Category Archives: fine dining

Moscato d’Asti will open your eyes

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Surprise: Moscato d’Asti from Italy’s Piedmont region is worlds away from what “moscato” meant to most American 20 years ago – which was generally an over-sweet wine without the balance of appropriate acidity. Just plain cloying to drink.
There are versions of Moscato being made in Sicily and other parts of Italy, but the magic of Moscato d’Asti comes from the strict regulations of the DOCG designation. No extra sugar can be added, for example. And fermentation must be natural, not from injected gas. Because standards are so strict, every year is declared a vintage.
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Today 4000 companies in Piedmont grow grapes on 27,000 acres of mostly hillsides to create the light, low-alcohol, floral white naturally sweet wine with a touch of bubbles. The natural fermentation sets it apart from the simplicity of Prosecco, which bears no comparison to the complexity of this Moscato d’Asti. Some say this Moscato has similarities to complex yet lightly sweet German wines like Riesling and Gewurtztraminer.
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Generally considered a fresh wine, you won’t find many older vintages of Moscato d’Asti. Though you might find a bottle here and there that has stood the test of time for a few years, up to 5 or so. Part of the reason for the freshness is that producers don’t bottle the wine until it’s been ordered. They actually use fine-tuned technology to maintain the fresh, non-alcoholic juice at 2 degrees below zero Celsius until it’s time to bottle. Once an order is placed,  winemakers gradually raise the temperature of the juice until fermentation sets in, then watch it carefully until the perlage – bubbles – are just right for the maker’s vision.
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Climate change is affecting how the Piedmont Moscato winemakers do their work. They are having to pick earlier and anticipate in the near future having to grow their grapes almost exclusively on the hillsides where it’s cooler than in the valley, has more light and cooler nights.
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Most of these winemakers suggest enjoying their wines as apertif or even as a midday refreshment. Remember the study that said office workers who consumed a glass of wine at lunch tended to perform better, come up with more creative solutions, and generally be in better moods? It’s true, people. Come on, live a little!
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Here are a few wines that struck a chord at this event:
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Saracco Moscato d’Asti DOP 2016. Surprisingly delicate, complex and slightly fizzy rather than bubbly. Fun to drink with dessert or alone, as a pleasant mid-day break. Remember – delicate bubbles, low alcohol (generally only 5%) and extremely aromatic. A treat.
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Coppo Moncalvino Moscato d’Asti DOCG 2016. Moscato represents one of the most important indigenous grapes to the Piedmont region. And Moscato d’Asti has higher acidity – to balance the natural sweetness – than almost any other sweet wine, which keeps the flavors interesting and complex. This particular wine is fresh and aromatic with floral notes and peach and pear overtones.
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Marenco Vini Scrapona Moscato d’Asti DOCG 2016. This wine has a heady combination of aromas – almost reminiscent of musk oil – that translate into a deliciously rich flavor. The winemaker said, “We are all about preserving the distinctive aromas of the Moscato grape.” One part of achieving that goal is to allow no irrigation; the wines are made with whatever moisture nature provides. This particular wine is substantial enough to pair well with a wide variety of foods: from tempura and spicy foods, to light cheeses, to desserts and fruits of multiple varieties.
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Vignaioli di Santo Stefano Moscato d’Asti DOCG 2016. A bouquet of elder flowers, lime and peach. A little sweeter than the others with a delicate rather than a bold aroma. Suggestions to pair: sweets, cakes and ice creams plus some cheese or fruits like figs or melons.
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La Caudrina Moscato d’Asti DOCG 2016. Aromatic with a delicate flower scent, sweet yet lightly acidic. Perfect for dessert, with dry bakery such as Panettone (a fruity bread) or Easter Coloma. Refreshing anytime as a low-alcohol option. Only 5% alcohol. Lively and pleasant.
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Armand de Brignac’s Emilien Boutillat intros new champagne at Boka

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Armand de Brignac occupies a premier position among the many prestigious makers of French champagne. Owner Shawn Carter and Winemakers Alex and Jean-Jacques Cattier, freely admit their goal is simply to make the finest champagnes in the world, designed specifically with the luxury wine collector/investor in mind.
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Armand de Brignac champagne line
Armand de Brignac champagne line

Winemaker Emilien Boutillat came to Chicago recently to introduce Armand de Brignac’s newest product, Blanc de Noirs Assemblage Two, made exclusively with Pinot Noir grapes. They also asked Chef Lee Wolen at Boka to create pairings for the new blend and several other offerings with a view to educating members of the trade and press about their line of fine champagnes.

