By Alan Lake (Jazzfood)
Alan Lake: Give me some background into your food illness. What started you on your path?
Ronnie Suburban: My dad was a deli man. His first job, when he was 14 – you know when Jews were still on the South Side of Chicago – he was in high school and had a job working at a deli. He loved it! And before that, my grandfather was a kosher butcher. He had a shop on 77th and Jeffery. So it was in the family on that side. My dad wasn’t a particularly well-versed guy with food, but what he loved, he loved to share. I remember certain sandwiches he would make, or certain things he would cook for us…I mean, he had a limited repertoire but certain things obviously meant something more to him.
Alan Lake: For Instance?
Ronnie Suburban: Matzoh brie, he used to love to make that for us. Salami and eggs. He loved hard salami, big sandwiches…He’d get these salamis and let them dry out – you don’t have to keep them refrigerated, you just hang them until they’re all shriveled up and really hard. That’s how he liked ‘em.
Alan Lake: Yeah, me too. I grew up at Romanian on Clark and Touhy. It was the same thing. And best of all, it’s still the same thing.
Ronnie Suburban: Yeah. This guy Alex that he worked for at the deli years later went on to run the retail shop at Sinai 48. So my dad would send us down there, my brother and I, to pick up salamis or hot dogs or whatever, and this guy would always give us the hook-up.
Alan Lake: Were you living on the South Side at the time?
Ronnie Suburban: No, no, we were up north – so he’d send us crazy Glencoe kids down. We worked in a family friend’s warehouse down there. My dad got us jobs there because he knew it’d be a good thing for us to be out in the world with people who weren’t from Glencoe. He was a city guy through and through and knew that without the city experience, we’d grow up basically being human veal. So my dad would say, “Go see Alex,” and Alex would have this box filled and ready for us…he’d be shoving sandwiches in my pocket (laughs). “Hey, ya gotta take this sandwich, here’s some tongue, here’s some pastrami.” He’d always hook us up. He loved my dad so much. Yeah, so deli was a big thing in my family. My grandparents…you know, it was a big thing every year making the gefilte fish at the holidays.
Alan Lake: Did you help?
Ronnie Suburban: No, I watched. At that time in my life, unfortunately, I had no interest. I mean I ate it and I loved it, but it never occurred to me to learn how to make it – which is a shame because now they’re gone and it was really great. We’d sit at the table and everybody would have their opinions. “The fish, it was the best year ever,” or “It’s not as good as last year.” That’s just how it was, you know? I remember growing up, well before high school, my dad took us to White Castle. The one on Addison. He’d tell my sister and me the story of how, when he was in high school, he had a burger-eating contest with his buddy. He ate 18 but he lost – his buddy ate 21. At the time, they were only a nickel each. We delighted in that story (laughs). We really enjoyed going to White Castle growing up.
Alan Lake: Me too. I even did the same, had the contest, with my older brother egging me on…I was so sick. Like a rite of passage.
Ronnie Suburban: (Laughs.)
Alan Lake: So the Jewish canon seemed to start your interest. How did you segue into finer dining? When did you start cooking?
Ronnie Suburban: My parents split up before high school, so my sister and I were latch-key kids. I’d cook stuff for us: eggs, hot dogs, grilled cheese…When I was a kid – very, very, young – I think I invented for myself sous vide.
Alan Lake: You and Clarence Birdseye.
Ronnie Suburban: (Laughs.) No, no, my mom use to buy these hotdogs –
Alan Lake: How old were you?
Ronnie Suburban: Maybe 10. These hot dogs would come and they’d be in two Cryovac portions with four each, and we’d take them out and boil them. I remember thinking they’d be even better if they weren’t all washed out. So I boiled the pouch in water for 10 minutes and thought, my god, these are the greatest hot dogs ever. Sous vide 1973.
Alan Lake: A hot dog epiphany.
Ronnie Suburban: We were just making stuff for ourselves. My sister was younger than me so I did the cooking. My mom wasn’t that big of a food person, but my dad’s side was big into it. Then I went to New Orleans for college. Tulane.
Alan Lake: And Tulane turned you out?
