The menu of a farm-to-table restaurant can tell you an ingredient’s place of origin, the method of its harvesting, the process by which it will be prepared. But three very different restaurants in Chicago have added one more piece of information to certain dishes: a year. The chefs’ reasons are varied. For one chef, it’s a matter of historical significance. For another, there’s a personal resonance. And for one, it’s merely a thematic touch. But in every case, there’s a recognition that there’s something about a complete dish having a history—a timeline, a context—that’s as intriguing as the genealogy of its ingredients.
At least for Reezy Peezy. About three years ago, this rice-and-peas dish was the first to which Paul Fehribach, the chef-owner of Big Jones (5347 N Clark St, 773-275-5725), added a date: ca. 1730. It’s a reference to the time period in which its ingredients were cultivated in the low country. “It’s really hard in the space you have on the menu to tell the story behind some of these things,” Fehribach explains. But diners noticed the date and began asking questions of their servers, creating an opportunity for a conversation about the dish’s history. As Fehribach refined and developed his coastal Southern concept, the self-professed history geek began spending more time exploring old cookbooks, and added dishes he discovered in those books (Pontchartrain lump crab cakes, ca. 1885; stuffed chicken à la Mrs. Dull, 1928) to the menu. Recently, he added a $25 family-style meal, which will often be dated: The current one includes gumbo, cornbread and meatloaf from The Receipts of Ben Green Cooper, a self-published book from 1967 Georgia. And Fehribach’s new fried-chicken lunch is meant to recall how one might have eaten at a boarding house during the Great Depression.
It’s now become nearly impossible to talk about food that evokes a time period without thinking of Grant Achatz and Next (953 W Fulton Mkt, 312-226-0858), the restaurant that began with a three-month run serving [node:14752621 link=re-creations of classic French dishes;] from Escoffier’s 1906 Guide Culinaire. The subsequent two menus didn’t explicitly root dishes in a year, but for the upcoming El Bulli menu, Achatz and chef Dave Beran are taking the concept one step further, re-creating a dish from each year of the famed Spanish restaurant since Ferran Adrià, the pioneer of modern cooking, took it over in 1987. In selecting which dishes the restaurant would re-create, Achatz and Beran chose ones that either resonated with them personally (the two shared an inspiring meal there in 2007) or had some historical significance (“We want to show the first hot foam, the first hot gelatin, the first time that they made a foldable gelatin sheet,” Achatz says). That some of those dishes, like a jar of “spherified” olives that was one of El Bulli’s signatures, may no longer strike diners as groundbreaking is part of the point. Per Achatz, “When you put [these dishes] in context of what they accomplished and how quickly they evolved—stylistically, technically, everything—then you go, ‘Wow.’ ”
But though you’ll find a “Lord Murphy seared pork chop (1879)” and “Unbridled fried pickles (1990)” at the new Kentucky Derby–themed sports bar Derby (1224 W Webster Ave, 773-248-0900) in Lincoln Park, don’t assume this is a history lesson or a personal tribute. Mark Nieuwenhuis, the executive chef, was looking at the commemorative Kentucky Derby glasses the bar had ordered from eBay, each of which lists the names of the competing horses and the years they won, and decided to carry that motif through to the menu, adding the name of the winning horse and the year it won the Derby to existing dishes like hush puppies and pork chops. For Nieuwenhuis, the matching process was as simple as “what sounds good with this dish and what sounds good with that dish.”