Armand de Brignac brut rosé
Armand de Brignac brut rosé

All of Armand de Brignac’s offerings are non-vintage, said Boutillat, but rather are created as blends, often from three different vintage years. For the rosé champagne, they actually use a blend of white and red wines that yields an orangey-rose color with a very fine bubble that makes a delightful aperitif.

The blanc de blancs stood out strong and smooth and full of character, which may be why the first course paired it with an unusual fish called Striped Jack – also known as Shima Aji, categorized in the Jackfish family. Served with a bit of seaweed and potato and flavored with lime, this dish was the least favorite dish I’ve ever had at Boka. The champagne, nevertheless, was delicious and stood up well to the somewhat strong taste and very firm texture of the fish.
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Crispy skinned chicken breast with Gold Brut
Crispy skinned chicken breast with Gold Brut

The next champagne, Armand de Brignac’s Champagne Gold Brut – its flagship wine – was extraordinarily delicate and so beautifully blended that it felt almost ethereal on the nose and palate and in the mouth. It made a perfect accompaniment to the Chef’s incredibly moist-fleshed chicken breast,  stuffed under the crispy skin with house-made chicken-leg-meat sausage. Served with a small pouf of super-fine puree of parsnips, the serving was generous, the dish attractive and satisfying, and the wine a lovely accompaniment.

Lamb tender with apricot sauce served with newest Armand de Brignac champagne
Lamb tender with apricot sauce served with newest Armand de Brignac champagne

The next wine, of which Armand de Brignac has only made 2333 bottles, was a truly unique taste in champagne. If felt a bit strange at first on the palate, until I tasted it with the imaginative creation of a tiny piece of lamb tenderloin beside a dollop of creamy, thick apricot sauce. The combination was directly on the money. In fact, I’ve never experienced such a strong feeling of “Oh, yeah, these work perfectly together!” as I did with this pairing. This particular wine, said Boutillat, is made with a blend from harvests of 2008, 2009 and 2010.

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Elegant atmosphere and luxurious champagnes at Boka
Elegant atmosphere and luxurious champagnes at Boka

Dessert, an extraordinarily light combination of coconut and citrus and exotic tropical passionfruit with tapioca and elderflower, was perfectly paired with the world’s only semi-sweet champagne – Armand de Brignac took the plunge some years ago to create its own demi sec champagne, a task no other luxury champagne company has ever undertaken. By all accounts, and by the taste that so complemented this dessert, they are succeeding admirably.

Boutillat, the 30-year-old winemaker who has been with Armand de Brignac for four years, came around to answer questions about the various wines and tell stories about his experiences around the world before settling down with this high-profile family-owned and -operated winery. His experience is multinational and his passion quite obvious. When asked about his comparative youth, Boutillat explained that senior owner Jean-Jacques Cattier likes to hire young people for the energy and the imagination they bring to further inspire the making of their great champagnes. Judging by the lovely champagnes at this event, luxury collectors everywhere can rejoice.
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Bordeaux wines galore – and at RPM wine dinner

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Last week was a great time for Bordeaux in Chicago. Dozens of winemakers and representatives from dozens of appellations in the Bordeaux, France wine region converged in one of the ballrooms at the elegant historic Drake Hotel to introduce their mainly 2014 vintages to press, trade and the public. Visitors walked around tasting while, behind the tables, reps from members of the Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux gave out pour after pour of mostly red blends, plus a few whites and Sauternes for good measure. As you read my recommendations, keep in mind I’m partial to big, dry, complex reds.

A few of my favorites came from a region I hadn’t previously been very familiar with, Saint-Estephe, and included all four of the wineries present from there (check links for wine notes and prices): Château Ormes de Pez 2014, Château Cos Labory 2014, Château Phelan Segur 2014, and especially Château Lafon-Rochet 2014.

