You might not know Chandra Ram — her name certainly isn't as renowned as someone like Food and Wine's Dana Cowin or Bon Appétit's Adam Rapoport. But as editor in chief of Plate for the last eight years (and a member of the James Beard Foundation restaurant voting committee), Ram plays a crucial role in identifying upcoming restaurant trends. Like Food Arts, Plate is a trade publication for chefs that highlights recipes, techniques and ingredients that later show up on our plates. Grub sat down with Ram to chat about the difficulty of writing for in-the-know chefs, this year's James Beard awards, and all the food trends you should expect in the coming year.
You’ve worked in media and at restaurants like Blackbird and Carlucci - how did you end up where you are now?
I didn’t know that I could do it to be honest. I was always kind of a magazine junkie and I was always interested in food and restaurants. When I was a senior in college I was editing the university newspaper but I wanted to switch gears and get into food. Rather than following the classic journalism model of going wherever and covering whatever until you get higher on the ladder, I picked an opposite route, learning a lot about food and restaurants and coming in as a food expert.
How did you land your job at Plate?
For Plate’s first issue, they needed an expert on Vietnamese and Thai fish sauces, and Ellen Malloy suggested that the editor talk to me. I gave them a recipe for Nam Sod, a Vietnamese ground pork dish with fish sauce that’s served with rice or lettuce cups. Then [culinary editor] Nancy [Ross Ryan] asked me if I would be interested in writing. For the first two years, I wrote for them regularly and eight years ago when Nancy decided to focus more on cookbooks they called me.
What’s the biggest challenge in writing for chefs?
We’re presenting information to people who are in kitchens every single day. They already have a pretty high level of expertise so we have to find what’s next, a more advanced technique or something more creative. It’s definitely a challenge. We can’t just hire any writer to do a story. They have to be people living and breathing food. Someone who can write a piece that is appropriate from someone who might know more than you do. It’s a tremendous amount of research. And since we do just six issues a year, the topics really need to stand out. I definitely feel a lot of pressure. I lie in bed at night worrying about it.
What trends can Chicago diners expect to see this year?
We’re going to see more and more products made in house. Giuseppe Tentori [GT Fish & Oyster] is bottling his own hot sauces. Jared Van Camp is selling the flour he mills at Nellcote. Whether they’re selling it on a retail basis or using it at the restaurant, chefs want to make their own ingredients. It tells a nice story about things being very personal to that chef and it helps chefs achieve their culinary vision.
The other thing is the partnerships that have grown over the last decade between chefs and farms. We’ll be seeing really interesting and exciting vegetables and vegetable cookery. One of my favorite restaurants for vegetable dishes is Stephanie Izard’s Girl & The Goat. And what Jimmy Bannos Jr. does at The Purple Pig with vegetables is outstanding. I also love the charred carrots at Bar Toma and the carrot and avocado salad at the Pump Room. I think vegetables are definitely moving towards a more exciting part of the plate, taking a bigger role than they ever have before.
Does that mean Plate has a vegetable issue on the horizon?
It’s definitely on my mind! Years ago when I was first working in restaurants, a vegetarian option was not even on the menu. Maybe they’ll sauté a bunch of vegetables and put it over pasta and that was it. I personally have a thing for charred carrots. It makes me so glad that chefs are doing something interesting for vegetarians. Something more than vegetables on a plate or a grilled Portobello mushroom.
You’re one of the 25 panelists for the Great Lakes region for the James Beard Awards. Have you placed your votes yet?
I’ve already voted. We do an online ballot. I’ve been doing it for five years and it was a total surprise when they first asked me. I didn’t know a whole lot about the process. It’s really exciting to see two Chicagoans as finalists for rising star chefs [Jimmy Bannos Jr. and David Posey]. I'm very excited and hopeful for Chicago this year. One of the fun things about the Beard Awards or Aspen Food & Wine is all the Chicago people like to hang out together.
Is being on the committee an appointment for life?
I don’t know honestly. There’s no sort of set time frame. Nobody has said it’s a temporary thing. I’ve happily been invited back every year and I hope to continue.