Posts tagged: chef

Secrets of the Empanada, all the way from Colombia

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By , August 3, 2009 8:00 am

Carlos Escalantes offers his empanadas

Carlos Escalantes offers his ingenious empanadas

Who doesn’t love empanadas?  Certainly not someone who has discovered Lito’s Empanadas, a well-kept secret on Clark St. Empanada-expert Carlos Escalante earned his degree in business administration in Colombia and worked as a plant manager in Ohio before launching Lito’s two years ago.  He took the time to talk with Funsherpa about South American food, Colombian slang, and, of course, his unusual empanadas...

F: What is about an empanada? Why did you decide to build a business around it?

Well I’m from Colombia, where empanadas are really popular. I’ve always wanted to have my own business and knew empanadas could be a good idea. When I moved here I didn’t have enough money; I didn’t have the credit history to just apply for a loan. Around 2006 I started making them for my wife’s family – she’s from Wisconsin – and for my friends here. People liked them, so one day we said, “Why don’t we open an empanada place?” It took me seven years, but we finally opened in 2007.

An Awesome Empanada

An Awesome Empanada

F: What do you think of Chicago’s South American cuisine?

I’ve been to a couple of Colombian places like Las Tablas, and they are really good! But there wasn’t a take-out place like this in Chicago-

F: What is your favorite empanada?

That’s a tough one: I would have to choose between a few. We just have ten, but I love the Hawaiian one.

(We do too.)

F: If you could add another empanada to the menu of ten, what would it be?

I’m actually working on it right now!  I want to add one with shrimp and another with chorizo. There are so many things you can put in an empanada-

F: You said empanadas are popular in Colombia – are they usually associated with a particular meal? Or can they eaten for breakfast, lunch, and dinner? (We hope so)

Where I come from, they are really popular for breakfast.  Some places are only open from 6am until 8 or 9 when they sell out, and then they are done for the day. That’s just for breakfast.

It’s not popular for lunch. Later in the day, that’s when people start looking for empanadas…

F: What is the most empanadas you’ve seen anyone eat in one sitting?


(Can’t say we blame them)

F: What other cuisine do you enjoy around Chicago?

I love hamburgers – that’s my favorite American dish. I’m happy at any place that has hamburgers.

F: We heard you previously worked in the auto industry – what made you decide to open a restaurant?

I was the plant manager for an auto-parts plant for five years: I started in Toledo, Ohio back in 2000. The owner decided to open a shop here in Chicago, and he gave me the opportunity to move here and be plant manager. So yeah, I was doing something totally different.

F: Why did you decide to move from Colombia to Chicago?

I finished a degree in business administration in Colombia in December 1999, and I had a friend living in Toledo, Ohio. I didn’t have many options in my country, so he said, “Well, why don’t you come up here and see what you can find?” I came to Toledo and ten days later met the owner of the auto-parts supplier in church. At the time, he was just looking for someone to sweep the floors, take the garbage out, load and unload trucks – I eventually showed him I could help manage people and assembly lines.

A year later he decided to expand  to Chicago. By that time, I was bored, frustrated, and thinking of going back to Colombia. Toledo, Ohio is a really small town with not many things to do.  So it was good timing when he said, “Well do you want to move to Chicago?”

F: Why did you choose to stay in Chicago and start a business here?

I love this city. They have everything here, and it’s not that expensive to live in, if you’re smart. I don’t complain about the winters much; it’s nice having four seasons – you just have to enjoy them.

F: What is your favorite Colombian Slang expression?

‘Tenaz’ – I don’t even think it’s in the dictionary, but we use it a lot in Colombia. When you’ve been in a tough situation, you say, “Tenaz!”

F: What is the rough English translation of “tenaz”?

When you say, “Really?!” [incredulously]

F: What is the future of Lito’s Empanadas? Any expansion plans?

Yeah!  When we decided we wanted to open, the first step was just to find a place. We found a place; we signed a lease; and that means you have to do it. To open the shop was really tough; to keep it running – that’s another thing. Now that it’s running, I have to go and find the next one…

Skip the cleaning and enjoy a feast in your home with Chef Chris Tong

By , June 29, 2009 8:00 am

The private chef putting together a hearty meal

The private chef putting together a hearty meal

Sometimes the cure for hunger can be found in the comforts of your own home.  Chef Chris Tong talks to us about his private chef service and some of his latest creations.  If you are a food lover like us, then you will surely enjoy this feature…if nothing else, it will force you to make something good for dinner tonight.

