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Chicago Magazine Appoints New Dining Critic, Returns to the Status Quo

Plus, Chicago’s sole “Top Chef: Houston” contestant goes bold and spicy for a Nigerian-themed challenge

A bamboo steamer with dumplings.
Wazwan was the subject of a Chicago review.
Wazwan

After a pandemic hiatus and the departure of Jeff Ruby, Chicago magazine has resumed publishing restaurant reviews. The new critic is John Kessler, a Chicago contributor who arrived in 2015 and had made a name for himself with his work at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He’s also chaired the James Beard Foundation’s journalism awards committee. Chicago did not post the position and appointed Kessler. He and the Tribune’s Louisa Chu and Nick Kindelsperger are the city’s only full-time dining critics.

Kessler introduced himself to many Chicagoans with an opinion piece published in Chicago in 2018 under the headline “The Party Is Over: Chicago’s once-vaunted dining scene has lost its luster. Our food writer offers an unsparing five-point manifesto that explains why — and how we can fix it.” Among other things, Kessler called out immigrant restaurants in Chinatown and on Devon for not meeting his standards. In keeping with that theme, his first review as Chicago’s critic covers Wazwan, the Indian restaurant in Wicker Park. (He gave it three stars.)

In another piece in Plate in April 2021, Kessler lamented the loss of the importance of critics during the pandemic, and how sad he was that he was no longer “part of the machinery, with my pen and my palate, that helped chefs achieve the fame and recognition they deserved.”

There’s been a considerable amount of discussion about how Chicago needs more full-time critics after the departure of Ruby and Trib critic Phil Vettel. But there’s also been chatter nationwide about how food criticism needed to evolve and give more opportunities to BIPOC and queer writers — after the police murder of George Floyd and the departure of top editors from Bon Appétit supposedly changed how media would approach their jobs.

There have been some changes in Chicago. Mike Sula at the Chicago Reader has started a pop-up series in Albany Park, spotlighting different chefs — many of them BIPOC — every week at the Kedzie Inn. Chicago has expanded veteran food writer Audarshia Townsend’s role, but when it comes to reviews, instead of grooming a fresh voice or searching for a new one, the magazine has turned to Kessler.

Chicago’s Top Chef: Houston contender out-spices the competition

Warning: Spoilers ahead.

Top Chef: Houston returned last week with more Texas-themed challenges designed to test competitors’ knowledge, speed, and creativity. The episode kicked off with an exciting Quickfire that paid tribute to Houston’s large Nigerian community: chefs were asked to make a Nigerian dish to accompany swallow — an African starch that is boiled, cooked and used to dip into stews. Damarr Brown, chef de cuisine at Virtue and season’s only Chicago-based contestant, fretted over the spice level in his scotch bonnet and shrimp stew, but ultimately impressed co-judge Kwame Onwuachi, (a James Beard Award winner and Top Chef: California alum) who declared the stew “bold in all the best ways.”

The elimination round, set at the Houston Museum of Natural Science, played a bit fast and loose with the Houston theme, coming off more as a promo for upcoming film Jurassic World Dominion (stars Bryce Dallas Howard and Chris Pratt tuned in virtually) that required chefs to team up for three-course meals inspired by dinosaurs. Brown, who was tasked with the theme of the big-mouthed sea-dwelling Mosasaurus, presented dukkah fried oysters with Fresno chow chow and oyster cream. Though it didn’t snag him the prize, Onwuachi again praised Brown’s dish, saying that it had one of the best chow chows, or pickled relish, that he’s ever had. The episode also included an appearance by Chicago’s own Joe Flamm, a Top Chef champion now at the helm of Italian-Croatian restaurant Rose Mary in Fulton Market, who donned an amusing Indiana Jones-inspired getup for his role as judge, complete with a neckerchief. A full rundown of the episode is available at Eater Houston.

Local home cooks to face off Monday on Food Network’s The Julia Child Challenge finale

A Chicagoan has a good chance of taking home the prize in Monday’s finale of the Food Network reality cooking competition The Julia Child Challenge, as locals Dustin Hogue and Bill Borman face off against each another and California-based finalist Jaíne Mackievicz. Set in an immaculately rendered reconstruction of Child’s famous kitchen, the show pits home cooks against one another in pursuit of an all-expenses paid, three-month cooking course at the famous chef’s alma mater, Le Cordon Bleu in Paris. The Sun-Times spoke with Hogue, a fitness trainer and army veteran, about his passion for cooking and love of Chicago’s hospitality scene. The episode will air at 8 p.m. on Monday.

Chef and hospitality visionary Jennifer Kim returns to the culinary classroom

Lauded Chicago chef Jennifer Kim, former owner of boundary-breaking neighborhood restaurant Passerotto in Andersonville, has added a new position to her extensive hospitality repertoire: an instructor at the culinary arts and hospitality management school Kendall College. A longtime advocate for restaurant workers and critic of systemic injustice in the hospitality industry, Kim has spent much of the pandemic on her multi-faceted Alt Economy project, which she will continue alongside her role at Kendall. “Being able to create a working restaurant program whose main objective isn’t profits but education feels like future-building towards physical, sustainable brick+mortars that mirror what we want to see in the new hospitality movement,” Kim wrote Friday on Instagram.

Passerotto

5420 N. Clark Street, Chicago, IL Visit Website

Virtue

1462 E. 53rd Street, Chicago, IL

Wazwan

1742 West Division Street, , IL 60622 (708) 369-9564 Visit Website

Rose Mary

932 West Fulton Street, , IL 60607 (872) 260-3921 Visit Website

Kendall College

900 N North Branch St, Chicago, IL 60642 Visit Website

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