“I thought we’d all agreed that when Michelin came to Chicago, the first list was just such nonsense.”
In the second part of Alicia’s visit to Chicago, she speaks with pastry chef Valeria Taylor, and food writers Tim Mazurek and Natalie Slater. They discuss their frustrations with the way Chicago’s food scene is repeatedly defined by critics based in LA and NYC, their favorite animal-free recipes, and what they think makes for a good vegan city.
Part one can be heard here.
ALICIA KENNEDY: This is Meatless, a podcast about eating from How We Get To Next. I’m Alicia Kennedy, a food and drink writer. I’ll be having conversations with chefs, writers, and more, about how their personal and political beliefs determine whether or not they eat meat. This show asks the question, how do identity, culture, economics, and history affect your diet?
In this episode, part two of the trip to Chicago from the Ace Hotel to consider what makes a good vegan city, I talk to Natalie Slater, Valeria Taylor, and Tim Mazurek. First, Slater of Bake and Destroy discusses her growth into a professional vegan as the marketing manager for Uptons Naturals.
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NATALIE SLATER: I grew up in Joliet, which is a city about an hour south of Chicago. We’re very adamant about being a city and not being a suburb, and I grew up pretty typical of people my age. I’m a latchkey kid, I’m the oldest of three, so both my parents were working. A lot of times we ate, like, whatever I could make for everybody, you know, as a 12-year-old getting home, so we ate lot of, like, frozen things, lots of things in nugget form, but when my parents cooked it was, my dad liked to make like big stir fries, and, so, it was a mix of things made from scratch when they had time, and then things that were fast and convenient. So, pretty typical American diet I think.
ALICIA KENNEDY: It wasn’t until she moved to Chicago that she became vegan.
NATALIE SLATER: I had become vegetarian, like, late in my senior year of high school, mostly because of the music I was into. I listened to a lot of hardcore, and a lot of the shows were at Krishna temples, and so I kind of got exposed to the idea and the food. Then, when I moved to Chicago, there was this really big, late 90s, early 2000s vegan boom happening, especially kids that were going to DePaul University here, there were a lot of vegans at DePaul, those were the kids I hung out with the most.
ALICIA KENNEDY: That switch forced her into learning how to make her own food.
NATALIE SLATER: The biggest challenge was that I didn’t know how to cook, and I was in college, and I was poor. So, trying to learn how to cook and figure out how to afford things, and not really being able to buy a lot of the ready-made things, so really, like, figuring out how to make things from scratch. Kind of, early, early internet, where maybe you could wander into a message room and find a recipe, but a lot of it was trial and error. So, really just that, like, not understanding how food works.
I got into it when I didn’t have much money, I was working in a café going to school, and having to figure out how to make burritos for, you know, $3 a serving or whatever, that, that was really helpful in that, like, figuring out how to make things, and how to save money, and how to make it work. So, I think if you’re buying a lot of convenient foods and going out to eat a lot it can be really expensive, but I’m not saying necessarily that I’m glad that I was ever that broke at any point in my life, but I think it forced me to create, to get creative and to learn.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Slater began her blog, Bake and Destroy, in 2006, writing recipes and creating guides to vegan dining in Chicago right after the birth of her son.
NATALIE SLATER: Well, it started as, sort of, just like a way of communicating with my friends and family as a new mom, and, and, kind of, living away from everybody in my life. And I would write about what my son was doing at that point, and I was watching a lot of cooking shows, so I started making recipes, and sometimes along with the update of, like, what he was doing it would be, like, “And I made these brownies and here’s the recipe.” And after a little while I started getting comments from people that weren’t my family, that were another new mum or whatever, and they had discovered it and said, “I’m a mom with a lot of tattoos,” or, “I’m a vegan mum,” or what whatever we had in common. I was, like, “Oh wow, this might be something.”
ALICIA KENNEDY: To Slater there’s no question that Chicago is a great city for vegans, despite the bad rep.
NATALIE SLATER: I wonder if people who say that have no access to, like, Happy Cow, or any of the many, many articles that have been written about, like, the top ten, top 15, top 20 vegan things you can eat in the city.
There are a lot of strictly vegan restaurants here, there’s, there’s Chicago Raw, there’s Alice & Friends, there’s Upton’s Breakroom, there’s No Bones, there’s Native Foods, and those are all just vegan, that’s not even the vegetarian restaurants, which there’s a lot more of. And I think something that’s really cool about Chicago is that even more conventional restaurants have a pretty solid vegan offering. There’s a bar called The Moonlighter that has a whole separate menu with, like, lots of really creative stuff too, like, you’re not getting the portobello sandwich. It’s not, like, one sad burger, it’s creative, like, street tacos and, like, cool stuff, and we have an all-vegan pizza place here, and there’s, there’s a lot of options.
So, I’m protective but I’ve heard that before. I think people, maybe they came here 20 years ago? I don’t know why anyone would have that opinion, but, and Chicago’s home to the National Vegetarian Museum as well.