F:  Can you describe Chicago cuisine?  What are the major influences to the food we eat?

C: Chicago does not really have one cuisine.  The flavors are as diverse as the ethnic neighborhoods. Chicago cuisine is influenced by its multicultural landscape, seasonal ingredients, and the latest culinary trends.

F:  Chicago has a lot of great chefs and good food. How are your creations uniquely yours, what are some key differences between you and the local talent?

C: Every chef develops his or her own style based on background and training.  I was born and trained in Europe and I think that all my experiences have influenced my dishes.  After 25 years in kitchens at fine restaurants and hotels in Chicago, Los Angeles and Florida, I have adapted my skills to the world of private entertaining.  With my service, I have the flexibility and luxury of customizing menus for my clients – allowing me to prepare an elegant dinner in the comfort of our clients’ homes leaving them free to relax and enjoy the meal!

F:  Any ingredient you can’t live without? Why?

C: Butter, fresh herbs, and extra virgin olive oil are my staples.  They give my dishes great flavor. If possible, I like to use an olive oil from the country associated with the dish I am preparing.

F:  Do you still do much experimenting with different ingredients? Has there been anything you’ve created and never did again?

C: I experiment all of the time.  First, I visualize the dish and then develop the appropriate ingredients.  I always keep in mind what is in season.

One ingredient that I probably won’t cook again is calf’s liver. It’s not my favorite.

F:  How has your food evolved? What was the first meal you ever cooked? Knowing what you know now, how would you do it today?

C: I never stop learning and trying new ingredients and combinations.   That is the excitement of gourmet cuisine.  The more familiar I am with tastes, the more I am able to create interesting and delicious dishes. I don’t recall the very first meal that I cooked but I am sure it was simple like grilling a chicken breast. I was a teenager at the time. So today, I might stuff the chicken breast with baby arugula, colorful peppers, sun-dried tomatoes and Brie cheese.

Looks delicious...

Looks delicious...

F:  What does your own kitchen look like?

C: It is very modern and very efficient.  I have a marvelous pantry that I custom designed myself.

F: Let’s say you showed up on the Iron Chef, and the special ingredient was Wisconsin Cheese Curds, what would you create with it?

C: Roasted red and yellow vine ripe tomatoes, fresh mozzarella cheese curds, balsamic syrup and crispy basil leaves.

F:  Where do you usually shop for your ingredients?

C: I have developed excellent relationships with vendors that I worked with over the years at the hotels and restaurants. This allows us to create special menu items such as foie gras, exotic wild game, seasonal seafood or different varieties of caviar. We feature ingredients the public can’t buy on their own. I also visit the Farmer’s markets for fresh seasonal ingredients.

F:  Best place to sit down and eat one of your creations?

C: Right in your own home!

F: What local Chicago neighborhood has the best food? Why?

C: There are so many great restaurants in this city. Some of my favorite neighborhood restaurants are in Lincoln Square, Bucktown and Andersonville.

F:  What are your favorite things to do in Chicago that do not involve food?

C: I love to ride my bike along the lakefront and up to the Chicago Botanic Gardens.

F: Where’s the best place for us to learn how to make meals as good as yours?

C: Why not arrange for some private lessons in your own kitchen with My Private Chef?  Or, you can attend one of my cooking demonstrations and get helpful tips on shopping, preparing and storing ingredients.  For upcoming events and appearances, see our calendar.

Legit crack and cupcake alternatives from Aussie baker Naomi Levine

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By , May 25, 2009 8:00 am

Naomi and her creations

Naomi and her creations

Half a world and opposite hemispheres away, Australian native Naomi Levine finds her home in Chicago. While one profanity away from being barred entry into the US by immigration back in ‘99, Naomi is now an official ingredient of the American melting pot (she got her US citizenship recently) – contributing her say-it-straight-up personality and unique baking skills into the mix. As owner of Tipsycake in Humboldt Park, Naomi explains why her ‘crack squares’ are legit despite the addictiveness and shares some insights into the differences between Australian and Chicago fare. So, the next time you need crack, a cake shaped like anything, or a taste of Australia, stop by Tipsycake and kick it with Naomi.

