Sunday, February 24, 2008

The Last Supper

Last October, the big buzz in Chicago was about Charlie Trotter's 20th anniversary dinner. If I had 5k to blow, I could have rubbed elbows with the finest chefs in the world. A girl can dream. My foodie friend just forwarded this great article calling it "the last supper". It's a great read and I thought I would share. Provides an inside look at just how tough this industry can be.

Big night. Big mystery.
Why did Michael Carlson vanish the day after serving dinner to the greatest chefs in the world?

By Phil Vettel and Monica Eng Chicago Tribune reporters
February 13, 2008

On an unseasonably warm Friday night last October, the culinary gods filed into a tiny restaurant on a gritty stretch of Wicker Park.There was Ferran Adria from Spain, Heston Blumenthal from England and Pierre Herme from France -- considered by many to be among the world's top chefs. Other culinary heavy hitters followed close behind.For the workers at Schwa, it was like seeing the 1927 Yankees roll in their front door.

"To look out the [kitchen] window and see these guys walk in, all eating at our restaurant, it was just a huge ego boost," says Nathan Klingbail, one of the cooks that night. "These are all the people we idolize."For 33-year-old Michael Carlson, chef/owner of Schwa, the dinner marked the pinnacle of his meteoric rise from anonymous assistant chef to proprietor of one of the most talked-about restaurants in town. On this night, Chicago chef Charlie Trotter -- a superstar in his own right -- had chosen Carlson to serve a 14-course, four-hour meal to his high-profile guests."It was as high a pinnacle as you could ever have," Carlson says. "It will never get better than that."

The day after the dinner -- with a full refrigerator and a full reservation book -- Carlson disappeared.The world's great chefs hadn't actually come to Chicago to see Schwa. They were in town as part of Charlie Trotter's 20th anniversary celebration, a weekend blowout of exclusive parties.But even chefs have to eat, so Trotter and staff happily squired them to several noteworthy Chicago spots, including Blackbird, Topolobampo, David Burke's Primehouse -- and Schwa.
Carlson's unassuming 24-seat BYOB restaurant was the unusual choice, and not just because of its offbeat location, between dingy apartment buildings and facing a tire-and-hubcaps store. Carlson was a culinary maverick, an iconoclast whose choices often flew in the face of fine-dining expectations.Blessed with a single, undemanding investor -- his father -- and blissfully uninterested in cashing in on his prodigious talent, Carlson ran a restaurant that focused on food, and almost nothing else.

Schwa had no waiters; Carlson himself brought dishes to the table, or one of his chefs did. There was no wine list; Carlson had never even applied for a liquor license. Guests brought their own wine, but Schwa had no glassware apart from simple tumblers.Schwa served no bread; Carlson once told fellow chef (and bread enthusiast) Brett Knobel, "I don't believe in it." Dining room guests heard the same music that played for the chefs in the kitchen: loud, raw hip-hop and heavy metal.Yet critics and customers alike praised the restaurant and Carlson's inventive cooking. Reservations were notoriously difficult to obtain, particularly because Carlson kept his dining room half empty much of the time so as not to overtax the three-man cooking crew."You can do a lot," Carlson says, "when you don't care about money."Reservation requests left on the answering machine took a long time to confirm; Schwa had no front-room staff, so Carlson and/or another chef returned calls when they could.

For a while, it was rumored that Schwa wouldn't answer calls originating from suburban area codes, a legend that makes Carlson laugh."The people who come here the most are from the suburbs," he says.Even so, the rumor only burnished the restaurant's mystique. So when Trotter sought a special spot to entertain his discriminating guests, he chose Schwa."I wanted to take these guys to a place they'd not been before," Trotter says. "And I'd not been there myself. Honestly, I didn't realize how small it was."In fact, Trotter's party required almost every chair the 15-by-30 dining room could hold."I told them we'd be a party of 20, and they said, 'We barely seat 20,'" Trotter recalls. "I told them don't worry, it would be OK."Nonetheless, agreeing to accept was not an easy decision. Carlson says he turned Trotter down at first, but, hours later, relented."We were like, that's crazy, and we called back," Carlson says. "I mean, how often do you get to cook for those cats?"