Ronnie Suburban: New Orleans did. That’s just a place where you’re completely immersed in food. That was a seminal thing for me. Being there at that stage of my life. Meeting people from different parts of the country, especially people from New Orleans – they all have their different customs and traditions. Being in a place where there’s a lot of accessible street food that was dirt cheap, totally interesting and unlike anything you can get here. Things like beignets, crawfish, po’ boys, red beans and rice…even Popeye’s. It was all so delicious! I had some really nice meals down there too. People would come visit and take us out…not too much fine dining, but I really started learning about the regionality of food there. I had a really important meal at a place called Mosca’s. It’s still there, in the middle of nowhere, outside of New Orleans. An old white shack of a house with a Budweiser sign in front, just off the bayou. The wait was like three hours. Everything was family style. Italian style chicken, oysters Mosca…incredible food. That was an eye-opener. I’m almost scared to go back. I have such fond memories…
Alan Lake: What were the oysters Mosca?
Ronnie Suburban: It was almost like a d’Jonghe. Really rich with a buttery, garlicky, breadcrumb business…and a ton of Worcestershire.
Alan Lake: In the shell or out?
Ronnie Suburban: Out, or maybe half-shell. They were all open and easy to get to. Just spectacular, iconic dishes for me. I really learned about food there.
Alan Lake: So you started incorporating it into your own cooking, or was it more collecting new knowledge?
Ronnie Suburban: No, it was more that there were certain things as I moved on, after I left there. I didn’t do much cooking there at all. But when I left I found I wanted to recreate some of the foods I’d eaten there, so some friends and I started making jambalaya. I had this great cookbook from the Times-Picayune [daily newspaper of New Orleans]. It was minimally edited, with recipes submitted to the paper filled with typos and inaccuracies. But it was a phenomenal book. So we started making jambalaya. We’d follow the recipe, but we’d also improvise, just figure it out – realizing, “Maybe they really meant this?”
I still make it today, maybe once a year, for a party. It’s really evolved. For example, the recipe called for ham. A few years into making it we’re like, “Oh, they don’t mean ham, they mean tasso.” Same with smoked sausage. We were buying smoked sausage but that morphed into andouille. So I went through this phase of trying to source everything, and that was pretty difficult, so I started making it myself. It was tasty to begin with, but when I changed it up, it tasted more like what I was eating in New Orleans. You know, like at places other people had cooked it for me. It took me a while to figure it out.
Alan Lake: That’s pretty much my story as well – a latch-key kid cooking originally for myself, and later, just wanting to recreate the food I missed after I left Chicago – except I went to the Bay Area, not NOLA. I remember dim sum in Chinatown at this huge place [Asia Gardens} with hundreds of tables on two floors that had cart service and legions of waiters. If you wanted something cut, they’d take scissors from their aprons and cut it in half. Chez Panisse had just opened as well. We liked it, and went there a lot, but had no idea that we were part of a food revolution that would change the way America eats.
Do you have a style?
Ronnie Suburban: What I love most is the craftsman part of cooking. That’s why I love charcuterie and bread baking. I went through a long phase of bread-baking, where I grew my own starter, making totally naturally leavened bread. I’d cultivate my own yeast. That book “Breads from the La Brea Bakery” had such a profound effect on my life. I mean, when I met [author] Nancy Silverton, I was in tears. The types of things with a lot of little steps…curing meats, making sausages or bread – those are the things I really love doing. And most recently, this bitters thing – I think I could get really into that as well. The longer, multi-step processes…I just love them. The jambalaya, there are so many parts to it, making your own stock and sausages, growing your own herbs…so that’s kind of how my cooking – I don’t want to say “style” – but my cooking passion evolved.
Alan Lake: And this connects you to the past?
Ronnie Suburban: We’re experiencing a renaissance now, but when I started doing this, it was really hard to get anything that wasn’t factory output crap. I wanted to go back to the deli to re-create the foods I had as a kid, because they weren’t good anymore. I want to make my own pastrami, Italian sausage. You go to the store and it sucks, the restaurant’s not any good, so I’ll just do it myself. There are a lot of artisanal shops now, but there weren’t then. If I cook something, it’s usually something I feel I can’t get anymore, something that’s been lost. I want to create something that’s evocative of my past, my history. Not to get all “Citizen Kane”-y on you, but sometimes you do search for things from your childhood that are lost, and to be transported back to significant memories by food…I just want to re-experience them. And it’s fun to share.
One very proud moment was making my own hot dogs. To me, it was a really noteworthy task. It’s a lot of work. I did it a few times until I got it right, and couldn’t believe how good they were. All the steps and techniques, the fine grinding, the poaching, the smoking… Bourdain really said it best. “Eating somebody’s food is the best shortcut into their culture.” It’s certainly the most fun.
Alan Lake: No question about it.
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