F: So you moved out to Chicago from Sydney. Are you nuts?

N: I moved out here 10 years ago, back in 1999. I don’t really love the outdoors, so trading Sydney for Chicago wasn’t too difficult. Yes I am crazy and I’m not going back. I am a prisoner in Chicago, I have a kid, a building, a boyfriend, so there’s no moving back for me.

F: What is the first thing you did when you went back here?

N: I fought with immigration. They interrogated me regarding my tourist visa…but they can kiss my a** now because I am a US citizen.

F: What do you miss from Australia?

N: The awesome seafood, because it is hard to find it out here. I miss the coffee culture, fresh passion fruit, but enjoying the good Mexican food here because you can’t get it in Sydney.

F: What Aussie creations are proving popular with local Chicagoans?

N: They like the lamingtons, sponge cake, and the caramel fudge, which we renamed the crack squares because we are in Humboldt park and it is addictive. It has been challenging adopting Aussie sweets to the American palate because Australian pastries usually consist of passion fruit and coconut which Americans don’t enjoy. But we don’t use American coconut, and instead source ours from Indonesia. So people don’t get it when they say that they don’t like coconut and then I shove my Indonesian coconut in their mouth and they like it!

F: What is the story behind Tipsycake?

N: I started it back in 2005 because I was sick of working in corporate, and got the name from the Oxford Dictionary of Food (a type of cake that gets you tipsy). I got into it because I saw a need, have the skill and am passionate about it. Our specialties are Australian pastries, like the pavlovas and lamingtons, and three dimensional cakes.

NSFW, but we censored it ourselves.

A NSFW cake, but we censored it ourselves.

F: Sydney vs. Chicago cuisine?

N: The food is not really comparable; they are very different. Midwestern cuisine focuses on corn, beef and has rich Hispanic influences. Sydney has strong ties to seafood and Asian influences. The coffee culture here is heavily biased towards Starbucks and large chains. In Australia, it is very dependent on independent coffee houses. (On a side note, if you ever try ordering coffee from Australia, it is like being the casting director of a porno film)

F: There are about a billion cupcake stores popping up. What’s that about?

N: The cupcake craze going on is driving me insane. There’s really nothing special about it because anyone can make a cupcake…that doesn’t mean that we don’t serve them – there is a strong demand, so we caved in and are now selling them.

F: What is the most challenging cake design you’ve ever worked on?

N: A 3D Yoda. It took us 2 days and we got the order 2 days before it was due. We finished and delivered it intact.

Spot the Yoda difference

Spot the Yoda difference

F: Do you get any strange requests for cake flavors or designs?

N: We usually get unusual requests for designs, but people tend to be conservative with their flavors. We would really like to do unique flavors like passion fruit or coconut but people cringe when they hear it. With regards to designs, you name it, we’ve done it – noses, penises, ears, head, shoulders, toes malaria tablets, and a butt.

F: What neighborhood do you live in?

N: I live right above the store in Humboldt Park. It is a very diverse neighborhood.

F: Where can people find a touch of Aussie in Chicago, food, art, culture?

N: At Tipsycake of course! Other great places to find Australian inspired cuisine include the Goddess and Grocer in Bucktown, and Feast restaurant.

F: Things to try from Tipsycake?

N: The crack squares and our lamingtons!

F: I hear you make meatpies and that they are awesome. How do we order some and what fillings do you have?

N: Thanks! Give us a call because you have to pre-order them – we make beef filled meat pies and pork sausage rolls.

F: What do you recommend people do if they make the trip to Sydney?

N: Take 6 weeks off! Go all over Australia because you will never do it again. Don’t stay in upscale hotels and instead try a bed and breakfast. Eat local cuisine. Go to the opera. Go to the park. Eat fish and chips. Don’t worry about tipping – there’s none of that 20% ‘tax’ over there. If they want to travel, talk to my friend Olivia from See ANZ Travel – she’ll look after you!

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