The pop-up restaurant of three UChicago students and what they can tell us about gastronomy – Chicago Maroon


I feed

Let’s take a carrot. Remember to squeeze the carrot. Remember to blend the carrot juice. Consider taking only the light foam that sits on top of the liquid. Consider the lightly orange mousse on a bright tangerine granita topped with sprinklings of thyme. Consider having this newly created, refreshing appetizer on a tasting menu at a student-run restaurant called Chef’s Table at The Crescent, or simply “The Crescent.”

“Carrot air,” as this lightweight foam is called, is created using a technique called emulsification. Using an emulsifying agent like gelatin, the chef vigorously whips the air into the juice, creating a stabilized foam. Before I close this page out of boredom, that’s pretty much all of the culinary physics I know behind the dish. “Carrot air” belongs to the popular experimental culinary genre of molecular gastronomy, or “the scientific discipline of cooking”. If you Google “carrot air” like I did, the top search results are Alinea, Goosefoot, EVER, and other Michelin star restaurants in Chicago with $$$$ signs. At Crescent, “Carrot Air” was the first course of a $45 tasting menu the week I attended – menu items change weekly.

The Crescent is run by three UChicago undergraduates – third-year Neel McDonald, sophomore Chris Pelson, and freshman Arthur Frigo. The restaurant offers a five-course dinner every Wednesday at three tables of two. Since its opening on April 6, the restaurant has been attracting interest without too much promotion. When I went there for the third Crescent tasting, the waiting list was over 50 people.

So what’s so special about having a contemporary American fixed-price table d’hôte menu in the living room of a walk-up apartment in northwest Hyde Park? I wondered after taking my appetizer and commenting “interesting taste” to my catering partner, who was taken off the waiting list. He agreed and started talking about the Japanese food he had during Chicago Restaurant Week 2022, which ended in early April. The next dish came: a baguette with whipped butter and fig jam.

The orange salt sprinkled over the whipped cream added zest to the sweetness of the jam. The thinly sliced ​​oval shaped baguette slices were crispy and served as the perfect backdrop. They also opened my taste buds to a tasty ratatouille, which was to follow. Originally a traditional Provençal dish, it harmoniously combines several summer vegetables: tomatoes, aubergines, courgettes. The chefs at Crescent placed the ratatouille in the center and topped it with roasted red pepper sauce. The first three courses on the menu combine both a refreshing taste and an intensity of flavor mediated by a velvety texture. But we were certainly expecting something. I looked up at the bottle of wine on our table.

Obviously, it’s for the filet mignon. Topped with arugula and goat cheese, the steak was perfectly tender. The chefs at Crescent cooked the tenderloin to create an almost buttery texture from the first bite and paired it with balsamic vinegar for additional flavors. The best part of the dish, however, was the meat itself. “We worked very hard to find good ingredients,” Pelson told me. Even though the restaurant was operating at a loss due to the cost of ingredients, the chefs at Crescent did not sacrifice the quality of the ingredients. To make the passion fruit creme brulee that followed the steak, Frigo traveled 45 minutes to buy passion fruit from a specific grocery store.

II. People

McDonald, Pelson and Frigo met on the team for the UChicago men’s varsity team. During one of the team’s meetings, Pelson talked about his cooking Instagram, chief_programmer. Sharing a common passion for cooking, the trio began cooking for each other, which gradually became a Thursday tradition. Their cooking evolved from simple dinners to multi-course menus that involved pre-preparing meals. Then one day while preparing their meal, the trio thought: What if we invite people over and cook for them, not by chance, but intentionally, bringing out flavors that people haven’t necessarily tried?

A big part of creating such a pop-up restaurant is making food accessible to everyone, Frigo said. The average price of a five-course dinner at a modern contemporary American restaurant is usually around $150, a price unaffordable for the majority of college students. The Crescent is not looking to make a profit. “That’s not our intention. It’s not going to turn into one either,” McDonald added. Atmosphere was also an important aspect of The Crescent. For this, the chefs bought flowers, tables and ceramic plates in addition to the ingredients, all out of their own pockets.

Not pursuing a 300% markup, unlike most high-end restaurants, according to Funding Circle—allows the Crescent to reduce the cost for students to one third of the regular price. “Our job is to share our love of cooking with the UChicago community and share the experience of the culinary world,” Frigo said.

