Home Cookin’ 4: A Conversation with Steve Zaransky

By Alan Lake (Jazzfood)


Alan Lake: Let’s go back to early Steve food memories.  

Steve Zaransky: My dad was in the hotel business, which gave me a lot of exposure – but really, the earliest memories with food were of my mom cooking. I would sit on this little chair in front of the oven window watching choux pastry rise. Like it was a TV. I just couldn’t believe that this was happening in the oven in front of me. I was five or six and totally into watching this. My mom’s a great cook; she cranked out great dinners on a daily basis. She was a stay-at-home mom, who cooked full dinners for the family every night. That formed the memories for what she still cooks today.

Alan Lake: For instance?  

Steve Zaransky: She has a whole collection of kugels, different ones that she makes at different times. I’ve just finally gotten some of the recipes from her.

Alan Lake: Different kugels besides noodle and potato?  

Steve Zaransky: There’s one with spinach, carrots, mushrooms, zucchini and some other veggies. She’s got a sweet one that’s like apple pie that’s crunchy on top. It’s flat, maybe 1/3” thick.

Alan Lake: What makes it a kugel then? I always thought it involved using the traditional noodles or potatoes.  

Steve Zaransky: I don’t know, that’s just what she calls them. These are mostly made with matzoh meal and eggs and she serves them for Passover, but also at other times. They’re all recipes that she used to trade with her girlfriends.

Alan Lake: So these others don’t have noodles or potatoes?

Steve Zaransky: No, matzoh meal. The vegetables are chopped really fine, then baked, almost like a soufflé.


Short Ribs


Alan Lake: Interesting. Let’s get back to your childhood.  

Steve Zaransky: Sure. I’d go with my dad to the hotels, and a big part of it was catering. I liked hanging out in the kitchen during parties.

Alan Lake: Which hotels? 

Steve Zaransky: There was the Hamilton, which was on the site of what’s now Chase Bank at 20 S. Dearborn. That was attached to the Morrison Hotel, which was bigger and more famous. He ended up managing the Morrison as well. My Bar Mitzvah was at the Morrison. Not only was it at the Morrison, it was their last party before they tore it down to build the bank.

Alan Lake: The swan song.

Steve Zaransky: Yeah (laughs). Then he had one in Evanston on Main and Maple called the Ridgeview. It’s still there, but now it’s senior housing.

Alan Lake: This is your grandfather or your father? I remember you telling me once your grandfather owned hotels.

Steve Zaransky: This is my father. My grandfather had the Plaza Hotel on Clark and North, which is where the Latin School is now. That’s how my dad got into the business – he ran that for my grandfather.

Alan Lake: What years?

Steve Zaransky: Probably the late ‘40s right after the war through the late ‘60s when they tore it down to build the school. That hotel survived the Chicago fire, it was really old. The Ridgeview was later. I was older then, and more able to help out – to pay attention and actually know what was going on.

Alan Lake: And you’re how old [during this period]?

Steve Zaransky: That would be 12-16.

Alan Lake: I grew up working in my family’s stores as well. What was your favorite thing to do?  Mine was steaming clothes, dressing windows or trying to sneak a peek.

Steve Zaransky: (Laughs.) I did a stint as a soda jerk in the coffee shop. That was fun. I had the cap and the scoop – we did egg creams, sodas, phosphates…The menu was kind of patterned after the Buffalo Ice Cream Parlor on Irving and Pulaski. Or maybe Margie’s.

Alan Lake: Were you cooking then?  

Steve Zaransky: I’d help out, do some prep. Wrap potatoes in foil for baking, wash dishes, etc. I learned how to make Baked Alaska for 500. How to organize the parade of waiters as they walked into the room with ‘em flaming.

Alan Lake: Who lit them?  

Steve Zaransky: There was a guy named Ollie Selamakis, the catering manager – that was his thing. He was in charge of the whole deal. He taught me a lot. Good guy.

Alan Lake: What was his background? 

Steve Zaransky: He started out as a waiter and moved up. He was a lifer. He was the catering manager at the Belmont Hotel when he went to work for my dad and stayed with him until he retired. When my dad would move, he’d come with. Once the Hamilton was torn down, the Ridgeview became my dad’s primary property.

Alan Lake: Are your grandparents still involved at this point?

Steve Zaransky: The hotels were my mom’s side of the family. By that time, both of those grandparents were gone. My dad’s side, his father was a stereotypical junkman with a cart. On the south side. Eventually he got his own scrap yard at 56th and State. It was huge – he was like Fred Sanford (laughs).

Alan Lake: Let’s get back to the food. 

