Catherine (Cat) De Orio’s high-wattage personality — not to mention her knowledge of all things food — has made her a respected figure on the Chicago food scene and, increasingly, nationally. Ms. De Orio was the longtime host of the Emmy Award-winning dining review show “Check, Please!” (she left in June). The public television series covers restaurants in the Chicago area suggested by diners and had her going out 10 times or more a week when it’s in production.
Off-season, she said, she would “go anywhere in search of diverse culinary traditions.”
She said she is excited about her coming book and corresponding public television show, currently in development, which, she said, will be a “deep dive into food and culinary traditions aimed at the ravenous traveler.” Here are edited excerpts from a conversation (by email and phone) with Ms. De Orio.
What’s new on the Chicago food scene?
Vegetables. And amazing neighborhood restaurants. Lee Wolen at Boka restaurant is a veritable vegetable whisperer — the guy who can make carrots exciting is pretty gangster.
And places like Bad Hunter are making produce the star of the menu in this traditionally meat-and-potato town.
But what I love most now is that high-quality chefs that could bank money with locations near downtown’s convention and tourist-friendly hotels are opening their restaurants in outlying residential neighborhoods instead, like Giant and Daisies in Logan Square, Acadia in the South Loop or Band of Bohemia in Ravenswood, where the great majority of diners can walk to the restaurant from their homes.
Your advice for an eating weekend in the city?
We are a city of vibrant ethnic enclaves — really, only San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York and Boston can compare — and to truly experience the breadth and depth of Chicago’s food scene, you need to be adventurous.
Yes, some good food can be found on Michigan Avenue (Purple Pig, I’m looking at you!) but I recommend heading to 5 Rabinitos or Birrieria Zaragoza for authentic Mexican food; visiting Maxwell Street Market on a warm day to grab some tongue tacos and agua fresca from the food carts; or heading to other neighborhood places where chefs are celebrating their culture and putting a hip twist on it — Fat Rice for Macanese food, Parachute for modernized Korean cooking or Mi Tocaya Antonjeria for regional Mexican.
Your pick for emerging food destinations in the United States?
The Midwest is having a moment. It started with Chicago — and no, it’s not hometown bias. We’ve been touted Bon Appétit’s restaurant city of the year, and the James Beard Awards moved here five years ago. As Chicago has risen to culinary dominance, our chefs have pollinated the region.
Detroit is luring top toques away, like the chef Thomas Lents, who left his post at Chicago’s Michelin-starred Sixteen [currently closed] to bring his vision to the Apparatus Room. And Jonathon Sawyer is turning Cleveland into a culinary stop (the Greenhouse Tavern, Trentina, Noodlecat).
St. Louis, Minneapolis and the Midwest-Southern hybrid Louisville, Ky., are all dining destinations in their own right. And don’t even get me started with Nashville — it’s already emerged, but wow. I go there frequently; it’s always exciting.
How do you decide where to eat, off the radar, when you travel?
I read a lot and always inquire about places people have visited, even if I don’t have a trip planned. My notes app is jammed with lists. When I arrive at a destination, I pick up local newspapers/magazines. Most importantly, I talk to locals. I book a few places I want to try, but leave myself flexibility.
If I dine out and the food is spectacular, or my server gave spot-on recommendations, I will mine that person for info. Don’t just ask for good places to eat; think about what you want — cool vibe, modern cuisine, authentic mom-and-pop, spectacular food, whatever — and then be specific with your questions.
And please, let go of “cool.” Don’t try to prove to locals how much you know; rather, use your research as an indication of what you are up for so they can share their best recommendations for you. You learn more through listening than talking.
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