Others that I gave highest marks to were from among the Grand Crus de St. Emilion and included Château Beau-Séjour Bécot 2014, Château Canon-La-Gaffelière 2014, Château Grand Mayne 2014, and Château Villemaurine 2014. Really beautiful wines.

I was also impressed with some from the Pomerol appellation of Bordeaux. Check out Château Beauregard 2014, Château Clinet 2014 and Château La Cabanne 2014. Two notables from the Pessac-Leognan appellation were Chateau Olivier and Chateau Smith Haut Lafitte, each of which presented both a white and a red.

And later that evening, a fine wine dinner at RPM Steak House featured 5 lovely wines from the Pouillac appellation in Bordeaux – food and drink to set the imagination afire. Amuse bouches were tiny and flavorful, including oysters with mignonette. The appetizer course was a generous-sized disk of Hamachi, studded with caviar and surrounded by a warm, slightly sweet yuzu emulsion. First course was an outstanding Pepper-Crusted Tuna Belly – one piece of which was prepared confit (NUM!) and the other ahi-style, both served with a spoonful of sturdy mushroom Bearnaise. Utterly succulent and delicious and perfect with a Bordeaux blend, Les Tourelle de Longueville, Pauillac 2011.

Next came Prime Dry Aged Beef – two small pieces of beef aged 90 days and two aged for 9 days. Both were spectacular and were served with two vintages of Chateau Pichon Longueville Baron Pauillac, one from 1990 and one from 2009. Lovely, rich reds.

Then came, not one but two desserts, both outstanding. One, poached apricots served in a warm almond custard that was to die for (I am wild about anything custard), and then a Sticky Toffee Pudding with rum raisin ice cream, both served with Chateau de Suduiraut Sauternes, one from 2004 and the other from 1975. Beautiful, beautiful. Thank you, RPM and thank you, makers of Bordeaux wines par excellence. (And thanks to Elizabeth for some nice shots!)
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Knife Chicago brings food and cocktails to an exciting new edge

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Knife's deeply rich lobster bisque
Knife’s deeply rich lobster bisque

At the new Knife restaurant, 4343 N. Lincoln Ave., Chef Tim Cottini is bringing the Chicago steakhouse concept to a new edge with totally re-imagined dishes that incorporate farm-to-table freshness in meats, seafood and vegetables. Love their Lobster Bisque! Read more details and preview the menu here.

But Knife doesn’t stop at the food. Also not to be missed are the ethereally creative cocktails designed and named by Knife mixologist Anthony Muenger and served with flair, along with a generous supply of his entertaining personal stories and light-hearted humor. So, first, come in for a visit and sit at the bar. Revel in the feel of a unique, sensually rounded-on-all-edges marble bar top, shaped like a giant italicized “L” and set an an angle to the handsome bar wall. Let your eyes wander from the blood-red accent wall to the details of the smoothly swirled wall adjoining it. Makes you feel bathed in color and texture.

Looking to create a downtown feel in Chicago’s Northcenter neighborhood, Knife will offer many Wine Enthusiast-recommended wines as well as a collection of unique and fantastically named cocktails (derived, says Mixologist Muenger, from terms in the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows). Ask him to show you how he uses a port hole infuser to soak various fruits in a lavender-infused German rye whiskey. The resulting cocktail, called Enouement, matures and changes as you pour from the infuser throughout your dinner, eventually transforming itself towards the end of the meal into an amari-type digestif.

Muenger says Chef Cottini accepted the offer of the whiskey people’s barrels to age Knife’s own steak sauce in – so look for that unique treat with your bone-in ribeye. Another of his unique cocktails is his sour-style version of Clover Club, served with a bit of raspberry and Roobios tea. The Ellipism cocktail has tiny house-made spheres of Remy Martin VSOP cognac floating in a delicious mix of house-made orange liqueur, lemon and bitters. $13.

