Among the resident celebrities of Chicago are Oprah, Obama, Ditka and a chef surprise for non-foodies Charlie Trotter. Trotter, whose namesake restaurant is destination dining for gourmets the world over, makes headlines in this city as easily as the others. He caused a brouhaha two years ago when he decided to take foie gras off his restaurant's menu. A Chicago alderman, inspired by Trotter's sympathy for force-fed ducks, won a citywide ban on foie gras sale in restaurants. The resulting controversy echoes in food circles around the country to this day.
And so tout Chicago followed the weekend of partying and the Sunday night feast that marked the 20th anniversary of Trotter's restaurant all highlighted by an A-list of chefs who strutted in, treated like gods, to cook in his kitchen. Indeed, they were worshiped by the 80 or so foodies able to lay down $5,000 a head for a round of tastebud-zapping dishes by Thomas Keller (the French Laundry in Napa Valley and Per Se in New York City), Heston Blumenthal (The Fat Duck in Berkshire, England), Ferran Adria (El Bulli, outside Barcelona) and Tetsuya Wakuda (Tetsuya's in Sydney). And by coming to Chicago, they paid tribute to the city's transformation from a steak-and-potatoes no-man's land into a world-class "hot spot for haute cuisine," as Adria observed over the weekend.
The dinner did not disappoint. To start off, David Myers of Sona in Los Angeles concocted a reception of duck confit eggrolls topped with lime pickle aioli and peekytoe crab beignets, all washed down with Dom Perignon Brut 1999. Then came the main courses. Adria prepared Ostras Con Pistachio Verde y Citricos (oysters with green pistachios and citrus; Wakada presented Ravioli of Asahi Crab with Crab Terrine and Finger Lime; Daniel Boulud (of Restaurant Daniel in New York City) produced Wild Scottish Grouse with Sarawak Pepper Cromesquis; and Thomas Keller came out with Four Story Hill Farm Cuisse de Poularde with King Richard Leeks, Spice-Poached pruneaux d'Agen and Black Winter Truffle Coulis. Renowned pastry chef Pierre Herme, who runs swank tea rooms and boutiques in Paris and Tokyo, came up with dessert.
Perhaps the most whimsical performance of the evening came from Blumenthal, considered a pioneer of so-called molecular gastronomy. First came the conch shells, which servers placed on the table in front of each guest. Inside was an iPod Nano. Then came Blumenthal himself: tall, beefy, with a buzz-cut. "The idea is," he told the assembled foodies, "if you bite into something, and you put on music, the crispiness is accentuated." OK. So the diners retirees, corporate execs, lawyers and thin blondes in five-inch stilettos went along for the ride and slipped on the headphones. Next came the sounds: waves, and chirping birds. Then, the dish: Sounds of the Sea, a mixture of abalone and seaweed, lined with sand-like (and somewhat crunchy) tapioca.
All of this may sound too haute for home cooking. But maybe not. It was high-end chefs who introduced IHOP-loving Americans to edamame, the lightly salted, boiled Japanese soybeans now found on McDonald's menus (in salads, no less). In the last two decades chefs have helped make Americans savvier than ever about food. Ordinary grocery stores are now selling their own brands of organic peanut butter and pasta sauce. Then, consider today's range of food media from blogs to magazines to television networks promoting Wolfgang Puck wannabes. "You see the food we're making trickling down to the masses. The quality of the food in grocery stores is extraordinary that's the impact we have," says Thomas Keller.
As for Trotter, he cooked three dishes at his own celebration. And he isn't slowing down. Not yet 50, he is still building his legacy, searching for ways to keep himself ahead of the fine-dining curve. Next year he plans to open a restaurant inside the latest luxury hotel to rise in Chicago's downtown. "In our first few years, it was all about being the best in the country," he says. But now, he adds, "it's more important to be original." But perhaps without bringing an iPod to the dinner table.