This blog has inspired me (Mike). For too many years my dining life has taken a back burner to my office life. Go ahead and judge me, but I have on more than one occasion turned down a dinner invite because I had… work to do. And so now, without further ado, I say: NO MORE. I quit my job last week.
Now, what do you do when you find yourself riddled with free time and your final bonus check? That’s right, you go to VEGAS.
And now, onto the final step of our west coast journey: a sake certification program, because the only logical step after a few days wandering, eating, and drinking is higher educations and, yes, more drinking. Think summer camp with booze, then let the jealousy wash over you.
After a few days at Fleury, soaking up (literally) Napa life, we decided that we should check out the nearby Worlds of Flavor conference at the Culinary Institute of America. We wouldn’t call it crashing, but we definitely weren’t your typical conference-goers (picture a starstruck, slightly drunk Mike and Chao wandering around like kids in a candy store). Was it necessary that we include both of the photos below? Yes. Completely.
The 13th Annual Worlds of Flavor Conference turned its focus this year to Japan; both huge fans of Japanese cuisine, we were elated. We got the chance to meet, talk to, learn from, and eat with 60 of the finest Japanese chefs and other experts on the food and culinary traditions of Japan (win). Here are our highlights, in no particular order:
1. Ivan Ramen
Pardon the momentary sentimentality, but this guy’s story is definitely the foodie’s version of ‘heartwarming.’ In a sea of Japan’s finest chefs, Ivan Orkin kind of sticks out. Not too often does a Brooklyn-born Jewish guy move to Japan to master the art of ramen–and succeed with flying colors.
The self-professed ramenjunkie is living proof that anything is possible–he now owns two restaurants in Japan and is considered one of the foremost ramen experts. Known to many as Ivan Ramen (the name of his restaurant), Ivan came to the conference with Team Japan and created what was arguably one of the top three dishes of the event.
Now this was something that we really hadn’t seen in Chicago… or anywhere else for that matter. Think pancakes, but stuffed with savory/salty ingredients. In other words, the perfect breakfast.
okonomiyakin. Typically made using pancake batter and a variety of ingredients including vegetables, fish, meat, etc. Often referred to as “Japanese pancakes,” or even “Osaka soul food.”
The name is derived from the word okonomi, meaning “what you like” or “what you want,” and yaki meaning “grilled” or “cooked.” Anything we want in a pancake on the grill? Yes, please.
3. Meeting Hiroyuki Sakai
We were both pretty awe-struck when we got to meet Chef Hiroyuki Sakai, one of the original Iron Chefs. There are no words to explain how cool this was. Chef Sakai wasn’t presenting or cooking or anything, just hanging out and trying things, you know, no big deal. Keeping it casual. (Also, did you all know he has a MySpace page?)
The fact that we were able to be in the presence of both of these chefs was enough for us–but to see them battling? Incredible. Morimoto recreated one of our favorite Iron Chef moments*, part of the Holiday Ice Battle in which Morimoto defeats Bobby Flay… using an ice smoker.
Morimoto preparing dinner for Mike & Chao (…and some other people, too).
We think it was snapper, but we were in a fame/food/sake-induced blackout.
5. How to Make Soba Noodles
Celebrities and knife skills and ingredients aside, this was a testament to ultimate requirement for doing something well: painstaking patience. During this thirty-minute demonstration, one chef highlighted the ins and outs of soba, how its made, the ingredients, and so on, while the second chef stepped patiently on the sheet of uncut noodles… for the entire time…
It’s a practice that ensures the proper distribution of pressure and the right consistency for the noodles. When the demo ended, the soft-stepping chef received a standing ovation and the undying respect of everyone watching.
Okay, so here’s the main thing that we walked away (well, flew away) thinking about: In restaurants here, we tend to cook everything (or most things) in-house, and that’s a valued trait–knowing that what you’re eating was made (and sometimes even grown) on the premises. There’s something to be said, however, for the specialized focus of most restaurants in Japan; instead of having the same kitchen staff master ramen, sashimi, sushi, udon, and so on, each restaurant has their focus, their specialty, and as such, they really do master the art of whatever they’re serving/stepping on.
Practices aside, we were blown away by the quality of ingredients, the precision and consistency of the work, and the knife skills–down to the way they cut fish in order to extract different flavors. The attention to detail wasn’t a special quality of certain chefs, it was a standard across the board.
*Sadly, there doesn’t seem to be a video of the Iron Chef episode online–mostly just forums/blog posts where people say things like: “Freaking BRILLIANT” and “ONE OF MORIMOTO’S ICE CARVERS JUST MADE A MEAT SMOKER OUT OF ICE THIS IS INCREDIBLE.” >> If anyone does have a link to a video for this ep, post it as a comment and we’ll give you tons of credit.
…but we should probably give you some of the back-story before we talk about drinking wine straight out of the pump-over equipment. As part of our recent trip to California (link to Mexican food post), we also swung by Fleury Estate Winery, one of Napa’s finest boutique wineries and a destination/product Mike’s been all about for the last few years. We did the tastings, learned about the production, got the full tour, but what struck us more than anything was the life of a vintner.