In short, Knife is a hot new contemporary seafood and steakhouse where you can celebrate with unique food and drink in Chicago. Whether it’s a special occasion – or just Wednesday night – you’re bound to find something to delight your tastebuds.
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Folio Fine Wine Partners bring luxury wines to Chicago

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Swift and Sons beautiful private dining area
Swift and Sons beautiful private dining area

Folio Fine Wine Partners chose a perfect setting – a private dining area of the elegant Swift & Sons restaurant, 1000 W. Fulton in West Loop – to showcase a series of equally elegant luxury wines by Luce della Vite from Italy’s Montalcino region. ‘Midst a forest of sparkling glasses filled with several iterations of one of Luce’s finest wines, attendees did a vertical tasting as representatives from Luce della Vite told the story of how the label – a stylized emblem representing the sun – came to be chosen as a symbol of the winemakers’ passionate commitment to quality.

Wines on offer for tasting afterwards included many from the Folio Fine Wine Partners portfolios. To name just a few: AttemsBruno GiacosoCoppo (our review of 3 of their red wines), Danzante, Donnafugata, Luce della Vite, Frescobaldi, Masseto, Ornellaia, Villa Sandi, Fillaboa, Palacios/Remondo, and Vall Llach.
The Mondavi family established Folio Fine Wine Partners in 2004 with the goal of bringing exceptional and distinctive wines to American consumers. Today they act as importers, fine wine agents and as producers of quality wines. They manage a diverse portfolio that spans six countries, three continents, and every premium price point. They work with other family wineries who share their passion for making great wine.

Wine has been the Mondavi family business for four generations. It began with Cesare Mondavi, an Italian immigrant who established a grape growing business in Lodi, California during Prohibition. They put down roots in Napa Valley starting in 1943 when they purchased the historic Charles Krug winery. Cesare’s son Robert later started his own winery with Michael, his eldest son. Rober Mondavi Winery helped establish California as the premier wine-growing region it is today. And now the legacy continues with Folio Fine Wine Partners.

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Everest celebrates Shakespeare with prix fixe pre-theatre menu

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Chicago’s beloved Joffrey Ballet is putting on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet at The Auditorium Theatre, October 13 through October 23. So Chef/Proprietor J. Joho (bio) of Everest Chicago, 440 S. LaSalle St., has imagined a Shakespeare-inspired pre-theatre menu worthy of Julius Caesar and reflecting the cooking trends popular in Rome in the time of Apicius. And you will love the views!

Prepare to be charmed and delighted first by Everest’s regular amuse bouche – a trio of delicious bites that on opening night consisted of a tiny pewter cauldron of artichoke soup with basil oil, a refreshing emulsion of yellow pepper with cucumber gelee served in a spoon, and a small marinated scallop topped with a dab of American roe. Especially flavorful, all.

Next, a server – many servers played a role in making the evening as pleasant as possible – brought a tray of breads around, and we were invited to pick slices of the types we liked. Given that in our house, bread is a treat reserved for eating out, we picked more than one to try. And were delighted to see the silver salver brought to the table with a sizable and seriously thick slab of cold butter – oh, the joy. It looked like there was room underneath to put ice chips to keep the butter cold. We could not have been happier, until we put some on and bit into the bread. The weight and texture and flavor were so satisfying that we could easily have made that into a full meal at some other time. Absolutely delicious. Hard to stop eating.

But we had to stop with the bread eventually so we could enjoy the rest of the Shakespeare Menu. First course, Great Lakes wild whitefish, braised in garum and lovage, was a creamy yet flaky fish, cooked just right and served on a bed of tender, meat-broth-infused lentils. An unusual combination that worked well.
Second came an au naturel capon fricassée with Roman herb seasoning, served with chickpea panisse and sautéed romaine. The chicken was intensely flavored and the sauce had a slight hint of what we thought might be vinegar and/or pickling spices. Light and tasty poured over the chicken and the romaine. The panisse was creamy inside and very slightly crisp on the outside and made a nice neutral accompaniment to the richly flavored capon.

Fromage Blanc Bamboloni “Roman Beignet” served with a compote of dried fall fruit and pistachio and a touch of honey. The deep-fried spheres of dough were crispy outside and tender inside, and the delicate cream on the side had barely a hint of sweetness.

