John ManionJohn Manion
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"Anything that you do needs to be arrived at innately," says Mas Executive chef John Manion. "It needs to come from somewhere inside your history in order to make sense." With a childhood spent in Brazil and traveling throughout South America and the Caribbean, Executive Chef John Manion now creating his own brand of Nuevo Latino cuisine at Mas restaurant, Chicago, makes perfect sense.

Midwestern-born, Manion's family was transferred to São Paulo when he was a boy. The exposure to exotic ingredients and unfamiliar smells left its mark on the youth. "I did experience a fair bit of sensory overload. After all, I was a boy playing on the local baseball team in Detroit before landing in Brazil." And while a number of expatriates attempted to recreate home in the tropics, Manion's parents fell headlong into the foods of their new surroundings.

Such is the culture of Brazil, his family found itself with a cook who cast her spell on the young boy. "I spent a lot of time in that kitchen, mesmerized by what she was doing. In America, dinner starts with a chicken breast in a neat package from the grocery store; in Brazil it starts with a whole chicken."

Manion spent five years in Brazil before his family returned to the States... or "back to reality" as he puts it. "Needless to say, there was no longer a family cook," he exclaims. "And my parents were very concerned with returning me to my rightful place in the world, which meant getting a job." So Manion began his stint in the kitchen, as a dishwasher, at the tender age of 13.

Manion went to college at Marquette University, Wisconsin, studying English Literature and Chinese Politics. "I kept working in restaurants while I was in college, but I hadn't really thought of it as a career. I guess I was working towards something more concrete, which studying English Lit. and Chinese Politics naturally leads to," he says with a laugh. Degree in hand, Manion moved to Washington D.C. to get a job, but the country was in the middle of a recession, and the only job to be had was back in the kitchen, where simultaneously cooked and tended bar at the Hard Times Café.

His own hard times past when Manion landed a job in a public relations firm, where he remained for two years. "It was my father who finally made me realize I needed to leave PR. He encouraged me to follow my dreams... which turned out to be what I was doing before I got my 'real' job, back at the stoves."

Manion then came to Chicago to attend The Culinary School of Kendall College. While in school, he trained under Dean Zanella at Grappa, working pastries and prep. Receiving his culinary certificate, he landed the opening chef position at Savannah's. "I certainly wasn't ready to be a chef yet," he says about those first few months, "but I suppose I learned quickly." The critics agreed: Chicago magazine selected Savannah's as one of the "Best New Restaurants" of the year in 1995.

At Savannah's, Manion brought Chicago its first exposure to Low Country Cuisine, the African- influenced cuisine unique to the Carolina Coastal Plains. "Low Country isn't as far from Nuevo Latino as one would think. There is a clash of cultures similar to the ranges in lifestyles found in Latin America." Manion remained at Savannah's for two years before the opportunity to cook with one of the fathers of Nuevo Latino cuisine lured him away. Working on the opening staff of Churrascos, Manion had the opportunity to learn from Nicaraguan-born Michael Cordua, renown for his Houston-based Americas and Churrascos restaurants.

As Executive Chef of Mas, Manion brings his own style to the growing Nuevo Latino trend. "My food tends to be rooted in the peasant cultures, and it's easy to eat. I suppose that's due to Cida, that wonderful woman who wove magic in my family's kitchen back in Brazil. She just cooked what her mother had taught her to cook, and she taught me."

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