With Kate DeVivo
When it comes to hot dogs, Hot Doug’s owner Doug Sohn is the master of the craft. His gourmet ingredients and professionally trained culinary flair has earned him national recognition and praise.
When it comes to hot dogs, Hot Doug’s owner Doug Sohn is the master of the craft. His gourmet ingredients and professionally trained culinary flair has earned him national recognition and praise, as well as a spot on Anthony Bourdain’s list of the 13 places to eat before you die. Truly, Doug and his hot dog shop have changed the landscape of encased meats forever.
In Hot Doug’s: The Book, Sohn takes the reader on a fun, irreverent trip through the history of hot dogs, his restaurant, and the many patrons—both famous and average Joe—who have declared Sohn the king of dogs.
The book recounts how the idea for a hot dog restaurant originated and looks back at the restaurant’s first location, which burned down in 2004. Chapters focus on the current location’s vibe, the menu, and the introduction of the famous “Celebrity Sausage,” as well as the vibrant and loyal community who have made Hot Doug’s a hit. There are photos from Doug as well as restaurant patrons, favorite anecdotes, and lists ranging from general restaurant etiquette to most-repeated sausage double-entendres (Doug’s heard ’em all).
Hot Doug’s: The Book includes contributions from Moto’s Homaro Cantu, Blackbird’s Paul Kahan, Hot Chocolate’s Mindy Segal, the writer Dan Sinker, and the actor Aziz Ansari, among others. Additionally, the book features fond remembrances from loyal customers on everything from waiting in line, Doug’s 2007 run-in with the city over the foie gras ban, favorite sausages, and the Hot Doug’s marriage proposal, as well as the complete History of Encased Meats.
Reflecting Doug’s own personality, Hot Doug’s: The Book is a hilarious and entertaining adventure through the madcap mind of one of Chicago’s most creative and beloved restaurateurs. Any page of this book can be opened to something funny, interesting, or bizarre that would appeal to both the seasoned foodie and amateur eater alike.
Chicago, a city known for its love of food had taken the hot dog and made it their own. Doug Sohn grew up eating hot dogs. He missing the hot dog stands of his youth he decided to open one of his own. He created an eclectic and occasionally exotic menu. Little could he have imagined his stand, Hot Doug’s, would quickly become an internationally known ‘must vist’ gourmet destination. Doug Sohn recently talked to Booksaboutfood.com about his new book.
Booksaboutfood.com(BAF): Can you just give the rundown for somebody who is unfamiliar with you and what you do?
Doug: Sure. I opened this up to be a classic Chicago hot dog stand, the kind that I went to as a kid growing up in Chicago and through a series of events, just came to really find that that sort of fell by the wayside over the years. So many of these hot dog stands were serving hamburgers and pizza puffs and gyros and chicken and they’re just, the care and the quality of the hot dog just seemed to sort of fall by the wayside. It became one of those things where the Chicago hot dog had this great reputation, but so few people were doing it well. I knew that when done right, it’s a great sandwich. It’s a great food item.
BAF: Chicago, arguably, is much better when it comes to the hot dog than New York, which is also famous for its hot dogs.
Doug: In Chicago, you lunch, you go have a Chicago hot dog. In New York, it strikes me okay lunch is ten blocks away. I’ll have a hot dog on the way to lunch. (Laughs) It seems it’s much more of like ‘oh it turns out I am hungry’. Great, I’ll just grab a hot dog from the cart. It’s a different mindset. It’s a different tradition than Chicago which really is this staple food and staple lunchtime and/or dinnertime, but real like a meal. It’s a meal where I think the one in New York is more like a snack.
BAF: It’s interesting how just New York has not grabbed on to it as Chicago has.
Doug: Yes absolutely, but in New York it’s the things like You really don’t go for a slice of pizza in Chicago. Chicago pizza is either like deep dish where again, sometimes the deep dish is a knife and fork kind of meal, but again New York it’s you grab a slice. I think some of it just has to do with the pace and the city, the vibe of the city.
BAF: How did it (Chicago) become such a hot dog friendly city?
Doug: I think just the immigrants, Eastern European. It’s a huge Polish, German, Eastern European influence and these are sausage countries and ethnicities where sausage was so prevalent that it just became here. A lot of laborers so you had that, plus it’s inexpensive. Like all the great foods are the ones that people came up with that basically, to put it bluntly, poor people came up with.
In America, whether it’s soul food or hot dogs or sausages or Asian street food, noodles and things like that, what is now so trendy and so popular and stuff is truly the food of peasants and food of people who had to figure out a way to use the scraps basically. When the rich folk were eating beef tenderloin and everything else was tossed away, you had to figure out how to use those parts. Chicago, the Eastern European influence is really what brought sausages and hot dogs to Chicago. Combine that with the stockyards, you had this huge beef industry as well, again the leftover parts were used to do that.
BAF: You’ve got a very eclectic and very interesting establishment with lots going on, a great vibe. Was that hard to sit down and try to encompass that in a book?
Doug: Well, I didn’t want to do kind of this linear history of the restaurant because I can’t imagine writing it, let alone reading it, and so it was like all right. Then we started talking more and flushing down, it’s like we have this customer base that’s just incredibly loyal and great and that’s the fun part for me. It’s kind of like well let’s see if we can kind of capture … somebody had the idea in place of let’s make the book like the restaurant and the feel of the restaurant, customer involvement, my involvement.
