Over the past 25 years or so, two surging art forms have elevated cultural Chicago on the global stage: theater and fine dining. Is this coincidence or correlation?
I mean no disrespect to dancers, musicians or rockers, nor architects, painters, poets or filmmakers. The city has both a distinguished history and a formidable roster of talents in many creative fields. Still, Chicago's unique plethora of cutting-edge theaters and genuinely experimental restaurants invariably bemuse and perplex out-of-towners.
In both these arenas, the offerings of this city are indisputably world-class. Look at the attention afforded the final days of Charlie Trotter's namesake Lincoln Park emporium, which was scheduled to close Friday night. As detailed by Mark Caro last week in the Tribune, this was one of the longest-running shows in Chicago, and a deeply complex performance each and every night.
So what is it about chefs, actors and Chicago? Well, first and foremost, there is something about the way this city likes its creative classes to never be too far removed from real work. Studs Terkel and Nelson Algren knew this, of course. This new breed of Chicago chef fits right in: You only have to stand by the open kitchen at Girl & the Goat on a busy weekend night and watch the open-mouthed diners nodding approvingly at all the sweating and grunting that goes on in there. It's easier to consume the fancy, it seems, when it is born of elbow grease, whether it's the actors shoving scenery around for no additional compensation, or kitchen workers cutting up vegetables to precise specifications from their raging master. Other cities don't have this litmus test — chatter and buzz are far more likely to fuel success — but Chicago does. And chefs have passed it more conclusively than anyone.
Like storefront theaters, their comrades in urban gentrification, Chicago restaurants fit easily into a city of neighborhoods. Both have relatively low barriers to entry. All you need is a space in some up-and-coming (ish) neighborhood and a relatively modest initial investment, and you can put up your shingle and cook, or act. If you have artistic taste, you don't need expensive finishes. In fact, the rough-hewn look can be a big asset, since it implies authenticity. Nor do you need size or scale; actually, intimacy only enhances the buyer's experience. The best Chicago food, and the best Chicago theater, is always in your face.
Other fields — movies, television and mainstream music come to mind — have elaborate, corporative systems of development, production and distribution that make it difficult for artists living outside established industry centers to break into the mainstream.
Agents, not innovators, often put together projects. Artists are forced into, and often worn down by, meetings with development executives, marketers and their ilk. If their wares don't fit a perceived, pre-existing spot in the marketplace, a marketplace that inherently discourages most experimentation, then resources are not forthcoming.
But great Chicago chefs, like their brothers and sisters in the theater, tend to be solo operators flying by the seat of their pants and fueled by often eccentric passion. This is crucial. If Homaro Cantu of Moto were part of a chain, do you really think he'd be allowed to disappear so deep inside his experimental kitchen and maybe never come out? In Chicago, the interest in consumption, and respect for the self-forged artist, is sufficient that the best of them can get enough of their work out there that people can (and do) show up and taste, the goodies.
Such is the reputation of both the theater and the restaurant scene here that plenty of people with deep pockets now keep a close eye on Chicago, which they increasingly see as a kind of graduate school that keeps its students in poverty but offers a degree with cachet that they can exploit later.
But they're generally smart enough to see that too much early interference would ruin the gestation and natural-selection period. Any why mess that up? Left alone, the customers in Chicago are savvy and open-minded enough to reward genuine talents — maybe even for 25 years — and pass right by the pretenders' doors.
Chicago restaurants and theaters both tend to prize ensembles. This runs contrary to other markets, where stars take the spotlight and their image-brands are carefully replicated when they can't be there in person. That's not the case in Chicago, where paying one's dues and helping one's friends are prized, even if you sometimes find yourself with your hands around a few necks. Both fields place a premium on starting out as a worker on the line before moving up to the lead.
Like most Chicago actors, most Chicago chefs wonder about the wider world, worried that doing great work here doesn't mean as much or won't be prized as much, as doing great work in New York. That Second City insecurity, present in both these fields, is an essential component of being a creative Chicagoan. And when chefs and actors do wander — often then acquiring handlers, investors, representatives — they usually make more money in weeks than they previously did in years, but they still know that their best work was done in Chicago.
Trotter found this out in Las Vegas; he couldn't stomach gamblers not paying enough attention to his food. Maybe that was because too many of his customers there hadn't worked for their supper.
It's surely no surprise, then, that so many Chicago chefs are playing with theatricality, whether it's Cantu's fascination with foodstuffs masquerading as something other than themselves, or Rick Bayless' desire to use aromas to arouse sensuality in a show starring himself, or Grant Achatz's desire to neutralize the intrinsic physical identity of his restaurant so it can be better transformed into a stage that varies with each conceptual meal. He's even selling tickets to an enveloping show, not taking reservations for a mere meal. And last week, it was announced he plans to take his entire restaurant on the road to New York, trading places for five days this fall with New York's Eleven Madison Park, which is to perform here.
Achatz is a restless spirit. Some of these chefs (like Cantu) are technological innovators with desires to change the world. Some (like Trotter) are complex purists with uneven temperaments. Some (like Bayless) are polyglots and proselytizers. But like, say, the equally complex members of the Steppenwolf ensemble, they've all managed to navigate Chicago's disdain for pretension and artifice and its hunger for innovation fueled by graft. And they've ended up at the top.
No city in the world is currently doing more interesting experiments on the fusion of theater and dining. Most towns don't even know yet what that means. In Vegas, Chicago's chief competitor in this and many other tourist-related fields, it's just more showbiz. In Chicago, it's far deeper. This closest of creative relationships should be encouraged and aided at the highest levels. Both fields are already strong assets for Chicago; melted together, they'd be more intoxicating yet.
Read Mark Caro's three-part series on Charlie Trotter at