Steve Langlois Is Out to Prove That Haute Cuisine and Oat Cuisine Are Not the Same in the Midwest

updated 11/27/1989 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/27/1989 AT 01:00 AM EST

The bounties of America's heartland have been celebrated in song and verse and, only a little less sublimely, in mail-order food catalogs. There are Wisconsin cheeses and sausage from Sheboygan, Minnesota wild rice, Michigan mushrooms, Iowa pork, tomatoes from Ohio and pumpkins from Illinois, white-fish from Lake Superior; all this, and the harvest from fruited plains and fields with amber waves of grain. So it seems especially odd that, despite such riches, no great epicurean tradition has ever emerged from this veritable Thanksgiving cornucopia. Any claim to the existence of a sophisticated Midwest cuisine that goes beyond beef and corn is likely to elicit snickers among culinary snobs from sea to shining sea.

But all this may change if Steve Langlois, 27, the boyish-looking executive chef at Chicago's Prairie restaurant, has anything to say about it. He presides over perhaps the only gourmet restaurant anywhere that is "100 percent committed" to food indigenous to the 12-state Midwest region. So fancy radicchio or trendy goat cheese from farther afield is strictly off limits at Prairie, as are marine creatures of saltwater origin. The result is an all-Midwest cuisine that, Langlois says, is "mostly homestyle, very recognizable, warm and hearty."

Be assured, however, that Langlois isn't talking about meat loaf and mashed potatoes. Prairie's menu, which changes seasonally, may offer a sauté of regional mushrooms in a dill biscuit as an appetizer, followed by entrees that include baked walleyed pike stuffed with vegetables and wild rice served with a four-parsley sauce, or Iowa pheasant with apples, chestnuts and cranberries. Representative desserts run from homemade sweet potato praline cheesecake to persimmon pudding.

In its name as in its decor, Prairie pays homage to Frank Lloyd Wright, the giant of American architecture whose home was in Oak Park, Ill. The atmosphere of Wright's Prairie School is reflected in the vaulted ceiling, the honey-oak bar, the graceful geometric patterns of the wallpaper and carpeting in the split-level, 135-seat dining room designed by Joe Meisel. Chef Langlois seeks to capture the same spirit in his food preparations. "Frank Lloyd Wright said his architecture was regional in character, traditional in values and uniquely modern," Langlois explains. "That also defines everything we try to do."

Prior to taking command at Prairie, which opened in 1987, Langlois spent a year visiting state fairs and local historical societies all over the Midwest in search of recipes. Then he modified the dishes, sometimes substituting ingredients and adapting techniques, to update them for modern tastes. Take, for example, his burgoo. An original recipe called for squirrel and rabbit meat in a "cloying, flour-thickened sauce that would not be palatable today," he says. So Langlois substituted buffalo-and-rabbit sausage meatballs marinated in beer and wine for two days, then added root vegetables and herbs. He created a lighter sauce using natural juices. Presented as a pot pie, buffalo burgoo is now one of Prairie's signature offerings.

Following Midwest traditions, Langlois includes a lot of condiments on his menu—plum catsup, mustard pickle, corn and cucumber relishes. Where original recipes are strong on vinegars (used as preservatives in prerefrigeration days), Langlois tempers their acidic taste with sugar and spices. The one area where Langlois diverges significantly from his "must be indigenous to the Midwest" rule is in beverages: While there is no shortage of regionally brewed beers, there just aren't enough Midwestern wines, Langlois laments, "to make a substantial list." To extend the selection, he offers wines from California, New York and other places in the U.S.

In a sense, Langlois is himself an import. Born in Boston, he didn't reach the Midwest until he was a teenager, when his family—his late father owned a school-supply business, his mother works as a payroll analyst for the American National Can Co.—relocated to the Chicago suburb of Northbrook. At 14, Steve took a kitchen job for pocket money at a restaurant in nearby Deerfield, where he benefited from the tutelage of Mary Sue Milliken (now chef and co-owner of the City Restaurant and the Border Grill in L.A.).

Voted the most likely to succeed in his 1984 graduating class at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., Langlois apprenticed in the Netherlands before returning to the Chicago dining scene. He landed at Prairie by answering a blind ad.

Langlois's work has been so well received that he is now corporate chef for the Chicago Dining Authority, a private development company that owns Prairie and three other restaurants. "I have a mission to promote Midwestern cooking," says Steve, who spends much of what spare time he has writing a Prairie cookbook in the Chicago loft apartment he shares with girlfriend Jacqui Grothe, 26, a flight attendant. So what kind of food do they favor when they go out to eat? Proving that man cannot live by Midwestern foodstuffs alone, the chef sometimes opts for sushi.

—Dan Chu, Alexandra Mezey in Chicago

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