When my son was here from Budapest in September he said something that got me thinking. He said the most important thing he thought I did for my restaurant business was writing my column. Now I have no column to write but I am going to make up for it by keeping this blog.
I have known that I was going to start writing again because I have begun writing in my head. In his movie about a comedy trip to the Arab world, Albert Brooks says that Leo Tolstoy thought about War and Peace for a dozen years and then wrote it in two weeks. Well, maybe, but he is stating something about the writing process.
I am backing my van into the International Produce Mart in Chicago when this first occurs to me. I am at Cornille to pick up produce, part of my twice a week buying trips in Chicago. I first started buying produce from Tom Cornille almost twenty years ago when he was located in the old “Water Street Market” which wasn’t really on Water Street anymore but they kept the name when they moved it the first time.
I had driven in there with Tricia Davey, my girlfriend at the time, to see about being able to buy at the market. We got there kind of late, almost as they were closing. It was right around lunch time. After wandering around the market a little we kind of settled in on one store in particular, Cornille and Sons produce.
We were greeted cordially and shown around but the one thing that sticks in my mind to this day was Tom running up to us as we were closing the door with a jar of garlic in his hand, peeled garlic, and saying that his was just one thing they carried that would help us do our job better and easier.
I became a regular at Cornille. In the old days I used to have the run of the place with full elevator privileges. I would wander around and pick out the things I wanted and then one of the clerks would write me up. In the early days when I was lucky, it was Hank, Tom’s dad who worked into his eighties. Even then he would add the long columns of figures in his head when making out your ticket. He never added incorrectly. It was amazing.
The second page of Charlie Trotter’s book on vegetables is a picture of Tom’s old location. Shot from above it shows Benny sitting at that old desk that some of the best produce people in the market have at one time sat behind. Tom was named one of the top twelve people in Chicago food in a feature article in the Tribune. Tom was the first person to source unique Mexican product for Rick Bayless. When Emeril Lagasse came to Chicago he paid a special visit to Cornille Produce.
Today he is just Tom and he is glad to see me. Not very long ago he told me that he had a discussion about me being one of their favorite customers with his sons Dale and Tommy. I always say you can measure people by their kids and he has great kids. Their sister, Renee, takes my check as usual and then I hang out for a few minutes to give the boys time to load my van.
While I am waiting, Tom and I shoot the breeze. I don’t know exactly why, oh yes I do, it was because Jean Banchet the owner of Le Francais in Wheeling, Ill had died. Tom was saying that with the death of Charlie Trotter, the two people who did the most to create the Chicago restaurant scene had passed on, that most of the people who are in the Chicago restaurant business today stem from these two people.
I point out that Grant Aschatz (Owner/chef of Alinea, a Chicago restaurant reputed to be one of the best restaurants in the country) is a derivative of Thomas Keller, but that I don’t like that type of supposed “cooking”. I call it culinary erections. It reminds me of a bunch of kids making up something in the kitchen with absolutely no form or direction. Tom says that when Renee (Tom’s daughter) was at the French Laundry, Keller said that he couldn’t eat that kind of food every day and so he built a restaurant down the street where he could eat. (I think the name of that restaurant is Ad Hoc, they have fried chicken on the menu.)
From there we move on to a discussion of styles. I tell Tom that my thinking comes out of Alice Waters and the California restaurant local product movement but that this is not California and that is why I decided to base my food on the Chicago Market. I point out that if you are not rich, you can go to Alice Water’s Chez Panisse ten times for what one dinner at the French Laundry would cost you and that I think affordability is important. I prefer to source the absolutely best product no matter where it comes from. A market allows you to do this, especially in the Midwest, with our winters.
It comes down to; do you want to eat asparagus in the winter? (Especially the wonderful asparagus that grows in the mountains of Peru, I buy a case of that from Tom every week.) It would get pretty boring eating in the winter, in the Midwest, without transportation. And it comes down to, are you hungry? The amount of food on the plate in most of these fine dining restaurants leaves one unfulfilled. Three or four hundred dollars for dinner and you have to stop for a cheeseburger before going home. I’ve done that. Luckily I wasn’t at the French Laundry; it would have cost me more.
While we are talking, the boys have loaded my van and I pull out to go to the new home of Amity Packing. I will write about that in a future installment.