Optional wine pairings ($29) coordinated nicely with each dish. The sommelier chose the following for the fish, Château Villa Bel-Air, Sauvignon Blanc, Graves  2014 ~ Bordeaux, France; 2) Lemelson “Six Vineyards” and for the capon, Pinot Noir  2013 ~ Willamette Valley, Oregon.
Make your reservation between 5 and 5:30 p.m. and enjoy the unique prix fixe three-course menu with complimentary parking for the evening. Your server will make sure you are on time for the performance! Call 312-663-8920 or visit www.everestrestaurant.com for more information.
 
  • What: Shakespeare 400 Chicago: Culinary Complete Works – Pre-Theatre Menu
  • Where: Everest, 440 S. LaSalle St.
  • When: October 13-23, 2016
  • Who: You and Chef/proprietor J. Joho and members of the professional staff at Everest
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Good value rich red wine – Vin de Pays du Vaucluse 2014

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Français : Vin de Pays du Vaucluse (France)
Français : Vin de Pays du Vaucluse (France) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It comes from Domaine de Fanouillet and it’s just delicious. It surprises your nose and mouth with “aromas …redolent of wild flowers, strawberry jam, clove and slate.” says VinChicago. “The palate echoes these notes and continues on with more robust elements of leather, pine needles, white pepper, spice box and with supple tannins, bright acidity and a wisp of smoke.” But don’t worry, even if you can’t “get” all those tastes, you’re probably going to love this wine.

And at only $10.99 a bottle, Vin de Pays du Vaucluse 2014 is a big value. Honestly, I can’t remember the last time I enjoyed a red wine so much for so reasonable a price. Anyone who loves dry, medium-body red wines with their food – whether it’s a burger, a ragout, or a piece of sturdy fish – will be very pleased with this French red blend wine.  And the quality is such that you can be very proud to bring it as a host/hostess gift. Check it out on VinChicago’s website.

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Eat haute and help inspire new chefs – Charlie Trotter Project

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Chicago always inspires
Chicago always inspires

Eat at a gourmet restaurant any day between today, Thursday August 17 and Sunday August 21, select a Charlie-Trotter-inspired menu item, and know that proceeds will benefit the Pillars of Excellence Mentor Program of The Trotter Project, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that seeks to inspire, train, and provide opportunities for aspiring chefs and hospitality professionals.

Special thanks to United Airlines, the official airline partner of The Trotter Project that will donate $1 for every Choice Menu Bistro on Board item sold on all domestic flights, August 17-21, 2016.

Stay up to date with menus and new restaurant additions to Charlie Trotter Day: follow @TrotterProject on Twitter and @TheTrotterProject on Instagram, LIKE us on Facebook, and join the conversation with #CharlieTrotterDay. And go visit one of these fine restaurants in the city:

  • A10
  • Acadia
  • Ampersand Wine Bar
  • Appellation Wine Bar & Restaurant
  • Balena
  • bellyQ
  • Swift and Sons beautiful private dining area
    Swift and Sons beautiful private dining area

    Brindille

  • The Bristol
  • Formento’s
  • Goddess and the Baker
  • GreenRiver
  • GT Fish & Oyster
  • Intro
  • The Lobby at The Peninsula Chicago
  • mfk
  • MK the Restaurant
  • Naha
  • Salero
  • Swift & Sons
  • Taus Authentic
  • Yusho Hyde Park
  • Yusho Logan Square
    * All restaurants are in Chicago
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Chicago meets Mullan Road Cellars at Swift and Sons

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Dennis Cakebread for Mullan Road Cellars
Dennis Cakebread for Mullan Road Cellars

It’s unusual to find a winemaker – someone whose name is already associated with a justly famous brand – setting out to create another completely different brand. But Dennis Cakebread, long associated with his namesake wine brand Cakebread Cellars, came to Chicago recently to introduce and promote his new wine brand, Mullan Road Cellars out of the Columbia Valley, WA area.

