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NewCityNet Raiding the Fridge

Snooping around the kitchens of Chicago foodies

By Ellen Fox

JUNE 5, 2000:  You can tell a lot about a person by looking in their fridge.

For example, a peek inside mine might have you guessing--correctly--that for the past few months I've been taking my dietary cues from those dreadful women's fitness magazines: plastic pitcher of Crystal Light, boxes of rice milk, V-8 with calcium, strawberries, broccoli and light sour cream (mostly indistinguishable from the tub of nonfat yogurt). Upstairs in the freezer are two sorbets and some year-old cans of Bacardi mixer--for those impromptu guests who never seem to stop by, perhaps because there's never anything good to eat.

For many people, the kitchen is the real living room, and the contents of the refrigerator, a resident's Rosetta Stone. Opening its magnet-adorned door sheds light--literally--on the personality, and perhaps, the secrets of its owner. So what do some prominent Chicago foodies have stashed away in the fridge or freezer?

"Beer mugs," says Terry Alexander, of his freezer's bounty. The restaurateur (Mia Francesca, Tizi Melloul) keeps the glasses cold for the Sierra Nevada Pale Ale and Bell's Oberon in his and fiance Kristin Skrainy's Frigidaire. But Alexander doesn't live on beer alone; there's leftover Babalucci thin-crust pizza topped with spinach, black olives and sun-dried tomatoes, along with blue Gatorade, Tropicana Pure Premium ("I splurge on the orange juice, I do not hold back on that"), and on the lighter side, some Odwalla juices and Yoplait yogurt. But what keeps the fridge from looking too much like a frat brother's are the five bottles of wine, like Fiddlehead Sauvignon Blanc and Jed Steele's Pinot Grigio, which he and Skrainy are tasting for their new Wicker Park restaurant M.O.D.--set to open in just three weeks. So forgive him if he hasn't had time to stock up on healthier fare, and please don't tell his mother, or "she'll be on the next plane out of Omaha with her homemade lasagna and two gallons of milk."

Up in Evanston, Chef Sarah Stegner's got milk--whole milk--and an entire Parma prosciutto she's preparing for an upcoming reception. The star of the Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton also stocks her GE with Heinz ketchup, Jaffa oranges, wild honey and a pyramid of goat cheese. But the freezer is where she keeps her reserves--lots of bread and Dunkin Donuts coffee, plus 4 pounds of hickory nuts ("I like them raw") and a quart of Baskin Robbins' Pralines and Cream. You'll also find a 3-4-pound Dominick's chicken--which she always roasts whole, in a perfect-fit pan with some olive oil, salt and pepper. So chefs still like to cook even after a grueling day at the restaurant? "Yes, they do!" she exclaims. "I know my refrigerator isn't reflecting that now, but absolutely!"

A peek at the Amana refrigerator of Jim Simpson--new president of the Cooking and Hospitality Institute of Chicago--reveals a decidedly less chic selection than one would imagine (if you don't count the bottle of Champagne Veuve Clicquot he keeps on hand). The CHIC head stocks staples like eggs, Monterey Jack and Cheddar cheese, onions and peppers ("Then I can always make an omelet") beside cans of Budweiser and Squirt. Miracle Whip keeps company with Marie's Blue Cheese dressing and Dean's cottage cheese--always small curd: "I will eat cottage cheese with every meal," he laughs. "I don't know why, I just like it." You too can laugh at the Jewel hamburger patties and Ore Ida Tater Tots in the freezer, but Simpson defends himself: "I'm a bachelor, so at least I have more than just beer or ketchup." Besides, sometimes it's quantity, not quality: "I think many people don't cook because they have to go to the store, not because they don't want to cook."

Then again, sometimes it's quality and quantity. Restaurant impresario Jerry Kleiner (Marche, Gioco, Red Light) boasts a 4-foot-wide, 7-and-1/2-foot tall, stainless steel refrigerator--which is made by commercial appliance company Traulsen and will set you back $10,000-$12,000. Its see-through glass doors permit any visitor to his vast River West (or, depending on who you ask, West End) abode to view its contents, so aesthetics are a must. "You gotta buy packaged merchandise when you have glass windows," he explains. "It's like props."

There might be a hundred stacked cans of pop in there, he estimates, along with jars of pickles, plus stainless steel bowls of grapes and little carrots, sandwich meats and bread, and leftover chocolate cigars from a recent party. No unsightly plastic gallon-jugs here--one finds milk in streamlined Dean's or Oberweis bottles. The separate freezer holds candy bars and tubs of Baskin Robbins ice cream for his children Maxx, 5, and Alaia, 4. He frequently takes the kids out to dinner at both his own restaurants and other playful places, but you'll never spot a doggy bag in the window. "We don't do leftovers," he admits. "Leftovers don't have the right packaging."

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