Mike and Chao Crash Worlds of Flavor 2010

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.

Mike-Chao-Morimoto

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.

Ivan Orkin of Ivan Ramen. Photo c/o Serious Eats.

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.

2. Okonomiyaki

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.

okonomiyaki

 

More info: Wikipedia •  No Recipes •  Bento.com

okonomiyaki n. 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?)

Chao & Chef Sakai

4. The Ice Smoker

Whoever thought this one up: thank you. We couldn’t imagine of a better way to wrap up the conference than–wait for it–an IRON CHEF CHALLENGE between Masaharu Morimoto and David Chang.

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.

Final Takeaway

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.

Additional Coverage

Scenes from “Worlds of Flavor” 2010

FoodGal

Iron Chefs Galore at CIA’s Worlds of Flavor Conference

Jay Friedman, SunBreak

Japan’s Star Chefs in America

Yukari Iwatni Kane, Wall Street Journal

What Chefs and Writers Learned at the CIA’s Japanese-Inspired Worlds of Flavor Conference

Paolo Lucchesi, SF Gate

Three Great Techniques from the CIA Conference

Harris Salat, The Japanese Food Report

*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.

Mike & Chao Drink All Day

Mike-and-Chao-Drinking

…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

Ode to a Torta

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.

Tacos

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.

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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.

Heed The Call: Dining Duos Unite!

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.

Chao-+-Soldier-Field

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).

Mike Hearts Street Meat (Plus Non-Meat Street Eats, Too)

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).

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1. Bistro Truck

My first stop was the Bistro Truck, a Moroccan-meets-Mediterranean truck in Union Square. I went for one of their best-selling sandwiches, the Chicken Brochette, and it was truly unreal. Tender pieces of grilled chicken with a roasted tomato-caramelized onion charmoula (below), a sandwich made all the more delicious by my discovery next door. Continue reading Mike Hearts Street Meat (Plus Non-Meat Street Eats, Too)

The Sole Devotion of Chao

MCC_Sneakers1Chao has an incurable shoe habit. Now, you might be wondering why a chef (whose feet are rarely seen by the public) would have that many shoes? The world may never know.

Apparently he almost never buys his sneakers in stores–he tries them on and then goes online to find them for less. Which, to me, seems like a lot of effort… but, to each his own. Just in case you’re wondering, his two sites of of choice are JackThreads.com and backcountry.com.

MCC_BikeShoes1

The only shoes he does splurge on? His cycling shoes. (I think we mentioned before he’s an avid cyclist/cyclocross rider.)

MCC_OldestTop1

According to Chao, he’s been a shoe fiend for years. With each big move, however, most of his shoes don’t make the cut—except for the lime green/white Adidas with the aliens on top (photo). They are Chao’s oldest pair, his most comfortable and the most beat up. And no, he didn’t draw the aliens on himself.

 

xA note from Chao:

Right now I’ve got pretty much every color I need–but I just realized I don’t have any green shoes, so if anyone knows of any cool green shoes (bold, emerald green), let me know? Oh, and if any shoe companies want to send me shoes (especially you, Supra & Adidas), I’m a size 9.

Confessions of an Airport Diner

LOMO retro waiting room
LOMO retro waiting room

Airport food has pretty much always resided in a category  alongside hospital and rest-stop fare. As a veteran of the friendly skies and not-always-friendly terminals myself, I’ve sampled a good deal of airport food, and I can tell you firsthand that there are several exceptions to that rule in the last few years. In fact, you might even deem it a movement in some airports.

I put together my top 5 airport meals based on my experiences. Am I suggesting you drive out to the airport for dinner, tonight? Nope. But you just might be surprised by your next layover feast.

Continue reading Confessions of an Airport Diner

It’s Not You. It’s Your Kitchen.

This past week, Mike and I decided it was time to put in a few hours in the kitchen. Well, I decided, and I spent the majority of the time in the kitchen… but it felt really good to get behind the stoves again. As much as I love having a little time off, I’ve missed it.

