Chicago Chef Jean Joho Semi-Finalist for James Beard Award | WBEZ
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Chicago Chef Jean Joho Semi-Finalist for James Beard Award

Since the mid-'80s, diners at Chicago restaurants Everest and Brasserie Jo have been enjoying the kitchen artistry of Chef Jean Joho. He's one of two local semi-finalists for the highest honor in the chef business – a James Beard Award. The other is Paul Kahan.

For WBEZ, food reporter David Hammond talks to Joho about why he likes Chicago and what he thinks about some of our current restaurant trends. He also dishes about where he would never eat! And next week Joho and Kahan will find out whether they're finalists for the James Beard Foundation Outstanding Chef of 2010.


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I sat down with Chef Joho in the dining room of Everest, perched high above the Board of Trade at a table offering a Masters of the Universe perspective westward over the plains. From here, Joho explains why our city of Chicago is so attractive to those of us who live to eat.

JOHO: Are you looking for African, Ethiopian? Are you looking for a good burger or ribs? I think depending upon the style you're looking for, that's what we have, the chance in Chicago, we have the so big diversity that many times cities don't have. And that's the wonderful thing I think. Every country's food is represented. You can go from Mexican to Italian to French, it's represented, that's the lucky part. In Chicago, you can go out every day for 30 nights and have a different kind of food, and you'll never be bored…

A professional with years of experience under his toque, Joho is cautious about endorsing any particular restaurant or chef. He was candid, however, about expressing his feelings toward more general trends, like molecular gastronomy, still a relatively new approach to cooking in which food is transformed into foams, powders and gases.

JOHO: Molecular gastronomy, you can use it but not abuse it. And I like to know what I eat, and what I take into my body…I like to know what I put in my mouth, what I put into my body, and the same goes for my customers…I've worked in many countries. I can make Italian food, I can make French food, I can make German food…but I want to taste exactly what I'm eating or eating what I'm tasting.

Even as liquid nitrogen, guar gum and lasers push the limits of what can be done with – or perhaps done “to” – food, reports are coming in that one of the “new” dining trends this year will be choucroute garni. This traditional dish from Joho's native Alsace is a platter of cooked sauerkraut, sausages and potatoes. Joho was bemused that the comfort food of his homeland was becoming the wow-it's-now must-eat food in Chicago, along with shrimp n' grits, heritage pork and soft-serve ice cream.

JOHO: Well, I had the choucroute garni at the Brasserie since 1996, and it was always a success and I was really surprised, because when I read in the paper that choucroute is coming back… I mean, sauerkraut was never gone for me, it was always here.

JOHO: I always instead of “comfort” call it “convivial,” convivial has more sense. Because choucroute eating by yourself in your room is a pretty boring dish. When you have ten people around you eating, it's a much more different atmosphere, and you want to have fun when you eat.

And Joho is excited that a sense of fun and adventure is helping expand the horizons of what's for dinner.

JOHO: There's been so much happening, so much education with eating in this country in the last 30 years. I think this country has changed a lot…Look at the stores…people know more about food, they know more about wine, they have much more education. … I think it's a wonderful thing.

But there is one aspect of modern dining that Joho isn't willing to try out.

JOHO: Never eat in front of the TV. The radio is okay, but never the TV.

Music Button: The Green Future, "Honey Rhythm and Butter", from the CD Easy Tempo, (ESL)

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