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Times Talks Skirts Michelin; Hints at New Chicago Food Fest

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Chicago may get its own version of the South Beach Wine & Food Festival, at least that's what festival founder Lee Brian Schrager, hopes. On Friday night, Schrager joined New York Times Magazine staff writer and the paper's former restaurant critic Frank Bruni, along with Rick Bayless, Art Smith and Charlie Trotter during the 90-minute TimesTalks Chicago Chefs Live! at the Chicago Cultural Center.

Schrager said Chicago is his favorite food city after New York and that he's "close" to landing the deal to bring a major food fest here, which would rival Chicago Gourmet (unless they're teaming up; Schrager is also the VP of corporate communications for Southern Wine & Spirits, which was the lead alcohol sponsor at this year's Chicago Gourmet). But that was but one tidbit of juicy information that came out of the discussion.

The one thing buzzing about the crowd prior to the start of panel was whether Bruni would bring up the Michelin Guide, which just days before announced its first-ever Chicago star ratings, where Bayless's Topolobampo got one, Trotter got two and Smith was shut out altogether. Fortunately for the chefs, Bruni didn't broach the subject; fortunately for the crowd, Chicago Tribune staffer Kevin Pang did, during a Q&A near the end of the session.

Pang first asked about the importance for chefs to receive Michelin stars, to which Trotter gave a roundabout answer about the number of different rating systems currently available. Dissatisfied the juicy response wasn't coming, Pang then asked, point blank at Trotter, "Is it important to earn three stars?" Trotter, instead of flying off the handle or really saying what we all wanted to hear, diplomatically replied, "It never hurts. What would be wrong with that? Everyone would love to have the highest rating in everything."

Much of the rest of the discussion was fairly tame, but some tasty nuggets did emerge:

· Smith recounted a story of Lady Gaga dropping in for dinner at Table Fifty-Two during Lollapalooza in August. She had seen him get booted from Top Chef Masters and said, "I'm so sorry you got sent home." To that, Smith said about chefs being on TV, "If you have the opportunity and charisma to do it ... do it. If you have something to direct the media toward, it'll be good for business."
· Trotter, who travels a lot, apparently thinks the Wolfgang Puck restaurants in airports have good food.
· Smith likes the idea of opening more restaurants in other cities if for no other reason than to have more outposts for his non-profit organization Common Threads.
· Bayless said he'd like to add iguana to the menu at his restaurants, but added, while chuckling, he doesn't know where to source good iguana locally.
· Trotter said if it weren't for customers or employees the restaurant business would be the best in the world.
· Smith doesn't like being challenged when he eats. "I can't stand gussied-up food," he said. "Some of the best food I've had has been simple."
· Trotter's mom was, as he said, not an exceptional cook and his father absolutely hated restaurants.
· Schrager said people should look at various websites, including Eater, to find out about a restaurant before they go for type of cuisine, dress code, etc so everyone can have a more pleasant experience.
· Smith loves China and wants to open a fried chicken restaurant in Shanghai.
· Bayless said Mexico City is a "white-hot restaurant city."
· Schrager thinks India has the most exciting food anywhere
· Trotter loves New Orleans sand said it's coming back. "It's exciting to see it re-emerge," he said.
· Bayless likes to explore different cuisines and often takes cooking classes when traveling to different countries.
· In Chicago, Smith loves Urban Belly and Belly Shack; Bayless geeks out at Veerasway, Taxim and Cumin; Trotter, surprisingly, digs Pasta Palazzo.
· On food trucks, Bayless said, "It's coming ... if we can get our city council to come up to the 21st century."

· The 800-pound Gorilla at the New York Times' Chicago Chefs Live [Tribune]
· Chicago Michelin Guide Revealed; Alinea, L20 Get 3 Stars [~EChi~]

Chicago Cultural Center

77 E. Randolph St., Chicago, IL

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