But Carlson did get some help.First, with the blessing of Alinea chef/owner Grant Achatz, Klingbail -- a former Schwa chef, now Achatz's sous-chef -- agreed to work at Schwa for the big night."It was absolutely a dream come true," Klingbail recalls. "It was my birthday, for one thing, and I got to cook for the best chefs in the world."Second, Trotter dispatched a full supply of stemware, wine and several staffers to help serve."They couldn't have been more innocent from that standpoint," Trotter says. "I just helped out front so they could do their thing."All Carlson had to do, on 10 days' notice, was create incredible food for more than 20 of the most discerning palates in the world.Piece of cake.

Carlson fashioned a "best of Schwa" menu of his top dishes from the last two years. The meal started with a hollowed-out beet, filled with chocolate-bacon ganache and rolled in cocoa, to be washed down with a shot of beet juice and white chocolate foam. Later came jellyfish pad Thai, ravioli with liquid quail egg filling and white truffles, sauteed sweetbreads with cardamom marshmallow, lamb with curry and a mini-glass of root beer, and soft pretzels paired with caramel and mustard seed-filled dates.In the convivial dining room, two long tables of diners speaking French, Spanish and English punctuated the breathtaking courses with toasts to their host and one another.

At the beginning of the meal, Trotter exhorted guests to sit with people they didn't know. Midway through the meal, he made everyone change seats.In the kitchen, Carlson, Klingbail and sous-chefs Blake Bengsch and Aaron McKay raced to cook, plate and serve the most important 14 courses of their lives."It was difficult," Carlson admits. "Our kitchen is not really set up for it. Things like the pad Thai and ravioli were a little easier. But the lamb was difficult ... just a matter of so many little intricacies on the plate and keeping everything hot by the time you plate them all."

