Whether it’s because of his tough judging on Iron Chef America, his polarizing picks as restaurant editor of Bon Appétit, or the fact that he’s kind of a good-looking dude, Andrew Knowlton catches a lot of flack from the food-loving public. He even caught flack from Boulder, Colorado residents after he bestowed upon their city BA’s “foodiest city” honor—one Westword commenter called him, “a first-class jackass, pompous, entitled, and self-important.” As far as Chicago goes, though, Knowlton’s been nothing but complimentary, championing restaurants ranging from Roseland’s Old Fashioned Donuts to the Near North Side’s charcuterie den The Purple Pig. The A.V. Club cornered the professional critic while he was in town for Chicago Gourmet and forced him to dish about his preference for Franks ’n’ Dawgs over Hot Doug’s, Grant Achatz, and why tongue’s always in season.
A.V. Club: What’s your take on the current state of Chicago food?
Andrew Knowlton: I think Chicago, more than any other American city, has benefitted from the whole “food movement.” New York has always been New York, San Francisco has always been San Francisco; but this whole enlightenment that we’ve all had about food, where food comes from, and how important chefs are, Chicago has benefited the most from that. Part of that is how [Rick] Bayless and [Charlie] Trotter are leading the way and opening their kitchens to talented young chefs. Then those chefs go out and open their own places. You also have the next generation of people, like Paul Kahan, who I think, if there’s anyone deserving of that hype, it’s his restaurant group.
AVC: Yeah, they do great work.
AK: They do great work from top to bottom. I went to Big Star last night, and that place could have been a complete shit show, and it teeters on being a shit show, but it’s run like a four-star restaurant. You don’t see it, but there’s always somebody watching.
AVC: Big Star’s a good example of the resurgence of “quick food” here in Chicago.
AK: Chicago has definitely benefited that way, like returning to those American classics, whether it’s hot dogs or hamburgers. I do think Chicago, as great as it is, like any city, has a little bit to learn. The one thing I think is wonderful about Chicago is that the chefs who are in Chicago stay in Chicago. They all support each other and seem very proud, whereas New York, you get a lot of people coming from outside who want to open there. Chicago seems more of “born and bred” restaurateurs. Grant [Achatz] has brought amazing things to this town—maybe not the volume of people coming into other restaurant cities, but he’s brought eyeballs, and it has allowed other people to do other things. It brings national attention to a city which was cliché, cliché, cliché, a meat-and-potatoes town, and that’s changed. I’ve also always known Chicago for its Mexican food because we have the worst Mexican food in New York City.
AVC: New York absolutely does have the worst Mexican food.
AK: The worst! And here, it’s a breath of fresh air when you come. Last time I was here I went somewhere in Pilsen that does goat tacos, and it was amazing. [It was probably Birreria Reyes de Ocotlan —ed.]
AVC: Big Star had incredible lamb tacos until recently.
AK: They didn’t have them last night.
AVC: I know. They were so great and they took them off the menu and replaced them with chicken.
AK: They didn’t have tongue last night either. When I first went there, they were doing some other stuff. Are they trying to do something different?
AVC: I don’t know because they introduced that Sonoran hot dog and everything.
AK: To appeal to the masses?
AVC: Or maybe they’re trying to be seasonal.
AK: Tongue is always in season!
AVC: You were at the Hamburger Hop too, right? Did you have anything you thought was especially good?
AK: I’m more of a California-style burger guy, so I like a griddled patty that’s thin, not a really thick burger. I’m partial to the Edzo’s burger in Evanston and [Eddie Lakin] was there last night. I’m a huge fan of his burgers, so I thought that one was good. I had Stephanie’s [Izard] lamb burger. That was good. It was 40 percent lamb, and I think she did 30 percent beef and then 30 percent pork fat, so I was like, “Oh, that’s why that tastes so good.”
AVC: Have you been to Schwa?
AK: I went to Schwa before [Michael Carlson] reopened it. He’s a crazy man and he knows he’s a crazy man, and I love him for being a crazy man. I think that and Alinea, for those kinds of dinners—you need restaurants like that in a town because it balances everything out. But I think, when I come here, what Chicago does best is casual gastropub-type stuff. I like going to The Bristol or Longman & Eagle. I had a great meal at Nightwood when I was here, and then doing it dirty and going to, well, I’m partial to Franks ’n’ Dawgs. I like Hot Doug’s, don’t get me wrong, and I know those are fighting words, but I think [Frank Brunacci] does some pretty inventive stuff at Franks ’n’ Dawgs. I had a lamb dog there, speaking of lamb, which is amazing. When I visit a city, I do go to L2O and those higher-end places, but what I get off on is, well, I want to go where regular people go.
AVC: It does seem like when people go to Alinea, they only go once.
AK: You go to L2O and it’s like you’re surrounded. [Laurent Gras] is a magician with food, but I’d rather go places like Kuma’s Corner.