So now you’re imagining Chao getting back on the metaphorical saddle–shaking a frying pan, testing a sauce, that sort of thing? I was quickly reminded of the serious drawbacks of being a home cook.

Take this photo, for example. You’ll see a few things wrong.

MCC_TakeThisPicture1

Mike did actually help, but I had to take advantage of that photo and rag on him just a little bit. You’d do the same, I am sure. But I’m getting off topic. Back to some of the downfalls and lessons learned in a West Loop condominium kitchen.

Lesson #1: TRASH

No matter where you cook, there will be a surplus of trash and recycling to deal with. It’s a fact of life, and it’s something that Mike’s bachelor pad starter trash can really couldn’t handle.

Which is why I brought in an industrial trash can. When you read the rest of this post, you’ll understand why taking the trash out every twenty minutes was not something I was interested in doing.

Lesson #2: DISHES

I went in a chef; I left a broken man with dishpan hands. Just kidding. Sort of. You’ll notice there is in fact a dishwasher in the photo, which is definitely nice to have, but it’s no match for the dishwashing team in a dishwashing room that I have become accustomed to in a restaurant kitchen.

After almost every step/dish, you have to go back and wash all the things you’ll need again in a few minutes–because there is only one set of tools (one blender, one frying pan, two pots…)

Lesson #3: TOOLS

So now we have a serious lack of implements, not to mention a kitchen–though nice, Mike–that wasn’t what you’d call “expansive.” (Although, I’ve worked in smaller, now that I think about it.) Beyond that, there’s also the quality of the tools/appliances around you.

Mike’s fridge was what you’d call ten pounds of s*** in a five-pound bag, and I won’t even begin to tell you about the drawbacks of a home stove/oven. (The ovens most chefs are used to would make the model in your kitchen look like an Easy Bake).

Lesson #4: INGREDIENTS

I knew that when I ran out of/needed something, I would need to go out and get it. What I didn’t know was how often. Good news: There’s a Dominick’s right down the street. Bad news: Most of the employees there now know me by name (and think I’m nuts). I’m not one for lists, which could have contributed to all of my visits.

If I was going to make this post have a “message,” it would be one of encouragement to all those downtrodden at-home cooks, who watch the chefs on TV and wonder why they can’t recreate it at home.

One Night. Eighty Bites.

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We couch our blog as conquering the world one bite at a time, so you can imagine our excitement when we arrived at an event with eighty chefs preparing bites: the annual Meals On Wheels Celebrity Chef Ball. The event happened this past Friday night, and our work was cut out for us.

Chicago’s best chefs, a floor that takes up an entire city block, and me and Chao–we got down to business. It was crowded, it was hot, but we were on a mission (and luckily Chao has very sharp elbows). Here are a few of our faves, in no particular order:

 

BURGER BAR, CHEF JOHN MCLEAN

The burger has recently evolved to become this perfect meal in a little package… and this was truly the perfect composition: the Hay Shortay, a mini Tallgrass burger with port-braised short ribs and warm onion/fennel slaw, no ketchup required.
 

TAKASHI, CHEF TAKASHI YAGIHASHI

Soup is usually a hard sell at an event, but Takashi’s take was special. It was the perfect balance–sweet, spicy–it was umami. Curried lentil soup with a chicken-prosciutto croquette, a little different from what we’ve come to expect from Takashi, but spectacular nonetheless.
 

THE SOUTHERN, CHEF CARY TAYLOR

Cary’s a Georgia boy, and everything he does has a Southern twang. Take his interpretation of a classic, 1940s dish: East Coast oysters Rockefeller… with collards and bacon.

Now, we’re back to our normal activity–eating. And, these days, blogging. Chao is off riding cyclocross this morning, but that’s a blog post for a different time. Thanks for reading this post, checking out our blog, and to all Chicago chefs and restaurateurs for supporting a truly awesome cause on Friday night. Cheers!

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