The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
on entertainment and media

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Barack Obama: Food critic extraordinaire?

January 8, 2009 |  4:20 pm

If you hang around Hollywood long enough, you always run into people who have a reputation of being so smart and talented (and occasionally overbearing) that they are famous for being able to do everybody else's job better than they can. For years, people said it of Barry Diller and David Geffen. These days, you hear people say the same of David Fincher and Steven Soderbergh, who could probably run a studio marketing department, overhaul the editing facilities and handle an entire conglomerate's IT needs without breaking a sweat. And then there's James Schamus, who runs Focus Features, writes most of Ang Lee's movies and teaches college in his spare time.

But no one is quite as much of a multitasking wonder as our president-elect, Barack Obama, who's already turned out to be a once-in-a-generation politician, a superb campaign strategist and, as anyone who's ever read his memoir, "Dreams of My Father," will attest, a better writer than most of the poor slobs on this week's bestseller list. Now we can add one more accomplishment to his resume: restaurant critic. One of my Chicago pals just passed along a fascinating pair of vintage video clips from a Chicago-based PBS restaurant review show, "Check, Please!" Back in 2001, according to a report in the Chicago Tribune, the show invited a trio of amateur reviewers to pick their favorite restaurants.

One of the participants was Obama, then a largely unknown state senator. His fellow amateur critics, a local firefighter and a retail buyer, were no match for him. It's such a kick to watch him wax eloquent about the down-home cuisine at Hyde Park's Dixie Kitchen and Bait Shop that you only wish someone had offered him the gig replacing Roger Ebert on "At the Movies" instead of the hapless Ben Lyons. The episode never aired, in large part because, as program creator David Manilow put it, the prez-elect was too thoughtful and articulate to pass for an amateur. "It was unbalanced, to put it charitably," Manilow says. The local Chicago PBS affiliate, WTTW, is going to finally air the never-before-seen show Jan.  16. But you can watch a couple of fun excerpts right here for yourself: