Will Horowitz cooks “Vietnamese Cajun food” at Ducks. Photo: ELK
This week I pose Seven Questions to Will Horowitz, the chef-owner of Ducks Eatery in Manhattan’s East Village. Ducks is the kind of place where trail mix, crispy pig’s ears, and yakamein with barbecued brisket and clams all appear on the same menu. Strange, beautiful and delicious.
How would you characterize the food at Ducks?
We like to tell people that it’s “Vietnamese Cajun food, strongly influenced by local terroir” so people have some sense of category, maybe next week we’ll just start calling it “New Orleans 2047.” Really though, I have no fucking idea. I’m building recipes like stories, my inspiration is found in old trade routes, travels, nature, wars, traditions and heritage techniques. With that being said, there’s also a very “stream of consciousness” style undertone to our creativity, which we tend to paint on what’s often a very comedic canvas.
Do most customers get it?
A lot of people get it, a lot of people don’t. Not that I expect everyone too, that wasn’t the goal. Religion gives faith to the uncertainty of the universe’s question marks… we are a question mark with no religion. We’re utilizing a mentality driving some of the world’s most exciting restaurants in the form of corn dogs & moonshine. With that being said we have a huge following from the neighborhood, food writers and most of all industry folk. We’ve become sort of a cult hangout for a lot of really cool chefs, which makes me happy. I love cooking for other cooks.
The line for Hot Doug’s, snakes around the corner.
For a long while my thoughts on the Chicago food scene were limited to deep-dish pizza, the SNL sketch about the Billy Goat Tavern, steakhouses, and gussied up hot dogs. When I became more of a gourmand these ideas were supplanted by a strong desire to sample Grant Achatz’s modernist culinary wizardry. In the spring of 2011 I took a weeklong trip to the Windy City with the aim of trying as much of the city’s food as possible. My traveling companion Chef Bruce had chosen quite an itinerary, including everything from Jimmy Bannos’ Cajun spot, Heaven on Seven and his newer joint, The Purple Pig, to a Thai banquet. As much as I wanted to try Lou Malnati’s deep dish pizza, my staunch eating buddy forbade it. We did however both agree that we should try to snag same-day cancellations for M. Achatz’s restaurant Next, which had just made its debut with a menu devoted to Paris in 1906. Unfortunately we did not get a seating. For almost a year afterward I continued to receive text alerts on my phone. It was torture to receive alerts about the restaurant’s second iteration, a tribute to Thai cuisine.
Hot Doug’s foie gras and truffle topped duck sausage.
To this day the only traditional Chicago style hot dog I’ve eaten—dragged through the garden with sport peppers, tomatoes, and onions among other things—has been at the original location of the Shake Shack in New York City. Chef Bruce and I were after wieners of a somewhat loftier pedigree, haute dogs. Our first stop Hot Doug’s, offers dozens of decidedly gourmet dogs. I had been reading about Doug’s foie gras topped number for years. The snappy foie gras and Sauternes duck sausage was lashed with truffle sauce and gilded with five slices of rich and creamy foie gras mousse. Stupendously delicious, and a bargain at $10. Lately they have been offering turducken sausage ($8), with pumpkin cream and cranberry-infused Brillat Savarin cheese. I am planning my next trip already.
Dragged through the garden, Asian style at Belly Shack.
Our next stop was Belly Shack, Bill Kim’s Asian street food spot in the hip hood of Wicker Park. There we had the Belly Dog ($9), an Asian spin on the classic Chicago dog. The tubesteak was slathered with chili sauce and curry mayo and topped with papaya salad, crunchy noodles,and fried shallots. With toppings like these who needs sport peppers?