AVC: If you can get in to Kuma’s Corner.
AK: I left that place not being able to hear anything. I had the Iron Maiden burger.
AVC: How much do you think Chicago benefits from its location? Like being close to farms, having all this meat, and a lot of green chefs?
AK: A restaurant town is only as good as its farms. Chicago has benefited from the whole pork boom because, being in the Midwest, there are so many great pork farmers. A lot of people think there’s not a long growing season here, but there is. The tomatoes that I saw at the Green City Market even this late were amazing, and obviously the apples and all that.
AVC: As the Bon Appétit restaurant editor, are you just on the road all the time?
AK: I have a 2-year-old daughter, so I’m only on the road maybe two weeks a month now.
AVC: How often are you actually in Chicago?
AK: Starting now and going back to 2009, I’ve been here four times.
AVC: That’s not bad.
AK: I try to go quarterly. That’s enough time to check out new stuff and if there’s anything that has popped up. The hardest thing for me is that I get to go to these places, but it’s just too much sometimes in the time allotted. When I was here for our Cheap Eats story, which was a small story, I was only here for three days. I came with a buddy, and in those three days, we ate at 22 places. I had a Kuma’s Corner burger and then we got in a cab and went to Evanston and went to Edzo’s. When you start at Bon Appétit, they give you a branded stomach pump for when you go back to the hotel. No, I’m kidding.
AVC: You must have needed one last night after all those burgers.
AK: Did you agree with the winners?
AVC: I really liked the Sola one, personally. The NoMI was pretty good too, though.
AK: Who was the audience winner?
AVC: The Four Seasons. It had lobster on it, and they had milkshakes.
AK: That doesn’t count! That doesn’t count! That one would have been immediately disqualified in my book. It’s like, if you put magic mushrooms in a burger, it doesn’t count! Disqualified.
AVC: Do you think Chicago’s food scene is deserving of the hype it’s getting?
AK: I think Chicago is without a doubt in the top five. That being New York, San Francisco, Portland… I’ll put New Orleans on there just for very sentimental reasons, and then Los Angeles.
AVC: And then Chicago?
AK: No! It’s in the top five! I think if you want to see the future of food, you come to Chicago. But also at that same token, if you want to eat hot dogs and you want duck-fat french fries, you come here. If you want good burgers, you come here.
AVC: I think there’s something to be said with it being in the Midwest, like the food is very Midwestern.
AK: It is. Do you know David Tamarkin from Time Out? He wrote some article about The Girl and The Goat about this theory he has, CCC, which I thought was interesting. What he was talking about is not unique to Chicago, though. It’s the whole United States, and that’s part of what’s going on with food right now, but I think it’s changing. Here, people are getting more brave and the biggest part of it is that the consumer is changing. That’s the biggest problem with introducing new foods—consumers. I mean, chefs will eat anything.
AVC: You can’t put veal heart on the menu if it’s not going to sell.
AK: And of course Bon Appétit doesn’t dabble in veal heart too much either. I think what we’re trying to do is be that kind of first wave where they discover stuff. I think it can only get better and more adventurous and different because it’s the year of pork still. Pork is delicious, but how many pork bellies can you eat?
AVC: What would your absolute death row last meal be? It doesn’t have to be in Chicago. It can be anywhere.
AK: I’m from the South, so to me it would be pimento cheese. I love fried chicken. A margarita would definitely be in that mix with fried chicken. But to name one restaurant, I could never do that. But that is what I grew up on: boiled peanuts, pimento cheese, fried chicken or fried quail, collard greens, and a biscuit with honey.
AVC: Chicago is getting a ton of Southern restaurants lately, just like a ton of barbecue. Some of them are better than others, of course.
AK: I think it’s interesting what’s happening with Southern food. Like what we were talking about, that casualization of American dining, but I think you’re going to see it turn a little bit more. I’m interested to see what Grant [Achatz] is going to do at Next. I think we’re going to see a return of smaller portions, just more refined food, because chefs didn’t go into business to make hamburgers for their whole life. They just didn’t.
AVC: For me, I would rather go to a Longman & Eagle than to Alinea.
AK: It’s more of an exercise of the head when you go to those kinds of places than of the belly, and that’s fine. You need those people pushing the boundaries of food, but at the end of the day, you want french fries and a hot dog. But what I think Grant [Achatz] is smart in doing is that whole ticket thing. So many people I hear recommend places like Alinea and say, “The food is wonderful, but then the check came; it was so expensive.” At Next, you go in, buy a ticket, and when you’re done, you leave. There’s no money exchanged. That’s brilliant! So many restaurants are judged by whether somebody says goodbye to them on the way out or how much the bill is. I think [Achatz] is doing fine dining, but he’s doing it in a different way. And that’s happening in Chicago!