Pelson, who is half-Taiwanese, has recently become interested in Asian cuisine as a way to connect with her heritage. McDonald’s, which has developed a love for cooking during the pandemic, has found a love for trying new recipes. Frigo, who comes from a culinary family and met many executive chefs growing up, naturally got into the science of cooking. While helping his single mother prepare food for her three younger brothers, Frigo went from cooking basic pasta dishes to experimenting with science-based gastronomy techniques. The filet mignon on this week’s menu, for example, was cooked using “sous vide”, in which the steak is placed in a sealed plastic bag and cooked in water at a controlled temperature for three hours. “It’s an amazing, amazing experience,” he said.

“Is there a dress code?” I asked at the end of the interview.

No, they told me. This is part of accessibility.

III. To classify

I rushed home to take a shower, hesitated for a second and put on a shirt instead of a hoodie. I took a Lyft there, a form of transportation I only consider when expecting to drink. Shortly after I got out of the car, three more arrived. The pouring rain forced the four of us to huddle together outside the front door waiting for someone to answer the buzzing. Great! Time to observe: A girl with an Alpha Omicron Pi tote bag and her friend in a formal pleated mini dress whispering that she was overdressed. A guy I knew for promoting events organized by a student-run venture capital group in a group chat. I walked up the stairs to the restaurant and into a sparsely decorated lounge. Three tables were positioned next to each other against the walls, creating enough space to hear his companion uninterrupted. The empty space in the center was reserved, I suppose, for the chefs to serve the dishes and explain how they design their menus.

I chose not to bring a friend like plus one to dinner because – while the food was enticing enough to make me overlook the journalistic ethics of visiting a restaurant as an amateur food critic – I was eager to know The Croissant’s target market.

I was introduced to my dining partner, Bryan, the director of a counseling club on campus. I tried to avoid getting into a conversation about recent market trends by looking at the photos I took: a black towel artfully folded pink, sitting on top of a wine glass; classic taper candles that glow on the mantel shelves; an old-fashioned loudspeaker playing jazz that filled the room. Then, the last guest of the evening arrived: David, in a suit and tie. I immediately realized he was the reason The Crescent could break even that day. I remembered Arthur’s words: “We put a table up for auction this week, and we bid $200 for the whole table.”

David is an incoming partner at McKinsey Hong Kong. I didn’t quite understand how the conversations in the room shifted from an appreciation of food to MBA programs, but they did nonetheless. When asked if he was still returning to his hometown of Hong Kong before returning for his MBA, David replied, “Yeah, because I’ve been away from the Chinese market for a while. The girls complained about their summer internships at some investment bank, and Bryan, who was sitting next to me, mentioned his $7,000 summer housing in downtown Los Angeles that his company paid.

When the steak was served, I heard Bryan toast David, saying maybe they could find venture capital opportunities in three years.

That might be enough sightings for the night.

IV. Culture

Can we really separate gastronomy and class?

In culinary terminology, the “chef’s table” usually refers to a semi-private table in the kitchen reserved for the chef’s guests. Guests can observe the restaurant’s cooking in a private setting, away from the rest of the restaurant. The sophisticated and private ambience of the dining experience is usually the defining characteristic of high-end fine dining restaurants, which native in 18th century France, where chefs began to cook private dinners for aristocratic families. The idea has caught on in the United States, where luxury hotels have begun to incorporate fine-dining restaurants into their business models, promoting both food quality and the complete guest experience. Both historically and in the modern era, when the question of “who gets to dine” has never been on the table, every aspect of fine dining restaurants differentiates their target customers from the rest of the diners. I asked the chefs of the Crescent about this gastronomic culture.

The Crescent is not inspired by a fine dining restaurant, the chefs told me. “People associate certain foods with gastronomy: you will always find caviar. You will always find truffles. You’re always going to find inaccessible kinds of lobsters and sea urchins and things like that,” McDonald said. The chefs at The Crescent wanted to run a restaurant that showcased traditional American dishes, which are not generally considered fine dining.

I thought back to McDonald’s words as I walked into the caramelized and set on fire creme brulee. Why would I never expect to see creme brulee in a fast food restaurant? Why Everyone Laughed When I Told Them I Covered The Crescent for UChicago’s Student Newspaper and Latest Food Journal Brown published was about the Taco Bell Cantina from 53? Why did I naturally make up this joke? I thought about those things we take for granted as I ate. Food has never been more than a necessity. For some, at least.

When we left the Crescent, it was still raining. Bryan asked if I could call a Lyft for him. He had used his 10 free passes.


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