Dennis undertook to showcase his new products at hot new restaurant location, Swift and Sons, 1000 W. Fulton Market in West Loop. This Boka Group affiliate undertook to open for lunch – they don’t usually – to help Dennis Cakebread showcase his new wines along with a few from Cakebread. Dennis takes a warm and folksy approach to touting his products; it was a pleasure hearing his stories about the winemaking life.
The Cakebread Chardonnay a 2014, a 4-star beauty, went perfectly with the butter-poached king crab leg set off with a dribble of miso sauce and a slice of preserved lemon.
Then came a couple of slices of roast chicken – gorgeously succulent and tender – with succotash and bacon lardons, served with an extraordinarily lovely Pinot Noir from Cakebread. We give a rare 5-star rating to this Two Creeks Pinot Noir 2014. The wine is available retail at around $40 and, for the times you choose to spend that much for a bottle of wine, this would be a great one to invest in.
Mullan Road Cellars red blends 2012 and 2013
Mullan Road Cellars red blends 2012 and 2013

Next, a narrow but thick slice of medium-rare, firm-textured rib roast came out accompanied by chanterelle mushrooms in a bordelaise sauce. For this course Dennis presented two Mullan Road Cellars reds blends, from 2012 and 2013. Their typical  blend is composed of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc.  The 2012 was delightful; Wine Spectator gives it 90. The 2013 tasted somewhat tart at first, but smoothed out after it breathed for a while. It’s certainly a wine worth watching. Both vintages are on the market at a retail price of around $45, give or take.

Those who stayed to sample the Blackbottom Pudding dessert – multiple layers of black cocoa crumble, baked dark chocolate mousse, milk chocolate pudding and white chocolate sorbet – raved about it afterwards. From the description, that dessert alone sounds like enough incentive for another trip to Swift & Sons.
Mullan Road Cellars’ biggest distribution for export so far is in Canada, with the Caribean second in line, then Korea, Japan and Hong Kong. Look for more from this brand. And Swift and Sons did a stellar job with the pairings to create a memorable occasion.
Swift and Sons beautiful private dining area
Swift and Sons beautiful private dining area

P.S. Might want to try the bar, too. Cold Storage, attached to the Swift and Sons’ space, offers appetizers, entrees, and a nice-looking seafood station along with a full bar.

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Remembering James Beard – and welcoming JBFoundation awards to Chicago this year!

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English: A cranberry jello salad made in a rin...
English: A cranberry jello salad made in a ring mold. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I first heard about James Beard back in the 70s when I was just beginning to feel like a serious cook. I spent a lot of time reading cookbooks and a significant amount of time making recipes that sounded delectable—and doable without too many single-purpose pieces of equipment or exotic ingredients. He was one of my original inspirations—as he was to the entire nation of U.S. cooks back then who’d been raised on Jello salads and heavily mayonnaised vegetable and/or fruit combinations. The man even inspired my ultimate hero, Julia Child.

Then I had a chance to see the guy in person. He was a huge man—I think something near 300 pounds. But then, Beard was born a huge baby—some say 13 or 14 pounds, so he came by it honestly as well as by indulging his passions for food. The day I saw him he was making – I will never forget it – a Swiss Cheese Salad. As if cheese isn’t salty and fatty enough, I thought, he’s going to put dressing on it! I think there were some chopped green onions and a few other things in there and some Dijon mustard in the dressing, but I don’t recall any greens in the ingredients. Yes, it was a salad made almost exclusively of shredded cheese—top quality, of course. Gruyere, no doubt. Take out the greens and this is somewhat like the recipe as I remember it.

I was impressed by his flavor-is-everything-and-devil-take-the-consequences attitude towards fat in recipes—this at a time when fat was just beginning to be vilified as the culprit in America’s obesity epidemic. Nowadays, fat versus sugar is the debate that continues to spark hot contests.

Chef Beard was also the guy who gave me my forever-remembered proportions for homemade vinaigrette—one and a half tablespoons of wine vinegar to six tablespoons of olive oil. The memory of seeing him that day is still precious. I can’t imagine how thrilled I’d have been to see Julia Child in person. But at least I got—and still get—to admire her from afar via her many television appearances.

And now I’m thrilled for another reason. I’m proud that the James Beard Foundation, founded to honor that amazing guy, is holding its prestigious JBF 2015 awards ceremony for the first time in Chicago!! Monday, May 4 at Lyric Opera, both the Chicago and the national winners will be celebrated at a grand party.

Read more and find insights on food at the James Beard Foundation’s blog Delights & Prejudices.

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