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CLEGourmand: New Series, New Category: Comparing and Contrasting CMH and CLE

Posted by CMH Gourmand on October 28, 2010

Cleveland has been on my mind this year. I have always been a fan of our northeastern neighbor. Most of my college friends hail from there. However, my 21st century trips to Cleveland had been for funerals or shows at Beachland Ballroom. My Cleveland food to do list had been growing to an overwhelming point of no return. In particular I have stalked the Dim and Den Sum Food Truck (@dimanddensum). This mobile food vendor has taken innovation and customer focus to a higher level for mobile food or any food.

I have always had respect for the Cleveland food scene and reports kept coming in of great new places. As local blogger, Cleveland Foodie says:

“Cleveland might not have the quantity as other cities, but we have the quality. From gourmet grocers, to mom and pop sandwich shops to high-end celebrity chef restaurants. It’s a great place for a foodie.”

And then, something really tweaked my interest while stirring my quiet rage. The show No Reservations profiled two places in our fair city. Part of the shtick of the segment involved slights on Columbus referring to our town as a city of strips malls and Applebee’s (yes, we do have these). The tone was dismissive. If it had just been Anthony Bourdain, I might not have been irked. His sideman in the commentary was Michael Ruhlman from Cleveland. Granted, the show was based on a very brief trip to Columbus and Chef Ruhlman does not control editing of the show. However, I expected a little defense of our food scene from another Ohioan who has some experience with Columbus and whom I know tracked the coming and goings of Rosendales when it was open. Such was not the case. As the Twitterverse blew up with rantings about Ruhlman and the tone of the show, his response was that he was ignorant of what Columbus might have to offer. Phooey to that. Know thy neighbor I thought. If Ruhlman could not come here then I was going to go to Cleveland to rid myself of my own ignorance of the Cleveland Culinary scene. I made a hit list (of restaurants) and wondered when I was going to make my sojourn.

I received an e-mail from Positively Cleveland (the Convention and Visitors Bureau for the city) asking if I might like to come up for a culinary tour of the area. Looking at the stops on tentative tour schedule, I was excited. There were two old favorites on the list but many new discoveries to explore.

To say I was impressed with what I saw and ate is an understatement. As someone that twitters with great restraint, I was positively prolific for four days. You can find many of my field reports on Twitter under the hashtag – #CLEGourmand.

During the trip, I thought of the Columbus comments from No Reservations in contrast to an entire episode the show did on Cleveland, which was chuck full of compliments. I started to compare the cities. These are my thoughts.

Cleveland has an identity – “Mistake on the Lake”, Professional sports figures and teams, home to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, A Christmas Story and the Drew Carey Show, etc. People “know” Cleveland. There are people who are Clevelanders. Most of the USA does not know Columbus. Our city is largely undefined.

Cleveland is a city with long established, multi-generational ethnic neighborhoods, where cultures and countries integrate their culture and cuisine into the city. (Aside: If you want to explore the ethic eateries of Cleveland on your own, the best guide is Cleveland Ethnic Eats 8th Edition: The Guide to Authentic Ethnic Restaurants and Markets in Northeast Ohio by Laura Taxel).

Columbus on the other hand is an expanding city of transplants and job seekers. Once people plant roots here, they tend to assimilate. We do not tend to have the depth of neighborhoods that metropolitan Cleveland does. Have you seen many Germans in German Village or “real” Irish in Dublin. Most ethic residents have dispersed throughout our city and blended in and during the process, we lost much of what their cultures had to offer. Ethnic food has flavor and tradition. Sure, we have Schmidt’s, some alt-eateries (Indian, Somali, etc.) and our awesome Taco Trucks but we lack neighborhoods that sustain the full flavor and tradition of ethnic food. Most of our true immigrants are first or second generation whereas the ethnic neighborhoods of Cleveland go back to the 19th century.

A community needs to spark to go from good to great. In Athens, the spark is a restaurant called Casa Nueva. This co-op restaurant has fueled the careers and styles of many other restaurateurs, artisan food makers and farmers. In Cleveland, part of that spark comes from Michael Ruhlman (a chef/writer who choose to stay in Cleveland), who in turn wrote about Michael Symon. They both became Food TV celebrities showcasing as well as proud of their talents and their city. More fuel comes from ex-Symon Sous Chefs contributing to a food first, localavore, green renaissance in Cleveland. Collectively, many of the chefs and restaurants in Cleveland support and collaborate with each other to go green, source local ingredients and create foods with innovative spins on old ethnic and traditional classics.

Columbus has great restaurants, food artisans and even a few farmers. However, we just have not quite found that spark that draws serious attention to our city. We definitely do not have a strong community pride that is proud and confident in what we have to offer. In our city, people’s choice “best of” restaurant polls consistently list places like Olive Garden (for best Italian) and Red Lobster (for best seafood). Right or wrong, that does not support a culinary civic pride. Cleveland does have pride. People in the kitchens, behind the counters and in the streets are proud of their city and their food. We need to get on that.

In Cleveland, innovation in food (plus green restaurants, sustainable agriculture and urban gardens) comes from the collaboration among chefs, suppliers and the community. We have some of that in Columbus but we do not have the same zeal and passion for it – yet. Jeni’s Splendid Ice Cream is soon to open a location in Chagrin Falls. Maybe that can be a link to bring our two cities into the start of a culinary collaboration. We give them ice cream, perhaps they can send us more pride in what we have to offer. We are in this together. We are what we eat and we are eating very well.

So, in the coming months I will be sharing CLEGourmand discoveries from my culinary tour in October. More trips to research the Cleveland food scene are needed and being plotted (hopefully places such as Melt, Lolita and a strip on Lee Road I call Chicken Row). I want to find a way to support and work on growing a culinary connection between Cleveland and Columbus. Our cities count and cannot be discounted as flyover cities, rust belt write-offs or third rate restaurant regions any longer. Our cities rock. Columbus and Cleveland are going to have a role in the future of food in this country. We can collaborate on promoting two Ohio cities that are proud of our food and the people preparing it.

3 Responses to “CLEGourmand: New Series, New Category: Comparing and Contrasting CMH and CLE”

  1. Tom Weber said

    Looking forward to your Cleveland stories … you captured the differences between our towns (and i luv both) in a fair way. Also glad to see your Ruhlman angst is starting to wane. So Columbus didn’t get a great spin on No Reservations and the Cleveland full episode with Harvey Pekar is one of television’s great achievements – that’s not Ruhlman’s fault – he knows/loves/lives Cleveland – and he’s been to Columbus a few times – a huge difference. No Rez should have had a Columbus person (the Gourmand?) with Anthony and maybe one day will – cause Tony is hungry for more, right?

    Besides – you gotta give Ruhlman some luv for this rant recently put on his site …



  2. Just discovered your blog via the Positively Cleveland Twitter feed. As a lifelong Clevelander, I’m excited to read your take on our fair city’s dining scene. And as much as I’ve grown to despise that “Cleveland Rocks” song, I do have to admit our towns are pretty awesome 🙂

    One of my best friends lives in Columbus and she’s always telling me all about your cities best restaurants. I always love coming to visit her because I know I will eat VERY well!

  3. True Dat Jane said

    Oh, Jim! You have written a fabulous explanation here. Being FROM Cleveland, there is so much there that I love, and so much more to discover. Having lived recently in Columbus, I must say that the Columbus food scene is amazing in a different way. And you, my friend, say it in the most succinct, loving way possible. Thank you!!!

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