Steve Zaransky: Sure. The hotels had nice restaurants and I was eating in them as a kid – so I was exposed to fine dining at a very early age. It’s always been a part of my life.

Alan Lake: In doing these stories I’m finding so many similarities in the human experience. As a kid, I traveled a lot with my family. We owned women’s wear stores and my father would go to New York on buying trips seasonally, maybe 4-5 times a year. He’d take my mother and me once each year, usually in the summer. We’d spend the first day in the garment district as a family. We’d start at our buying office and go with the buyers to see some manufacturers, because they knew the market. But [from] the next day until we went home a few days later, my mother and I would just float around New York. I got exposed to sh*t that none of my friends did – food and culture in particular. Mama Leone’s, 21, the Guggenheim, old bookstores….I remember running down some midtown street, bowling over this woman and knocking her to the ground. My mother was mortified, trying to help her up – and this woman is saying in a most wonderful British lilt, “Not to worry dear, boys will be boys.” It was Angela Lansbury, whom we’d seen onstage the night before starring in “Mame.” I was 11 or 12.  

Steve Zaransky: Yeah, it makes a big difference.

Alan Lake: Our backgrounds are so similar, yours, mine, Ronnie’s – and perfect for this story. It’s like our parents helped prime the pump for a generation of little Jewish gourmands, although it’s not like that doesn’t happen in other cultures. There are a lot that are food-centric. People are more alike than different. So, what were some of your early favorites?

Steve Zaransky: The Harrison, another one of my dad’s hotels, had this restaurant called The Cart. It was pretty famous, sort of a Lawry’ s clone with the prime rib sliced tableside from a rolling cart…They had other things on the menu and the twin lobster tails were a favorite of mine, so I’d have both.

Alan Lake: Surfing and turfing. How old are you here?

Steve Zaransky: Around 12 – prime eating days for a growing young lad.

Alan Lake: I know what you mean. One birthday, my best friends gave me a three-foot-long Romanian salami with lit candles running down the length of it. I ended up blowing out the salami and then we devoured it.

Steve Zaransky: (Laughs.) One of the hotels had an Italian joint that was good, the Little Square. Because of my dad, they actually had a kosher corned beef sandwich on the menu, so he could eat lunch.

Alan Lake: Nice. Let’s get more on your development, food-wise.

Steve Zaransky: I’ve always had an adventurous appetite. I’d try it and like it for the most part. I didn’t start cooking until much later…when I was out on my own and had the inclination, and the money, to do it.

Alan Lake: What made you want to?

Steve Zaransky: I had to cook dinner and I didn’t want to do it half-assed. I wanted to be able to cook food that was as good as what I’d get in a restaurant. As a kid, I’d watched a lot of cooking shows on TV…Julia Child, Francois and Antoinette Pope, PBS.  I just decided to go for it.

Alan Lake: What did you start cooking first?

Steve Zaransky: Barbecue…did a lot of barbecue. I’ve been barbecuing  a long time. I was tired of the same old stuff so I started trying to grill or smoke new things. The first “oddball” thing I did was with fish. That, and once in Boston I had a seafood stew that I really liked, so I decided I would try to make it at home. This is ‘75-‘76. I’d eat in a restaurant and it would be really good, and then I’d go home, and it wouldn’t be that good.

Alan Lake: Time to up your game.

Steve Zaransky: Exactly. So I did.

Alan Lake: So what’s in your wheelhouse these days?

Steve Zaransky: In the wintertime it’s any type of braise, or making soup. In the summer, outdoor stuff. Smoking, salads, side dish kinds of things. I’m smoking a brisket for Passover, and making a kugel. It’s a surprise I’m hoping will go over well. I’m also cooking lamb and ham for Easter.

Alan Lake: Before we go I’ve got to mention LTH. The fact that you, Ronnie and Dickson stepped in to save it was really a superb gesture. A perfect fit that allowed it to maintain its spirit and leave it be pretty much as it was.

Steve Zaransky: LTH has really opened up the dining scene for me…as it has for a lot of people. It’s worked out pretty well for everybody involved.

Alan Lake: It’s been a respected part of the culinary scene in Chicago for a decade now.

Steve Zaransky: I’m glad it’s still going, but I don’t feel that it belongs to me, or anyone else in particular.

Alan Lake: There are a lot of people that have a sense of ownership with LTH. That take it very seriously and appreciate it. People contribute, they feel strongly about something, get their questions answered, their chow on or needs met…

Steve Zaransky:  Yeah, I’m proud to be part of it. It’s pretty unique.

Alan Lake: Amen.

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