When I was asked to reflect on Chicago’s food scene in 2011, I hit a brick wall. A brick wall upon which a chef is leaning. With his arms crossed. And with a pouty look on his face. This chef looks as if he’s either thinking really hard or not thinking at all. If it’s the former, I’d like to believe it’s chicken fricassee, or some other delicious plate of food, that he’s thinking about. More likely, he’s thinking about how he can look tough while wearing a glorified apron.
This is the culmination of almost a decade of chef ego stroking, by both the media and the public. Now, because we treat them as such, chefs believe they are rock stars. And like any rock star, they are due their photo shoots and music videos.
At times, it can get out of hand.
Take this quote from the press release announcing pastry chef Bryce Caron’s departure from Custom House Tavern for Blackbird:
“He’s back and likely to do some incredible damage,” the release breathlessly read. (It was prepared by Biz 3, a PR firm that until last year focused entirely on the music industry. The emphasis is mine.) “He and Chef [David] Posey are friends and as any good friends like to do they partake in drinking whiskey together while listening to black metal.”
Black metal! Otherwise known as the satanic wailings of the Scandinavians! Is this really what we are supposed to associate with Caron’s desserts? Is this the flavor he’s going for?
I question the logic of whoever put forth this image. Then again, I now do think of Caron and Posey as really butch. Meet them in the alley between Blackbird and Avec? This is something I will not do. But how sad is this? I do not want to be intimidated by my chefs. I do not want them scowling at me. I do not want to think they will either (a) push me against the lockers after class, or (b) shame me with their superior music/design/fashion/art tastes. I want my chefs to feed me. And then I want to hug them in thanks. But look at that photo of chef Ryan McCaskey and his team from the forthcoming Acadia—would you dare hug these guys? Needing a hug and being open to a hug are not the same thing.
But what do I know? Many of these guys (and every chef behaving this way is indeed a guy) I’ve only ever seen in the movies. And by movies I mean their trailers. And by trailers I mean trailers for their restaurants, because that is actually a thing. This year, we watched trailers from restaurateurs such as Jason Chan and chef Michael Shrader (of the forthcoming Urban Union) and supergroup Kevin Heisner, Matt Eisler and the bespectacled Sheerin brothers (of the forthcoming Trenchermen). In these videos, the men wander around construction sites, make serious conversation about their inspiration, stare into space, contemplate chicken fricassee. But rarely do they ever include food.
One exception was the trailer (debuted on TOC’s blog) for RM, a forthcoming Champagne lounge, and it stars Jason Wagner. Who is Jason Wagner? Your guess is as good as mine. But clearly, somebody wants the dude to be a star. I think there’s potential for that. I like Jason Wagner. I have no idea if he can put together a good Champagne list, or if RM will be a pleasant place, but I do know that besides his (velour?) hoodie, thickly knotted tie and Sheerin brothers glasses, Wagner was wearing something unique: a smile. A smug smile, but I’ll take what I can get. Because when leaning against those brick walls, chefs don’t like to smile. Instead, they look exhausted by the camera, annnoyed by the attention. I don’t get it. They’re getting treated like rock gods. Isn’t this what they wanted?