Before that night, Carlson already was spent, mentally and physically. For the past three weeks he had been developing a new menu, operating on no more than three hours of sleep a night. To add to the pressure, Carlson went all out to impress his guests. "It was the most courses we'd ever done," he says.And maybe too many for even a pack of notoriously voracious chefs. French pastry chef Pierre Herme, jet-lagged from flying in from Moscow that day, kept dozing off. Spaniard Ferran Adria, who had been served a five-course meal at Topolobampo just hours earlier, became so full that he stopped eating about halfway into the meal. Says chef and cookbook author Michael Ruhlman, who sat with Adria, "He felt that it was rude not to finish a course, and thus better to decline it completely."Carlson brushes off the notion that uneaten food added to the stress, but McKay says, "It's not ideal to see some plates come back with uneaten food from your idols."Still, official reports from the meal were glowing.
The following day, Adria praised the crew, calling them "young and passionate" and the meal "an entire story." Trotter called the food "brilliant." English chef Heston Blumenthal said, "I ate everything on my plate," and "I love to see that young passion." Even the exhausted Herme said he "enjoyed all the different flavors and textures." "They did a great job," Trotter says."It was really an amazing dinner," remembers Blackbird chef de cuisine Mike Sheerin. "I'd had a lot of those courses before, but that night they were still great."
After the frenzy of the cooking, the euphoria of the postmeal congratulations, Carlson slammed back a few glasses of wine and took his first relaxed breath of the evening."How do you describe it?" Carlson says. "It was the most exciting thing that we'd ever done. We were so amped from it."
But the next morning, with the Schwa staff gathered, Carlson announced that he was closing the restaurant, effective immediately."I just said I couldn't do it," Carlson says.By late Saturday, one diner on a blog complained that Schwa had canceled his reservation. By Sunday the news of the closing was making its way around town.When the Tribune called Schwa on Monday morning, sous-chef McKay answered. "I'm here canceling all reservations, and we are not taking any new ones," he said, sounding exhausted, rattled and dejected. "[We are closed] because the better portion of our staff is dealing with personal problems affecting their personal life. ... [We are not going to open] until they are in good shape. ... I just want my friends to be OK."
In the weeks following the closure, attempts by the Tribune to reach Carlson or talk to friends proved futile. Most in the chef and food community closed ranks around their colleague, refusing even to speculate on what might have happened.McKay and Nathan Klingbail called other chefs, offering the contents of Schwa's refrigerator so nothing would go to waste. One of the beneficiaries was chef Mindy Segal of Hot Chocolate, who fashioned a four-course menu dedicated to Schwa. "Out of respect for our friends," Segal says.Those dishes were the last anyone would taste of Schwa for at least four months." We were fried, burned out," Carlson says. "This industry, great as it is, can wear on you in every facet. And not all of us are super chefs who can deal with everything that gets thrown at you."
Ordinarily, a closing that abrupt -- and so apparently capricious -- would have jilted reservation-holders screaming for blood.Instead, there was understanding, patience and an outflowing of support on blogs and in person."Of course, some people weren't too happy," Carlson says. "But generally our guests are kind and genuinely concerned about us. They were incredibly supportive, sending me books on focusing yourself and learning to relax."
In fact, Carlson had been talking about a vacation for quite some time. At one point, there was even talk of Klingbail's taking over the reins while Carlson took a break, a notion Carlson dismissed."I couldn't not be there," he says. "We're all control freaks, man."Carlson will speak of his hiatus only in the vaguest of terms."I kind of cut off all contact," he says. "I left town for a while. I was just taking some time for perspective."I got to spend a lot of family time, which I had been missing horribly," he says. "It ruined me. I can't go four hours without calling Lily, my [17-month-old] daughter, now, and being, like, 'Hey, how're you doing.'"
Wednesday, Carlson will unveil the next iteration of Schwa, with an all-new kitchen staff (including Jonathan Ory of Heat and Bluprint and Gaetano Nardulli of Butter), a spiffed-up dining room and a new menu, in the same location. For the last two weeks, he has been serving practice dinners to friends, family and many of the customers he abandoned last fall.
Carlson's immediate goals are to return Schwa to its high culinary level while minimizing the stress that triggered its closure."When you have something you are really proud of, obviously you can never really relax," he says. "But you can't kill yourself. The stress wears on you, but you've got to find that happy medium."To that end, Carlson has added a fifth man in the kitchen. He's also started coming to work at 11 a.m. (rather than 8 a.m.) so he can hang out with Lily in the morning."It's about gaining perspective to say, 'Hey, man, the restaurant will still be here, but my daughter is only going to be 1 once.'"Not only is running a restaurant stressful, experts say, but it's also a challenge for which many trained chefs are unprepared."Just producing good food is stressful," says Chris Koetke, dean of the School of Culinary Arts at Kendall College in Chicago. "But when you layer on all that other stuff ... I've known a lot of fabulous chefs, who figure their next natural step is to own their own place, and then find there's a whole separate layer of stress beyond running the kitchen. Almost invariably, something gets affected, whether it's your health, your personal relationships or something else."
"When I started, it wasn't, 'Learn the mother sauces, and then let me tell you how to read a spreadsheet,'" Koetke says. "Nobody did that; all the training was about how to be a really, really good cook. Now in Kendall we do teach [business issues], but for a lot of students it's a steep learning curve."Carlson always intended Schwa to be a relatively relaxed operation. Its very name is a phonetic symbol that indicates an unstressed vowel; the word was part of his teenage slang. Instead of "Chill out," he would say, "Be schwa."This time around, it's a mantra he's trying to practice himself. Will it work?"Well, I hope so," he says. "I know I'll never give this up, so I have to learn to deal."- - -
The 14-course menu
1. Truffle-size roasted beets hollowed and filled with bacon chocolate ganache and rolled in cocoa. Served with a shot of cold beet juice and white chocolate foam in a glass rimmed with bacon powder.
2. Oatmeal-dusted fried oysters served with cooked oatmeal, raisins and maple syrup.
3. Roasted corn soup with grilled corn, mayonnaise, chili and lime.
4. Pad thai using jellyfish as noodles.
5. Quail-egg ravioli topped with shaved white truffles.
6. A sweet cone filled with rosemary, juniper and yuzu pudding ("mock pine") and sea urchin ice cream with salted caramel and pink peppercorns.
7. Purees of avocado and cauliflower served with golden trout caviar.
8. Spanish mackerel with zucchini flower, hummus and rosewater yogurt.
9. Braised beef tripe mixed with a brioche puree to create a panzanella (bread salad).
10. Sauteed sweetbreads with green cardamom marshmallow and smoked plum.
11. Lamb with green curry, Israeli couscous and homemade root beer.
12. Savory cheesecake made with Humboldt Fog cheese and shaved black truffles.
13. Rhubarb puree, honey sorbet and camomile agar cubes.
14. Soft pretzels with turmeric ice cream and mustard and beer emulsion next to dates filled with salted caramel and bloomed mustard seeds and rolled in crispy crushed pretzels.----------

