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Robert St. John

Restaurateur, author, enthusiastic traveler, & world-class eater.

Professional Eating

May 8, 2012

CHICAGO— Every year more than 58,000 restaurateurs from all over the nation (and over 100 countries) descend on Chicago for three days in May. It’s Disneyland for chefs and operators.

I’ve been coming to the National Restaurant Association’s annual trade show in Chicago, almost every year, since 1991. It helps our company stay on top of what is going on in the restaurant industry. We discover new equipment, notice new trends, and find goods and services that help us run more efficiently and effectively.

A secondary benefit to show is the exposure it affords. I love Chicago, but I love Chicago’s restaurants even more.

When I travel with Purple Parrot Café general manager, Dusty Frierson, we have one mission— to eat. It’s a serious undertaking and one that an untrained novice might not be able to handle.

Two weeks ago in Houston, Frierson and I ate a three-course authentic Mexican breakfast followed by enchiladas at one place, fajitas at another, and then a bacchanalia that involved six food trucks within a two-block area. All of that eating occurred in a four-hour span.

Trips to major cities involve careful planning, preparation, and research. Frierson meticulously planned this three-day excursion to the Windy City with the attention and precision of a field general preparing for battle.

Purple Parrot Cafe Chef Jeremy Noffke, and our friend Jonathan joined us on the trip to Chicago. The eating prowess of Frierson has already been established. Noffke— one of the most naturally gifted and intuitive chefs I have ever known— is a skinny guy, but he has an unrivalled passion for fine dining. Our friend Jonathan is a salubrious eater who had been living on a steady diet of egg whites and plain white rice before this trip. Welcome to the big league, Jonathan.

On our first night in Chicago, we hit six places— three Michelin stars among them— eating full meals in three of them, in a compelling, foie gras and pork belly-filled seven-hour span.

The evening started at Carrie Nahabedian’s North Clark restaurant Naha. The service was outstanding, the appetizers were stellar, but the entrees left us a little unimpressed.

Before our early reservation at Naha, and as a last-minute addition to our dining schedule, I put our name on the waiting list at Frontera Grill across the street. I have often said that Rick Bayless knows more about Mexican cuisine than any chef in Mexico. He is one of the America’s most talented chefs and has a wall full of Beard awards and nominations to back up that statement. The waiting list was at the three-hour mark when I added our name. Before we left the list had grown to four hours.

Our next stop was Aviary, Grant Achatz’s cutting edge cocktail bar where the bartenders work their magic in a well-equipped space that looks more chemistry lab than back bar. There were immersion circulators running at full tilt in the back of the lab, and cocktails being smoke-infused inside of plastic bags in the front.

Maude’s Liquor Bar was like stepping into a Left Bank mainstay just off of the West Loop in Chicago. A second dinner at Blackbird proved that Paul Kahan hasn’t missed a beat since my first visit 10 years ago. Our friend Jonathan was ready to throw in the linen napkin after the Blackbird meal, but somehow gained his second wind and ventured on.

The visit of the night, and my new favorite restaurant in Chicago, was Top Chef winner and Beard nominee Stepanie Izard’s Girl & the Goat. Izard’s rustic room on West Randolph was loud and filled with more energy than any restaurant I’ve visited in years. The food was spot on, and Izard was working the pass well into the evening.

Girl & the Goat was so good, and so much fun, we returned twice on the same night. Our friend Jonathan made both trips.

The next day I ventured out after the trade show and grabbed a mid-afternoon seat at The Purple Pig. The packed-to-capacity Spanish influenced tribute to all things porcine was not on Frierson’s list, and halfway through my milk-braised pork shoulder and house-cured Iberico lardo I texted him and recommended he and Noffke stop in on their way back to the hotel.

Across town, our friend Jonathan was polishing off an entire deep-dish pizza (and no, it wasn’t of the egg white and rice variety) by himself. He was catching on. A lengthy trip to Big Star and a dinner at Michelin-starred Sepia rounded out the second day for me, as I threw in the linen napkin early on this night as the other three headed to Maria’s.

Two days down, one day to go. I am trying to figure out how to squeeze in return trips to The Purple Pig, Girl & the Goat, Publican Quality Meats, and Big Star while still visiting the remaining places on the list. Plain white rice is not on the menu and there’s not an egg white in sight. Jonathan might never be the same.

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