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Chefs in the Midwest Don't Need Your Brooklyn Comparisons, Thanks

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When Bon Appétit looks for "Brooklyn" in Indianapolis, it finds some controversy.

Jonathan Brooks at Milktooth in Indianapolis, Indiana
Jonathan Brooks at Milktooth in Indianapolis, Indiana

In the March issue of Bon Appétit, also dubbed as its "Culture" issue, editors lay out 21 elements that define cool in the culinary industry, from fried chicken sandwiches to marijuana edibles. The final entry is a two-page article by John Birdsall entitled "How Every City Became Brooklyn." It offers the notion that "Brooklyn" now exemplifies a phenomenon of "food codes" (artisanal pickles, throwback cocktails, pour-over coffee, etc.) which will fast track a city to its maximum potential. The article uses Indianapolis—via James Beard Award nominee Jonathan Brooks of Milktooth—as its case study.

"I tell Brooks how I'm in Indianapolis to find Brooklyn, and to see how America's dominant food trends play out in a place with an emerging restaurant scene," Birdsall writes. "I see his face drop, like I've delivered the ultimate insult, regarding these young chefs as cartoon characters."

"I get it, I understand why buzzwords and shit like that sell magazines and get people to read articles, but Brooklyn doesn't have anything to do with Indianapolis."

Here in Chicago, we know the feeling: We're all too familiar with the comparison to our East Coast counterpart. So much so that the term "Second City," originally coined during the battle with New York City to host the World Columbian Exposition, leaves a sour taste when it comes to describing the culinary scene. But why, as evident by the article, is the Midwest seemingly trapped in New York City's shadow—€”constantly measured against the metropolis's yardstick? Why did Bon Appétit send a California-based writer to Indianapolis to equate its punk-rock music hall, persimmon-topped biscuits, and pork belly sandwiches to another night in Williamsburg? A lot of Midwestern chefs have an opinion on that.

"I get it, I understand why buzzwords and shit like that sell magazines and get people to read articles," Brooks says to Eater. "But Brooklyn doesn't have anything to do with Indianapolis."

Brooks is an Indianapolis native who put in time at restaurants in Chicago before returning back to his hometown to open a brunch-only restaurant that was named one of Bon Appétit's 10 Best New Restaurants of 2015. "That sort of migration helps explain why things that once defined Brooklyn—€”pottery studios, mead distilleries, or millennials selling their crafts—€”have turned up all over," Birdsall writes in Bon Appétit. "Folks like Brooks read about them online, or got into them while traveling or while living in Brooklyn proper, then decided there was no reason their hometowns shouldn't have them too."

However, many would argue the craft movement is nothing new outside of Brooklyn. In fact, when Eater asked several Midwestern chefs what traits define their respective city's food culture, a long-standing commitment to locally made goods surfaced as a recurring characteristic. "When people in Brooklyn or wherever started making cheese or pickling or canning stuff or making leather goods, it was a new thing for everybody in New York, but here in the Midwest and the South too, people never stopped doing that stuff," said Scott Worsham, owner of mfk. "Chicago still has a leather tannery factory right in the middle of it." Is the city guilty of jumping onto the ramen bandwagon two years after Ippudo opened its second location? Yes, but "locally made" has been happening for centuries.

"I find it frustrating that something good in St. Louis—something unique or cool—is instantly equated to somewhere else."

The sentiment is echoed throughout the region. "I find it frustrating that something good in St. Louis—something unique or cool—is instantly equated to somewhere else," Mike Randolph, chef and owner of Público in St. Louis, told Eater. "'That's a very Brooklyn experience.' Was it? I certainly agree there are parts of St. Louis that have the general vibe of say a Portland or Brooklyn. But what we do have, and what I love about it here, is this notion that no one is too cool for school. We all enjoy a good drink, a good meal, and our city's diverse culture. We are the Midwest and we embrace it."

In its quest to find "Brooklyn," the magazine misses what makes the Midwest a culinary epicenter, says chef John Vermiglio. "Take me, in Detroit, within 30 minutes, I can be on countless farms around the area, and that's just not possible when you live deep in the boroughs of New York," says Vermiglio, a former Chicago chef who recently returned to Detroit to open Grey Ghost. "I know there's local there, and I know there's urban initiatives and things like that happening, but that connection to the farmer—inevitably, you need land for that, and the Midwest is busting with it at this point. Who knows who started the farm-to-table thing, but there's no denying that during the growing season, the Midwest is at the forefront of it."

"I think the most fucked up thing about the article is the comparison of the so-called small towns to Brooklyn, when it should go the other way," says Brandon Baltzley, a southern-born chef who cooked in Chicago, Indiana, New York City, and Boston before recently opening the 41-70 in Cape Cod. "Brooklyn's food culture made its name off of biting other cultures and trends, and being lucky enough to be so heavily populated that anything kind of goes. Places like Indy; Portland, Maine; St. Louis; and Charleston, those are the places that have unique voices. They do the work and labor of fishing and farming, and have a deep sense of self."

"Who knows who started the farm-to-table thing, but there's no denying that during the growing season, the Midwest is at the forefront of it."

At the end of the article, there's a question: "What if it isn't so much Indianapolis trying to be Brooklyn, as Brooklyn wanting to capture something of Indianapolis?" But the comparison alone cheapens each city's character. Brooklyn is a melting pot of cultures. Indianapolis, according to Spoke & Steele's executive chef Tyson Peterson, is a city where "the palate is evolving. Everyone has a misconception that it's just pork and corn or meat and potatoes out here, but there's such room for creativity out here because we're in the shadow, and we have the financial opportunity to open these mom-and-pop restaurants."

The fact remains that elements of almost every blossoming city's identity, somehow, become magnetically connected to the idea of "Brooklyn." But articles like these push forward the notion that everyone else is copying the trendy borough, and not vice versa. They ignore the possibility of a more complex cultural shift built on far more than trend chasing. There's no arguing they sell magazines.

So, if Indianapolis is not Brooklyn and Chicago is not Manhattan and Detroit is busy building restaurants in abandoned auto shops, what is the Midwest's culinary identity? Leave your thoughts below.

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