking to Justin about how difficult that is here with the way Chicago is structured, with its sprawl devouring nearby farmland so it's hard to have a the close relationship with producers that Magnus speaks of in Faviken. Some of the things I've eaten lately, sweetbreads out of a cow freshly killed right in the green pastures rather than a cold metal slaughterhouse, well I have to admit that yes, I wouldn't buy this, this is something that can only come from being near, even if it were legal to sell. It's too intimate and risky of an experience to buy from afar, maybe to even buy at all. And no, you couldn't buy it, since it did not come from an inspected slaughterhouse, though it's not like the law recognizes this as an inherently unsafe action since it would be legal for me to invite you over as a friend and serve it for dinner. The problem is that the laws impose burdens that small produces can't meet or that impair quality. The dearth of USDA-inspected slaughterhouses and quality control problems within them are serious issues for selling to restaurants. Troubles on that end are largely why I can not supply any of these places with much if any in the way of meat from my own family's farm. It is a problem I hope to solve someday, but working with Thurk is something ideal since it's home dinners with friends (of a ridiculously high quality) that are smaller in scale to test things with. Both chefs have expressed to me that they eventually hope to have restaurants in more agrarian settings that might allow them to do something more hyper-local. 

Cured pork, pickles and mustard @ Thurk. Via JenMoran Photography.

Occasionally someone will tell me that I should become a food reviewer, but while I love writing about food and visiting good restaurants, I believe this would hamper me in many ways, particularly from having conversations(and sometimes arguments) with chefs and the other people that make restaurants work. I admit a bias- I originally met Iliana by dining at her home and she introduced me to many new friends. Justin I found on LTHforum, where he was looking for a place to host his dinners. Not knowing much of anything about him, I hosted his first dinners at my apartment before he set up his own apartment to host. And my risk definitely was worth it, I was lucky to host some really fun and delicious dinners.

But on another hand, I see why restaurant reviewers operate the way they do. I remember an essay I read in a poetry class, the author lost in my memory, that laid out why a poem's author should never explain a poem. If food is to be a form of art, it is something to be able to glean the art from it without context. Even so, this happens to be the case whether you know the chef or not, in the environment of harried plating, who has time to explain? And you are lost in this short moment on your own, to find what you will there. 

From the Elizabeth Deer Menu: {sous vide and seared deer tenderloin with thyme and juniper, celery root tubes, pickled elderberries and sauce, amaranth and celery root porridge, ground deer meat, steel cut oats, parsley, seasonings loosely wrapped in cabbage, deer sauce with capers, parsley and shallot, with brown butter JenMoranPhotography

But what this food tells me is that it is of the Midwest a place, not as much as a culture. It tries to echo the land itself, nature forgetting all the people that have lived there, the people who in nature's course of time, lingered only for a second. Attempting to mirror the ecosystem itself, it has a complexity of tastes, species, aromas, and textures that at its height almost allow you to imagine that you are outside alone in the woods or in a pasture rather than sitting at a dining table.

From the Elizabeth Deer Menu: venison tartare on chard, egg yolk sauce, caper berries, pickled hawthorn berries, grains of paradise and horseradish whip JenMoranPhotography

But it is inevitable to see the marks of human hands even among the naturalistic deconstruction that often characterizes these menus, the cultures that have come and go, bringing plants and animals from others places to settle here with us, bringing ways of cooking and preserving food. For example, the pickles and sourdough on Justin's menu or the pirogis and gravlax on Iliana's. Iliana's also contains a characteristic storybook whimsicality and playfulness in her preparations.

Justin's Thurk menus are a little more minimalistic and rustic in style, more strict in their devotion to locality and season. He did a stint at the famous Noma and you can see some of that there. 

Iliana's restaurant is now offering three different menus. I think the best one for someone looking for an introduction to her style is the Deer menu, which has a heavy focus on foraged and wild ingredients.  

Justin is doing a couple of dinners at his apartment in January and there are still a few reservations left. He also has a long-fermented sourdough (which I tolerate very well, particularly with his signature brown butter :) ) class coming up at my place.

Thurk's Sourdough via JenMoran Photography

Of all the meals I've eaten this year, theirs have been the most memorable and I can heartily recommend them. And hope this style of cooking and dining prospers and grows here.