ALICIA KENNEDY: I came to Tim Mazurek of the blog Lottie + Doof through Twitter, where he thankfully seemed to appreciate my rather caustic readings of food media and culture. When I mentioned that I was coming to Chicago, we got in touch, and he told me about Valeria Taylor’s Loba Pastry. That she’s a brilliant baker whose shop always stocks unlabeled vegan items alongside traditional pastries. That for Halloween she made pigs’ blood tarts. This contrast, coupled with the fact that I generally love all bakers more than I love other people, fascinated me. We all sat down at Lobo to discuss food and their city, right before Taylor was getting ready for her Christmas menu.
VALERIA TAYLOR: I made monkey bread stuffed with candied sweet potatoes, and, what was the other thing? Pumpkin cream-stuffed financier, with, like, marshmallows and, like, butter cream on top, it was very elaborate, but it was really good, it was really good. Yeah, I’m doing cookies and kouign-amann for Christmas, but I’m doing a vegan version actually.
ALICIA KENNEDY: The idea of a vegan kouign-amann blows my mind. For a fat, Taylor is using Earth Balance, a non-dairy butter I usually loathe, but she swears by it.
VALERIA TAYLOR: I’ve been playing around with different types of, like, fats for laminating a vegan pastry, and to be completely honest, for laminating, the thing that works the best is, what’s it called? Earth Balance.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Oh.
VALERIA TAYLOR: That, yeah, that fake butter, it’s, it’s the best. Because it’s closer to the consistency and you kind of want to keep it, I mean, the idea of laminating a pastry is that you have to have like butter that is sort of solid, so you can keep it as a sheet, solid, in between two pieces of dough. And you can’t do that with oil, you can’t do that with anything else, except for anything that is butter. So, Earth Balance is the easiest thing, and what I found out is that you cannot do, like, a traditional lamination with it, you know, there is this very specific way that you laminate doughs, because the French decided that that’s what you were supposed to do.
You can’t really do that with Natural Balance [sic] because it’s not butter, so I was reading about different techniques of, like, what other countries did to have something flaky instead of laminating. Like, before the French decided that you were going to laminate a pastry a certain way, there was other countries that figured out techniques to have flaky pastries that didn’t require lamination. So, I’ve been playing around with those, and I’m going to do a combination of both for the vegan kouign-amann.
It’s, so, one example that I’m thinking of is sfogliatelle, it’s an Italian pastry, and it basically just means lobster tail, but what they do, they just roll the dough so, so, so thin, and start wrapping it around. It’s either dusted with, like, sugar or if you want to do some flavoring, but it’s that rolling that gives you the flakiness, the sheets. And then there’s filo dough in Greece, you know, it’s the same thing, very, very thin dough that is just stacked on top of each other. And then, the last pastry that I tried doing was, I don’t want to get this, I want to say it’s a Romanian apple strudel, I might be wrong about that, I can’t remember the country right now, but it was the same thing, instead of, they just pulled the dough, kind of like when you make pizza. So, it would be paper-thin across the table, and then apples would be set around it and you just roll in, and you end up with this very flaky pastry that doesn’t have, like, all the butter that you were supposed to do, or supposed to use when you’re making croissants. I thought it was very interesting. So, there are ways to have something flaky without using butter.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Taylor grew up in Guadalajara, Mexico, but often spent time in the small town where her mother was raised and her grandmother still lived.
VALERIA TAYLOR: While I was growing up I got to go to this very small town where things are done, were done very differently than the city. Like, every weekend once a month I spent summer vacation there, winter break, you know, any time, and it was just really cool, you know, I don’t think a lot of, I mean, things are different in Mexico, but I got very lucky to have that, like, very old-world Mexico right at my fingertips, with also being able to experience the city.
One of my favorite things that my grandmother used to do, she would wake us up very early in the morning, like, 5:00am on like a Sunday, and she would take us to the stable, and this farmer guy would put some, like, cocoa powder in a cup with some sugar and milk the cow straight into the cup. So, you get this, like, super-thick, foamy beverage, I loved it, it was, it was so good. They call it pajarete over there, it just means, basically, like, “birds singing.” My grandma would bring out a little bottle of tequila and put some of it in hers, but that’s another story.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Mazurek is a lifelong Chicagoan whose food upbringing was based in traditional foods.
TIM MAZUREK: I grew up on the south west side of Chicago, in, near Midway Airport, which, at the time was, like, a very working class Polish neighborhood, and so I lived in a three-flat. My mom and I lived on the top floor, my grandparents lived on the middle floor, and my great-grandma lived in the basement. And so there were a lot of Polish people together in one building. Then lived there until I was ten, and then my mom and I moved to the suburbs, for, you know, the usual, sort of, racist reasons, in terms of looking for better schools and, like, some things that, like, as that neighborhood was “changing,” as they would have said at the time, that they thought they could find there.
