Culinary journalist Louisa Chu's training and education are like the equivalent of a CNN war correspondent who graduated from West Point, fought in Desert Storm, and served on the Joint Chiefs of Staff. She's cooked at El Bulli in Spain and Alain Ducasse in Paris, and staged at Moto
here in Chicago. With a B.A. in journalism and Le Grand Diplome from Paris' Le Cordon Bleu, she's the perfect culinary correspondent, both a studied interloper and a curious participant. These rare chops have earned her a spot as the field producer for the Paris episode of Anthony Bourdain's Travel Channel show "No Reservations," as a correspondent for Gourmet
magazine's "Diary of a Foodie" PBS television show, and most recently as a judge on "Iron Chef America." We recently caught up with the intrepid Chu, who splits her time between Chicago and Paris.
What's the best Chicago-related advice you've ever given or received?
Given: Go beyond downtown and Lincoln Park. Take the CTA or go find a Zipcar and get out to Hot Doug's, Johnnie's Beef and Burt's Pizza. Bonus points if they make it to Jimmy's, my Proustian dog.
Received: Get out on the water. I grew up on the deeply inland Northwest Side, so I didn't learn this until high school. I went out fishing for the first time last fall with Dave Pasternack, chef at Mario Batali's Esca in New York, when he was in town. I can't wait to go scuba diving in the lake this year. I'm amazed by the number of lifelong residents I know who've never even been on the river.
What's your favorite hidden gem (in Chicago)?
Gourmet Food in Chinatown, hidden in plain sight and known to every Chinese person within a 50-mile radius. Gourmet Food serves huge rice boxes filled with home-style Chinese comfort food for somewhat suspiciously low prices. My base meal is the minced beef on rice with a fried egg, plus another order or two. Each box costs less than $5 or so, and easily feeds two or three people.
If I were to come to your neighborhood, where would you insist I visit?
Sol de Mexico, Smoque and A & G. There's nowhere else on the planet where the great cuisines of Mexico, American BBQ and Eastern Europe converge quite like this.
You've become sort of the local de facto absinthe expert. Does it really make you hallucinate? Does the stuff on the market even really resemble the composition of what was available hundreds of years ago, or is there some market gimmickry going on here?
I blame Bourdain for getting me hooked. I had my first taste from his glass when we shot the first episode of "No Reservations" in Paris. Absinthe doesn't make me hallucinate, but I can't speak for everyone else. I have a very good friend who's a no-BS, internationally respected journalist who swears that the night after she drank her first absinthe that she awoke hearing horrific screams. She made herself stay awake until daylight. Then I guess there was the time when I tasted my first pre-ban absinthe, in front of a mausoleum on a hilltop overlooking Pontarlier, the French birthplace of absinthe. We were shooting Gourmet's "Diary of a Foodie," and while the camera was rolling, for a split-second I thought I saw ghostly spirits swirling in my glass. Hundreds of years ago, prototypical absinthe was still just an Alpine home remedy. Some of the stuff on the market now does resemble what was available in its heyday a little more than century ago, but some of it is undrinkable crap. Sure, there's lots of gimmickry going on, but hopefully the market will learn the difference and care.
You've spent time with arguably the greatest chefs in the world, from Alain Ducasse to Grant Achatz. Is there a special quality or a common thread that defines their success?
Staggeringly hard work with what can best be described as flashes of pure magic. Both Ducasse and Achatz have access to the best ingredients in the world, from Italian white truffles to American fish roe respectively, but what they do with them instills wonder. They also attract and surround themselves with people who work just as hard with the great chefs looking over their shoulders as they do alone in a back room.
You recently judged "Iron Chef America," what was that experience like?
It was like becoming a video game character but a lot more filling. The second I walked in to Kitchen Stadium, blinded by the lights and smoke, I was absorbed into that world, furiously trying to follow along with the omniscient Alton Brown. It was ridiculous fun but terrifying too. Imagine eating with a camera in your face, trying to think of something insightful to say about the food that's still in your mouth before you've had a chance to swallow. I can't wait to do it again.