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« Soups du Jour Restaurant Week Extended, Kind of »

Review Mon Mar 02 2009

Hats Off to Soup Off

I didn't set out to attend the Greater Chicago Food Depository's First Annual "Soup Off" and write a piece about it. No, indeed. I headed over to Custom House this snowy afternoon to enjoy a handful of soup samples by renowned Chicago chefs and support a good cause in the process.

But I was so overcome not just by the quality of the eight soups on offer, not just by the perfectly idyllic space Custom House provided for such an event, not just by the general good nature of the crowd, but also by the generous portions and the unmatched graciousness of chef/host Shawn McClain, that I felt compelled to put a few thoughts down on paper.

Soup Off--Bill KimFirst, to the soups. They ranged from an earthy tarragon lettuce with fennel crème fraiche (Kendall College) to a pungent, explosive pork belly broth with kim chee, rice cake, and hominy from Urban Belly's Bill Kim (which took 2nd place in the Editor's Choice competition). Also on hand were Carrie Nahabedian of Naha with a creamy squash bisque with lobster and wild mushrooms; the crew of Graham Elliot with a loaded potato soup; Boka's Giuseppe Tentori with a tender ravioli surrounded by velvety onion soup served from an institutional coffee dispenser; and Dean Zanella, former executive chef of 312 Chicago, with his roasted tomato soup with mussels, which took Editorial Best-in-Show.

But what I really want to talk about here is Shawn McClain, who opened not only his restaurant but his very kitchen, to provide the context (and arguably the culinary yardstick) for this event.

The natural flow of the space prompted most to hit the guest-chef stations first. This left McClain's station, in the Custom House kitchen, for last. It's always a treat for me--the granddaughter of a longstanding restaurant family--to penetrate the inner sanctum of a restaurant, particularly one where such care is taken with the food. So imagine my glee to find not one but two soups awaiting us at that final station--an exquisite eggplant with pancetta from Custom House, and a delicate lemon grass and coconut milk with dumpling from Spring--and McClain himself dishing them out. When I teased him about having a home-field advantage, he volleyed back with a joke about everyone needing to vote for him since we were all in his house.

But unlike another star chef I had the displeasure of encountering recently--a guy with a reputation of being a down-to-earth, renegade anti-chef, who made my dinner date and I feel like second-class citizens for the duration of our (very expensive) dinner at his place--McClain was warm, magnanimous, and downright humble. He welcomed each guest with a kind of Midwestern earnestness, and he never balked when the greedier among us asked for seconds. He took his honorable-mention and third-place editorial nods with aplomb and applauded heartily for Kim and Zanella's second and first place honors. And he's putting his money where his mouth is. For the entire month of March, he's established a special, three-course prix fixe menu, $4.00 of each sale of which will go to the Greater Chicago Food Depository.

Let's face it: McClain's stunning fare is exquisite and inventive, but it may not capture the foodie press or the popular imagination as much as our (no more deserving) molecular wunderkinds do of late.

Soup Off--McClainBut here's the thing. Sometimes you want the dangerous guy, the one who challenges you in ways you didn't think possible (and may not be sure you entirely enjoy), and says things like, "Listen, don't get too close; I may not be sticking around tomorrow." And sometimes, particularly in troubled times like these, you crave something with a little more depth and a little less tumult, the kind of guy who's going to hold you and tell you your time together meant the world to him. That's the kind of chef you find in McClain.

He's the kind of chef who helps you get through the February doldrums with a $5 cheeseburger special, but can also serve up a perfect arctic char toasted with sesame risotto, peekytoe crab, grilled scallions, and carrot emulsion. He offers an experience with fullness, a commitment to make your time in his house a decidedly memorable one (for both the brain and the palate). And beyond that, he's fighting the good fight: toward agricultural sustainability, and against hunger and poverty.

By the way, we learned that today's event, at just $15 a head, generated enough revenue to supply 4000 meals to the hungry. That's a comfort even greater than the soup.

- Guest Review by Christy Prahl

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John / March 2, 2009 11:20 AM

Such a gorgeously-written account of what sounds like an amazing and unique event... I love my city!

Chris LaMorte / March 2, 2009 12:48 PM


What a lovely piece on a great event -- and in the perfect snowy- day setting. I was so honored to be invited to be part of the judging panel -- and ranking these soups was no easy feat.

The fact that 4,000 meals will be served via the Greater Chicago Food Depository because of this event is the best part.

Chris LaMorte
UrbanDaddy Chicago

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Feature Thu Dec 31 2015

The State of Food Writing

By Brandy Gonsoulin

In 2009, food blogging, social media and Yelp were gaining popularity, and America's revered gastronomic magazine Gourmet shuttered after 68 years in business. Former Cook's Illustrated editor-in-chief Chris Kimball followed with an editorial, stating that "The shuttering of Gourmet reminds...
Read this feature »

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