But my grandparents actually remained in that house for a while, so I would spend my weekends there, basically most of my growing up. And it was, my family ate a lot of, we cooked a lot, we didn’t go out very often, basically, sort of, traditional Polish stuff which, as a kid, I wasn’t very attracted to in terms of my palate, I don’t know if it just wasn’t developed enough, or you just always rebel against what your family does when you’re a kid, I’m not sure. But I didn’t love that stuff and so was, like, always attracted to pizza, and hotdogs, and cheeseburgers and things like that, although now in retrospect I think that the food they were making was really good, I just didn’t, I just didn’t eat it very often. The thing that was a little odd about my family was that, for whatever reason, they were wary of processed foods, and I’m not exactly sure what that came from, but, like, we would never eat fast food.
And I actually didn’t eat at McDonald’s until I was in college because it was, like, talked about as this thing that just wasn’t good for you, even though we were eating, like, the food they were making wasn’t very good for you either, but I guess it was home cooked which they saw as very different. And so that’s kind of how I, my early palate was formed.
ALICIA KENNEDY: He began Lottie + Doof twelve years ago when he was coming out of grad school with a master of fine arts and wanted to find a creative outlet that would speak to a broader demographic than he spent grad school surrounded by.
TIM MAZUREK: I started reading food blogs in grad school, and there was something I liked about the potential, that the audience was people all over the country, that lot of people could have access to something like a blog. And so, when I started it I thought it would be an interesting way to kind of present recipes and then squeeze in other kinds of content and, sort of, sneak in conversations about other things with the food. Because I think people are going, obviously, for, like, the recipe, especially at that time, but I think then I would, you know, do a rant about the food culture, media, or domestic life or whatever, and they would kind of have to read that, or get tricked into reading it.
And I was interested in trying to have these conversations with people that weren’t naturally looking for them or engaging in them, which I guess is maybe sort of a weird and intense thing to do, but I found it kind of, satisfying. My own interest was mostly, I was thinking a lot about, I’d also fallen in love and gotten married during this time, and I was also thinking a lot about domestic life and the roles in the house. And, like, being married to a man, I still, there is this weird thing in which I did all the cooking and domestic care of our place, and it made me really relate to my grandmother, Lottie, who the blog is named after. She had, sort of, an intense anger towards domestic duties. I think she was in a fairly, I don’t know how pure her choice of husband was. I think that, like, she, there were some regrets in her life, and she did not love her role as a homemaker.
And I was thinking a lot about her anger and her lack of choice in some ways, and then my own choice of that, but I still felt some of the anger, and that was interesting to me. And so sort of the roles within a house and how they relate to gender or, like, relationship roles, was, became really interesting to me. And I think that’s what I was thinking about in terms of politics for me.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Having spent his entire life in Chicago, Mazurek doesn’t see any of its perceived issues in restaurant culture as that unique.
TIM MAZUREK: I think that there is a lot to criticize about anywhere. I think though, that that article felt fairly weak to me in a few ways, one in which it, sort of, approached Chicago from a New Yorker, LA point of view, which, I don’t know why we want to be or would be judged by the same things. And I also thought it left out a lot of the actual problems about Chicago, in terms of segregation, and racism, and who has access to what kind of food that weren’t addressed, which to me seemed like more significant problems than that we don’t have enough Michelin stars, which, like, I, like, thought we’d all agreed that when Michelin came to Chicago, the first list was just such nonsense that, like, maybe every city thinks this, but I thought we were on the same page, that this isn’t a scale that matters to us, then the writers seemed to think it mattered a lot.
So, it felt, sort of, silly to me. It also felt, like, factually inaccurate, in that he said that there was like no national press, but it was 2017 which is just last year that Bon Appétit said it was the best city in the country for food. So, it also, there were things like that that I was like, “I don’t actually understand what is happening here.” But you know, I think that being critical of Chicago’s food scene is super-important. I just wish that a different article had highlighted that.
ALICIA KENNEDY: For Taylor, the food scene as a whole is lacking, but it has nothing to do with the loss of Michelin stars in the city scene.
VALERIA TAYLOR: I’m moving away from Michelin stars. I think that the concept is very tiring and, you know, back to politics it’s just so elitist to present this sort of food. And sure it’s beautiful, and I’m sure it’s made with care, but who can eat that? You can’t have that in your neighborhood, you can’t eat that every day, even if you have the means to eat that every day, do you even want to?
So, it’s exciting to see that more chefs and restaurants, more chefs in Chicago are moving towards, like, that ugly delicious food. Maybe it’s not Instagrammable, maybe there’s nothing to look at, but it’s so good, and that’s why you keep coming back to those. That’s what I’m stuck on. I’m, I understand that aesthetics are important, but I’m so done with aesthetics and food, you know? I’m, I’m very tired of beautiful food that is very nice look at, because it’s all fake, there’s no substance, it rarely taste any good, and it turns out that it’s just made with stuff that are edible, but edible does not mean it tastes good.
ALICIA KENNEDY: There are no conclusions here about whether Chicago is a good vegan city, or whether that’s a thing that even exists. What could be true is that vegetables are no longer second-class citizens across the board, that they’re appreciated on their own merits, and that a meal without a big hunk of flesh no longer strikes the majority as a strange and unfulfilling option. Plants are everywhere, if you know where to look.
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