The guest list
Among the culinary luminaries who attended the dinner at Schwa:Ferran Adria: Chef/owner of Spain's El Bulli, which has been named best restaurant in the world the past two years by Restaurant magazine. Widely seen as the father of progressive modern cooking.Charlie Trotter: Chef/owner of four-star Charlie Trotter's in Chicago. Winner of countless awards, including the James Beard Foundation's Outstanding Chef of the Year in 1999.Heston Blumenthal: Chef at The Fat Duck in Bray, England, which has been either first or second best restaurant in the world in Restaurant magazine the last four years. Also a purveyor of the "modern cuisine," he is considered one of the best chefs in England.Thomas Keller: Chef/owner of French Laundry in Yountville, Calif., and Per Se in New York. Widely considered the best chef in America. French Laundry was No. 1 on Restaurant magazine's "World's 50 Best Restaurants" list in 2003 and 2004 (currently No. 4).Pierre Herme: Known for his artistic and avant-garde creations, he is considered the greatest living French pastry chef.Albert Adria: Pastry chef and co-owner of El Bulli; brother of Ferran.Michael Ruhlman: Best-selling author of "Making of a Chef," "The French Laundry Cookbook" and "A Return to Cooking." A Culinary Institute of America-trained chef and popular blogger.Larry Stone: Former Trotter sommelier is considered one of the top sommeliers in the world.Wylie Dufresne: Chef and owner of New York's WD-50, considered one of the top American outposts for the modern style of cooking.Michael Sheerin: Chef de cuisine of Blackbird and former sous-chef at WD-50.Oriol Castro: El Bulli sous-chef who did a stint with Trotter in 1999.Matthias Merges: Trotter's chef de cuisine.Michael McDonald: Chicago-area native and executive chef of Trotter's C in Los Cabos, Mexico. Will head the kitchen at Restaurant Charlie, Trotter's Las Vegas restaurant opening Feb. 25.--

Monica Eng- - -Who is Michael Carlson?
Trying to compile a biographical timeline for Michael Carlson is not easy. The chef is hazy on dates and years. He is sure that he was born June 5, 1974 in Chicago and raised in Glen Ellyn and Lombard.But when we asked for more details, things got murky.The facts we could independently confirm are in brackets.
Q: So you attended college before cooking, right?A : Not really, man.
Q: You studied at the Cooking and Hospitality Institute of Chicago for at least one semester. What years?A: I really couldn't tell you. Maybe eight years ago, maybe 10.
Q: OK, but during that time you were working for chef Paul Bartolotta, right?A: Yeah, whenever he was at Spiaggia -- his last two years [1998-2000]
Q: And after that you went to cook and study in Italy under people such as Valentino Marcatilli at San Domenico.A: Yeah, I was there for like two years and I know that 9/11 happened during that time.
Q: When you returned to the States you worked with Grant Achatz at Trio.A: Yeah, I was his first hire after they opened [in late 2001] and was there until about eight months before he left [in August 2004].
Q: Then you traveled to England to work with Heston Blumenthal at The Fat Duck, right?A: Yeah, that was for a few months right after I was at Trio [in late 2004].
Q: When you returned you were going to sign up for the Alinea crew, but then the Lovitt space [which he took over for Schwa] opened up and you worked there.A: Yeah, just for like three months to see how I liked the kitchen. I remember the weather was warm [spring and summer of 2005].
Q: Then Schwa opened in fall of 2005.A: I think that sounds about right.
Q: Then you were voted one of the Best New Chefs by Food & Wine in July 2006.A: Yeah, I think.


Missy said...

Has anyone eaten there? I hear he's opened back up again...

Anonymous said...

I haven't but would love to. It did just open back up. Shaw