Meeting with the designer when he came to the restaurant I told him I want it to look like this. He just did a phenomenal job and when we first got his the comps of what the book looked like, from there it took off. I was like oh, well this cool and now we can start doing some fun stuff and play around with the chapters. Not only tell the story of the restaurant, but have fun and do the things that I wanted to talk about a little bit about the restaurant and to get customers involved and their stories and memories and make it fun. We have poems and we have haikus and we have song lyrics and photos. Once we kind of combination … like realized okay what do I want this book to be combined with the design of it, then no. Then it totally took off from there. Then it really gave us like now we have real direction and an idea of what we want this to be. That was much easier.
BAF: What were you doing before you opened up the hot dog stand?
Doug: Right before I was a cookbook editor for a little over five years. nd how it started was a coworker, not in the publishing company, not even in the department, came and I know it sounds hypocritical but totally true, came in one Monday and was like ‘I had a bad hot dog this weekend’. How do you make a bad hot dog? It kind of took off from there and I ended up just kind of through a series of events and decided well all right, if I’m going to do this, I need to do this sooner than later. It’s a young person’s game.
BAF: Where do you get your ideas, menu ideas?
Doug: I like to think from the same place as any other restaurant person/cook does, travelling certainly, reading, going to markets, looking at other menus, going to other restaurants and seeing what other people are doing. That it’s much more like flavor combination. Looking at a dish in a restaurant was like can I translate this into sausage form?
BAF: Do you go with the mindset how can we ‘encase’ this?
Doug: Sometimes if something strikes me, I try not to too much because I like to separate work. I like to go out to dinner and sit with friends and just enjoy that experience and not be thinking about it, but sometimes it’s inevitable. We’ll have something really neat, really unusual and it will strike me as like oh, I think we can do this or I have a sausage that’s similar in flavor to this but I never thought of this flavor combination, or the toppings to go with it.
BAF: I was particularly intrigued by one of the quotes in your book from Marco Pierre White. How did that come about?
Doug: It’s like yes, he walks into the room and you’re like whoa, a little riveted. He was in Chicago and the person was guiding him around is a fan of our restaurant and she goes ‘can I bring him in’. It was like ‘yes!’. She brought him in and they waited in line and he just … super high energy, was coming up to the counters like ‘show me around. What’s going on here?’ It was just so crazy about what was going on and then in subsequent interviews, talking about Chicago, and he mentions us. One of those things where I’m standing in the middle of my restaurant going truly one of the best chefs in the world is sitting in my restaurant eating my food and just one of those incomprehensible, incredibly flattering, incredibly humbling experiences and he was great. We had time to chit-chat and like I said, just an awesome experience. When we were doing the book, we emailed trying to find an email, found his assistant and was like hey, any chance of a quote, something? They were like yes, no problem. He was happy to do it and just like unbelievably cool. A bit of a character, absolutely. But truly one of those guys you’re happy to have on your side. (Laughs)
BAF: What’s the best time for someone to show up at your door and stand in line?
Doug: The summer time is when it’s the worst. Then during the week, you come in Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday during the week in non-summer, half the time you’re walking right in and there might be ten people in line. That’s it, a couple of minutes. Fridays and Saturdays, yes it gets crowded, holiday weekends we’re open.
BAF: Because of the (duck fat) French fries?
Doug: Yes exactly, but if you’re going to come in, then remember come Friday. Saturdays just tend to be definitely our busiest day.
BAF: You opened up a hot dog stand. Did you expect it to be an international sensation as it is?
Doug: Oh my god, no. I’m not kidding. The real goal, one was to create kind of the place I had in mind as best I could and to stay open at least six months. Anything past six months, it was like all right and at some point if we got to a year, could I pay myself regularly. That would be nice. Pretty much everything beyond that is just unbelievably great and beyond my expectations.
“To be the best at hot dogs in the city that makes them best is no small thing. Doug Sohn is a fearless warrior for the cause of righteousness in food—and Hot Doug’s is a temple of meat in tube form. This book shall live forever as a timeless classic of wienerdom. Look no further, for this is the last word on hot dogs from a master practitioner. From the classic red hot to the supreme expression of enlightened mutation, this is it.”
“…[O]ne sunny day in the spring of 2008 I walked into Doug’s joint. I was smitten. The memory remains deliciously vivid because I ate what was without question the finest hot dog of my life.…There are many moments in chilly London when I yearn for a day in Chicago and I dream of a dog done Doug’s way.”
—Marco Pierre White
“Doug Sohn is to hot dogs what Elvis was to rock and roll: the King. As a star-struck fan, I swoon when I open this book.”
—Michael Stern, Roadfood.com
“The finest encased meats in the land, and a huge dose of hot dog humor. Can Mario Batali or Tom Collichio jump the line? Nope. They are mere mortals at Hot Doug’s and have to pay cash like the rest of us. Look for Hot Doug’s to receive three Michelin stars in 2014.”
—Paul Kahan, executive chef/partner of avec, Blackbird, and The Publican