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Talking Chicago Food Writing with Matt Kirouac

 

Is Chicago America’s best food city? We think so. (Check the salad bars of River North for Booklist editors on Mondays, where you can find us paying penance for a weekend of overindulging in delectable local restaurant fare.)

Matt Kirouac set out to choose 90 can’t-miss restaurants in a city with more than 7,000. In Unique Eats and Eateries of Chicago (Reedy Press), the Chicago-based food, beverage, and travel writer profiles places offering everything from world-class molecular gastronomy to giant hot dog statuary. We talked to him about chefs, culinary school, and keeping slim when faced with eating all the food in a giant city.

(For more great food writing, read our latest issue.)

 

ANNIE BOSTROM: How did this book come about?

MATT KIROUAC: The publishers approached me with the idea of doing a food-centric Chicago book in 2016, and I immediately jumped on board. It’s something I’m passionate about, and it’s something that comes very naturally to me. So that being said, most of my “research” was revisiting places I personally love in Chicago.

There are so so many places that could easily have fit in with the theme of the book, so narrowing it down to about 90 was challenging. I mostly just tried to get a good mix of places in terms of geography and diversity in dining concept. So there are fine dining places, bakeries, butcher shops, delis and taprooms, in neighborhoods all over the city, from the far far south side to Andersonville and Superdawg way up at Milwaukee and Devon.

Many of the places in the book I was already acutely familiar with, and knew the history, the chefs, the menus and so forth. There was, of course, a healthy amount of interviews and fact-checking, which took up a good amount of time.  Since this was such a personal collection of restaurants, with places I felt strong connections to in one way or another, most of the sources were my own—things like Instagram highlights on my feed, favorite dining experiences, friendships and stories I’ve written for different outlets over the years.

All in all, I wrote the book in about five months. I finished way ahead of deadline because I just get so engrossed in large projects like this that I can’t stop or feel satisfied until it’s all filed away.

 

Hot Dog People atop Superdawg

Did you celebrate with a meal?

Once I was finished, I think I needed like a week or two to decompress and do nothing. I just spent a few nights ordering delivery and watching Netflix.

 

Was eating in so many restaurants just awful?

It’s such a hard job! The most important thing is pacing, that I spread out meals and restaurant visits over the course of enough months that I don’t feel simultaneously gross and broke. Also, I walk a lot. Like, a lot. So that helps keep a healthy appetite.

 

Which came first: writing about food or living in Chicago?

Living in Chicago. I moved here from New Hampshire in 2006 for culinary school at Robert Morris, with no intention of getting into writing. It wasn’t until my first semester of culinary school, when a literature professor suggested I start writing for the college newspaper, that I really got into it. Something immediately clicked, and I knew that’s what I wanted to do.

 

What now-closed Chicago eating or drinking establishment do you wish you could go to? And what three famous people, living or dead, would accompany you?

I wish I had been able to go to Trio in Evanston. That place was so formative for so many pivotal Chicago chefs, including Grant Achatz from Alinea, Next, etc. I also never made it to Graham Elliot, which seemed fun. As far as who I’d like to dine with, I would pick Beyoncé (obviously), Gwyneth Paltrow (I’m fascinated by her, plus I had a dream that she called me adorable and I’ve been feeling wistful ever since) and Alan Rickman (his Snape role in Harry Potter is my favorite thing ever, and I was crushed when he passed away, both in the movie and in real life).

 

A friend recently told me he uses Yelp just for the photos, which shocked me. I never look at them! But it reminded me that we’re all often looking for something different when choosing a restaurant, even when we end up at the same place. Do you read restaurant reviews? 

I don’t really read reviews. I’m more interested in backstory: chef interviews and that sort of thing. Everyone has different tastes and preferences, so determining what I would like based on somebody else’s opinion in a review seems silly to me. I will say that I’ll frequently decide to go somewhere based on a pretty Instagram photo I’ve seen recently, though. This place near me, Spinning J, gets me all the time with their pie pics.

A pie pic from Spinning J

I take a lot of photos, posting on Instagram and Twitter. Instagram in particular is a good cyber food journal for me. I often take photos of menus, too, so I have more details on hand [when I write about it]. I try to write about something as soon as possible, so that it’s still super fresh in my mind. So if I go to a new restaurant or I’m traveling, I try and focus on that place or destination as soon as I have the time to sit down at my computer. When it’s all still recent, the words just flow.

 

What do you do if you sit down to write about a dining experience and don’t have much to say?

I take my dog for a long walk to get some air and take myself away from work for a bit. That tends to help a lot. Or honestly, I’ll hold off until evening, make myself a drink and get back to writing. It’s weird how effective cocktails are when it comes to inspired writing.

The author’s dog. Photo via Instagram.

More often than not, I write from my bed at home. Which sounds terribly lazy, but it’s cozy and quiet and relaxed, and I like having my dog curled up at my side. I try to get out of the house and work remotely once or twice a week, though, to mix up the routine and freshen things up a bit. It’s hard, though. I don’t like dealing with crowded buses or trains if I don’t have to, and I’m especially not into crowded coffee shops. I go to Soho House a lot and find a quiet corner.

 

What’s next?

In addition to my regular writing work with Zagat, I’m keeping busy for the foreseeable future with copywriting and travel writing. I like to have a good mix of things going on all at once.

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About the Author:

Annie Bostrom is Associate Editor, Adult Books, at Booklist. She is a cat person, but also really likes dogs. Follow her on Twitter at @Booklist_Annie.

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