We are beyond excited to be launching a festival in a city with as rich a culinary history as Chicago! As we gear up for the inaugural Chicago Food + Wine Festival we thought it only fitting to talk with one of the city’s most acclaimed chefs – Tony Mantuano.
We caught up with the unofficial godfather of Chicago culinary culture to talk all things past, present and future for the local food scene.
Chicago Food + Wine: What do you think sets Chicago apart from other vibrant food cities across the country?
Tony Mantuano: I think one of the greatest things about Chicago is our culinary community. The chefs here are so supportive of each other and our restaurants. We really get behind new openings, are super enthusiastic about new places. Chefs can cook whatever they want and its embraced. The setting, the people and city are great.
Since opening your first Italian fine dining restaurant in Chicago in the 80s, you’ve likely witnessed your fair share of food trends in the city. Which ones are you happy to have seen stand the test of time?
Well, one thing I’m happy to see gone is the silly naming of restaurants. No more Lawrence of Oregano or Jonathan Livingston Seafood. Glad that trend has stopped. One trend I enjoy seeing is how craftsmanship has become something we’re showcasing more and more now in Chicago. For example, there are so many chefs and outlets curing their own meats and they’re fantastic.
While I’m not too far removed from this, I’m happy to see how authentic Italian has lasted the test of time. When we opened, we were the only ones offering a taste of what was being created in Italy. Now there are more places than ever. We have an Eataly, there is Osteria Langhe that focuses on one region. People understand Italian food more than ever and it’s wonderful.
How has local restaurant culture changed since then?
There are a lot more restaurants today than there were in the 80s and because of this the chef community has grown immensely. We’re like a family here. We all work together to promote Chicago as a great culinary destination. Another way local restaurant culture has changed is you’re seeing restaurants open up in neighborhoods that you never would have thought 20-30 years ago.
In your opinion, which young chefs are shaping the future of Chicago’s culinary landscape? How?
There is so much great talent cropping up in Chicago. Not including the team at my restaurants, I would say Jimmy Bannos Jr., Lee Wolen, Sarah Grueneberg, and Erling Wu Bower are just a few examples. Not only are they leading the pack, they’re creating great food and also training the next generation of talent.
What innovative approaches are you most excited about?
There is a lot more blurring of the lines than they’re used to be— more and more chefs are mixing traditional and modern techniques, cross-pollination of cultures or regions in dishes, and even what makes fine dining nowadays.
At the first annual Chicago Food + Wine Festival there will be top chefs not only from Chicago, but from all across the country. Who are you most excited to collaborate with or learn from?
It’s always great to see old friends like Jonathan Waxman. Not only is it fun to catch up, but we also get to see what each other is working on or even learn a new technique or two.
Food festivals are essentially a party full of good times, great culinary discoveries and exciting experiences. What pieces of advice do you have for first-time festival-goers?
It’s great to have a plan, make a schedule and buy tickets for the events you must see. However, don’t underestimate the “down time” between demos or events. Some of the greatest moments are happenstance when you’re just walking around the chefs showcase and you run into a chef and have a serendipitous meeting. Makes the experience even better. Keep your eyes open!