There’s definitely a misconception (one that even we, scholars that we are, might have even bought into) about the life that goes along with moving to Napa and making wine. There’s a sense that the days of a vintner are spent swirling a glass of wine in front of perpetual sunset. Continue reading Mike & Chao Drink All Day
Chicago has quickly become the capital of Mexican food north of the border. Are we biased as Chicagoans? Yes. Does that make the statement any less true? Nope. As residents of this fair taco-filled city, we felt it was our duty to investigate one of the West Coast’s top contenders. So when we hit California, we beelined for the the Mission District.
Our Tour Guide
Led by our San Fran tour guide, left, we made our way over to Taqueria Cancun. As you can see in the photo, he was hand-selected based on his hunger level, his capacity to eat while walking, and his propensity to try new foods.
That’s not completely true; he’s a friend… but those are still important things to look for in a friend/tour guide.
Chips and Guac
First things first: three Pacifico beers with limes and an order of chips and guac. As you can see in the photo, Chao had some difficulties holding himself back while I took a photo.
We both agreed: the chile flake tortilla chips were extra-thin and crispy, something you don’t always find in Chicago. Spicy guacamole, paper thin chips, fresh salsa–it was hot and crunchy at its finest.
Next up: tacos. We tried the taco de cabeza (beef head) and the taco de lengua (beef tongue). Each was loaded with meat, enough meat to require two tortillas (at the risk of everything falling apart).
The meat, although tasty, was pretty much the bulk of the taco – a definite switch-up from what we’re used to in Chicago (the land of sauce and fillings).
The winner of the day–maybe the trip–was the fried pork torta. This was truly one of the best tortas any of us had ever tried. It was that perfect blend of melted, creamy goodness but without any sacrifices on flavor.
It was an explosion of fresh guacamole and tomatoes, sour cream, melted mozzarella, and fried pork. The salty/savory flavors of the fried pork playing off the smooth-and-creamy awesomeness of the guacamole… We really should have titled this post “Ode to a Torta.” Or, “The Creamy Pork Sandwich That Changed My Life.”
So, if we had to choose between the Mission and Chicago? Had to decide between Taqueria Cancun and, say, Big Star?
Well, the people behind Big Star have truly hit the trifecta: price, quality, and authenticity. AND, they only use one tortilla in their tacos (which may seem like a petty criticism, but two tortillas are just too many).
The Mission was incredibly authentic and beyond affordable, which made it fairly easy to overeat (if there is such a thing). But, from what we’ve tried, Chicago does have something over the Mission. What the Windy City lacks in proximity it makes up for in flavor. Now, if only we could find a torta like that in Chicago.
As the title of our blog implies, we’re kind of a duo (no funny business). So when we came across four tickets to the Nov. 28 Bears vs. Eagles game, we decided we should open it up to all of you–anyone reading our blog, tweeting with @mikeandchaochow, etc.
Here’s the idea. It’s a contest. Let’s get all the very best of the best dining duos, across Chicagoland, together for a little Thanksgiving weekend tailgate action at Soldier Field. We’ll eat. We’ll drink. Chao will cook. (see previous post if you’re concerned about Chao’s abilities). Sounds fun. You want to join, huh? Well, we’re going to make you work for it.
Calling All Dining Duos
Tweet us a picture of you and your favorite dining partner, the Mike to your Chao (or the Chao to your Mike), the Bill to your Ted, the Hall to your Oates, the Cheech to your Chong…we could keep going all day with this…give us 140 characters on why your dining duo rocks. Make us laugh. Make us cry. You get the point.
The best tweets will be welcome to join our tailgate on November 28 for food, drink and fun. We’ll tweet at you and let you know if you made the grade by November 24.
It gets better though… The VERY BEST duo will join us inside the stadium come game time. We should probably mention that these aren’t just any tickets. These are behind the bench, 50-yard line: Section 138, row 1, seats 5-8 (check out the view). Chao and I do things right.
So, tweet us a picture, or tell us why you like eating with that person (they always know the best new places/they always pick up the bill?), tell us what you like to eat together, whatever. Just let us know and we’re going to sort through all of them, very scientifically, and pick the pair with the best answers (i.e., the ones we’d like to go to a Bears game with the most).
There has been a a lot of talk in Chicago lately about food trucks. Correction: there has been a lot of talk in cities such as New York and Los Angeles and Portland about the amazing food trucks that keep sprouting up in their fair cities and a lot of talk in Chicago about WHY WE DON’T HAVE ANY.
So, here’s the lowdown in Chicago: Food trucks are allowed but only if there is no actual food being cooked on the truck. Everything that is sold needs to be pre-packaged in a licensed kitchen – which kind of misses the point. Nevertheless, Gaztro-Wagon, Happy Bodega, and Phillip Foss’ Meatyballs Mobile are pretty popular additions to the burgeoning scene in Chicago.
But, if you’ve known me an hour, you already know that I like to do things right. So, when 48 hours in New York City showed up on my travel itinerary, I decided to dig a little further into street meat culture. I sought out the best of the best, the masters of their trade, and tried to squeeze them all in to the allotted time (fail).