Phil Vettel, the departing dining critic at the Chicago Tribune, says he’ll “never forget what an honor and privilege it has been” to cover the city’s dining scene for 31 years. The longtime journalist — and the source of the majority of material for Eater Chicago’s Week In Reviews — announced earlier this week he was taking a buyout as the Tribune — led by main investor Alden Capital — continues cuts.
In his farewell column, Vettel goes over some of his fondest memories of the past few decades.
Vettel is one of Chicago’s most knowledgeable authorities on restaurants but he admits his “food-reviewing credentials were, shall we say, a little thin” when he was given the job 31 years ago. Despite that, the critic managed to navigate the industry to tell the stories of the people behind the cooking. The past 10 months alone have been filled with unprecedented struggles yet he’s continually “awed by the resilience, perseverance and courage displayed by Chicago’s restaurant workers.”
At the beginning of Vettel’s career, “French food was at its zenith.” But as young names like Charlie Trotter and Rick and Deann Bayless began to emerge, “American chefs began to equal, and surpass, the legends that came before them.” Notably, Vettel’s meal at Trio in 2002 was punctuated by Grant Achatz’s mind-blowing “savory ice cream sandwich of Parmesan-laced shortbread wafers and olive-oil ice cream, accompanied by a glass of amontillado.” The critic goes on to write that the “talent level in Chicago is unsurpassed” and “while those calling the city America’s Culinary Capital may be bolstered by civic pride, it would be difficult to make a strong case against it.”
Though Vettel is stepping aside, he knows “the work is never done.” There will always be new spots to try. The difference is now they’ll be chronicled by other writers. And his future may be uncertain at the moment, but the critic hopes “to be visible in the coming years. Just not that visible.”
In closing, Vettel highlights five of his favorite reviews during his stint. There was Evanston’s Trio in 1994, a place that helped pioneer the local fine dining scene. Michael Kornick’s “superb” Mk also makes the list for its re-review in 2013, largely due to now Virtue owner and “promising talent” Erick Williams running the kitchen. Fittingly, Next, the Alinea Group’s rotating concept — one that Vettel has reviewed multiple timex, much to the chagrin of many in the industry — closes out the mentions. Vettel writes that Next thinks takes more chances than any other, and calls out its 2017 “Hollywood” menu review, which weaved in “seven quotes from well-known movies.”