It's fair to say that most of Chicago's better restaurants are what have come to be called "chef-driven." What this means is that the menu is an expression of the individual chef, his or her style, focus, art.
I see this as both a wow-it's-now trend and a worthy step in the evolution of restaurant culture in Chicagoland. Given the choice between a generic anyone-can-cook-this platter of food and a personal expression of a chef whose taste you admire, which would you rather eat?
Unfortunately, there are not many restaurants in Oak Park that can legitimately be termed "chef-driven," but Marion Street Cheese Market Café is probably one of those that can with confidence claim to host a menu that's a reflection of the man in the toque.
Headed up by Leonard Hollander, the menu at MSCM café is largely his creation, drawing upon wholesome ingredients, frequently sourced locally, creatively prepared and artfully presented.
Having coffee with Hollander at Blue Max in Forest Park a few weeks ago, he told me that he was planning a trip overseas to work in a number of kitchens throughout Europe. He invited me to follow him on his blog, Chef Leonard Connects.
As Hollander tells it, he and Amy, his wife, had just landed at London's Heathrow with no hotel booked. Hollander was planning to set up a reservation over the aircraft's wi-fi connection, but the system was not working. In the airport, he's confronted by a surly customs agent who, Hollander relates, "looked me straight in the face, circled the blank address space on our landing form and said, 'You can go finish filling this out now.' I started down the pathway of the story about no wifi on the plane and that our lodging was not yet confirmed. It turns out he has no interest in hearing about the many benefits of airbnb.com. He then proceeded to grill us as to why we were traveling in the UK and ridiculed us for not having extensive documentation of such…he was a real bear UNTIL I mentioned that I was a chef and that my wife and I are trekking through UK, Ireland and Western Europe to study the culture and food…86 the frown…he wanted to know where I was from and began chatting about restaurants, food, and travel."
And that incident defines what is for me perhaps the most compelling reason for my becoming involved in food journalism. Everyone eats, usually several times a day, and virtually everyone likes to talk about food. Food, somewhat like music, is a universal connection. Wherever I travel, I find that most people are very eager to share insights about their favorite local food, how their mothers used to prepare such and such a dish, where I really must go eat while I'm visiting.
Food is elemental, and wherever one goes in the world, people have an intimate connection with the food of their time and place, and they want to talk about it, they want to share their thoughts about, and they want you to eat it and like it.
I plan to follow the Hollander's progress through kitchens in Europe, and I'll be providing updates here with links to their blog.