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Andrew Zimmern on Why He Loves Chicago and Talks About Next's Upcoming Kaiseki Menu

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Photo: Andrew Zimmern

Bizarre Foods host Andrew Zimmern is in Chicago all this week to shoot a new episode for his Travel Channel show. He aired an episode in early 2011 that saw Zimmern hit places like Alinea, Graham Elliot and Ruby's Food Stall at the Maxwell Street Market. But now, instead of just going back and randomly shooting spots he wants to check out, Zimmern is "exploring the idea of Chicago as ground zero of ingredient-driven stories."

While here, he's visiting Supreme Lobster and following the food as it makes its way to Next and will then explore with chef Dave Beran and his team how they utilize those ingredients. He's spending time with Rod Markus at Rare Tea Cellar and seeing how Phillip Foss incorporates tea into dishes at EL Ideas. And he's hitting other spots like Publican Quality Meats and Joong Boo Market to explore what's going on behind the scenes there.

But Zimmern is also just hanging out with some friends and eating at places like Lula Cafe, Au Cheval and even Margie's for some ice cream. Eater chatted with Zimmern to see just what it is about Chicago's food scene he loves.

So where are you right now?
I'm sitting here at Lula. It's a place that when I'm in town with my wife I come here all the time. I've never been here for lunch. I'm excited. I like the vibe. It's a fun neighborhood place. I love it. We're between [shooting at] Joong Boo and EL Ideas.

Why did you want to do another show about Chicago's food scene?
I could do a show every year in Chicago. It's fascinating to me ? it's one of the most dynamic food cities in the country. There's more shaping and shifting here even more than in New York, which I think is the most fascinating food city in the world. It's an incredible international city. Chicago is different. It's the most grown up entity in the Midwest and I think because of that it has a different mindset and roots. It has really exploded as a major league food town in the last 20 years and I think there's a willingness to accept experimentation and the variety that exists here. It's constantly changing.

What's this new show all about?
We're doing kind of a themed peek at Chicago. If I go back into a city we've been to a bunch of times, I find it interesting to take a different approach ? we're exploring the idea of Chicago as ground zero of ingredient-driven stories. For example, we're going to Supreme Lobster and following ingredients from there to Next. We're exploring the relationship between ingredients and the diner. At Joong Boo, they're bringing in things that are coming in from Korea or grown for Koreans in California and then bringing that here [and preparing it] in their cafe. They have a fermented bean paste they use and it's the best version I've had outside of Korea. The owner's grandmother is in back, she's 97 years old, and she supervises all the cooks. She was stripping napa cabbage and showing them how to layer the leaves.

I saw you tweeted that you were at Publican Quality Meats yesterday ... how was that?
I was so impressed at Publican Quality Meats -- Erling (Wu-Bower) and Cosmo (Goss), who are running the charcuterie ? these kids are so passionate and naturally gifted. I've been all around the world talking to butchers and charcuterians of all sizes and stripes and they have learned in a year what takes most people five. They have such natural ability mixed with passion. All they do is talk cured meat and it shows in the product.

And is Au Cheval going to be on the show, too?
Au Cheval was for fun. I had dinner with some friends—[Tribune reporter] Kevin Pang, Dave Beran and a few other people. We grabbed a non-professional dinner together.

Did you get the burger?
I did, but I was more impressed with the foie gras- and pork-stuffed cabbage and duck heart gravy hash. They require a lot of nuance. There's a lot of good cooking going on there.

You also tweeted you dined at Next. What did you think of that?
I can't imagine anything harder than living up to all the hype and Dave and Grant (Achatz) have exceeded it. The level of cookery ? I'm constantly amazed by it. We were really lucky. We were shown courses from all the past menus and then we were contrasting that with their preparation. Tuesday night is their experimental night to practice and we got to show people the creative process as they're creating that kaiseki menu. It's great to get a window into something everyone is curious about. It's amazing how much they don't know four weeks out, but in the next two weeks they'll lock everything in.

What were they working on?
Dave's subhead to the whole thing is the concept of fall—being able to marry autumn in Japan with autumn in Chicago. I saw stuff that's fucking thrilling.

Like what?
Let's say there are fish that essentially are only caught in the moonlight during certain months in Japan that are coming over that are being paired with vegetables and treatments that I've never seen outside of Japan. It's pretty thrilling. The charcoal-roasted fish course that I saw them working on last night was just crazy. The number of things ? I've never seen wasabi leaves like the ones they're working with there. These guys are working at a level that is duplicated at only at a handful of restaurants in the world.

Of all the things they made for you, what was the best?
It's all so different. I'll tell you ? the fish dish I had, they had several of these fish they had been sent to play around with, that blew my mind. That was tied with the edible campfire from the Childhood menu. It seemed like you would almost hate it, but once you start eating it you're a child again. It was so brilliantly executed. To maintain the edge on that dish and be so seminal I was just so thrilled with it. We did the pressed duck dish from Paris, the coconut dessert from the Thai menu. Everything in there was so stirring and to be there on a day when all the chefs are just creating and playing and talking about the future menu as well as executing the past hits, as a food lover and a chef myself was an amazing opportunity.

OK, so back to your trip. You mentioned something about going to Margie's, how does that fit in?
We went to Black Dog [Gelato]. Dave [Beran] threw me in his car and went to Au Cheval. After we felt like ice cream and went to Black Dog. It was closed; their freezer was broken, but we had ice cream on the brain and were around the corner from Margie's. I love coffee ice cream and a scoop with Margie's hot fudge was great. The irony was not lost on me that I'm standing on the corner with one of the world's most progressive chefs eating ice cream from a 90-year-old place.

Anything else you're doing that you're excited about?
We're going to birria restaurant that brings in its own goat, Illinois-bred goat,and does a proprietary mexican goat stew product. It's Zaragoza.

How long are you in town?
I'm here till Friday.

And when will this show air?
The new season starts in January 2013 and we're in premieres now. This will probably air January or early February of 2013.
· Bizarre Foods Chicago Episode Features Grant Achatz' Alinea and Graham Elliot [~E~]
· All Andrew Zimmern Coverage on Eater Chicago [~EChi~]

Publican Quality Meats

825 West Fulton Market, , IL 60607 (312) 445-8977 Visit Website

Next Restaurant

953 W Fulton Market, Chicago, IL 60607 312 226 0858 Visit Website

Au Cheval

800 West Randolph Street, , IL 60607 (312) 929-4580 Visit Website

Graham Elliot

217 W Huron Street, Chicago, IL 60654 312 624 9975 Visit Website

Lula Cafe

2537 North Kedzie Boulevard, , IL 60647 (773) 489-9554 Visit Website