Interview with Chef Chris Nugent of Goosefoot — Chicago, IL

August 2012

Nicholas Rummell: Why did you decide to name your restaurant after goosefoot?
Chris Nugent: I grow a lot of produce at home. Over the years I’ve grown lots of things for work, and I came across this big plant family through the research of seeds. Goosefoot has some culinary treasures: beets, spinach, lamb’s quarters. I thought it was a neat name. When we opened, we were a farm-to-market restaurant, so it tied into our theme. Also, coming from Les Nomades, where it’s very fine dining, I wanted guests to think that [Goosefoot] wouldn’t just be very fine dining. It’s a nice icebreaker: a little goofy and not self-conscious.

NR: And your menu includes some dishes with goosefoot varieties.
CN: We don’t necessarily have to use it in our dishes. We are an eight-course seasonal menu and it would get stigmatized [if we did that]. But it’s neat to see if the guests know that beets [which are often served as one of the first courses] are an introduction into goosefoot family.

NR: Do you grow much of your produce in your garden?
CN: I used to grow more before opening the restaurant. Right now we grow about 20 percent of our microgreens. Bull’s Blood [beets] and other things that we utilize on the menu. We also have a farm where they let us plant some stuff. The rest come from farmers who sell it to us. I think it’s important that a chef grows at least some of the product.

NR: How would you describe your culinary philosophy?
CN: There’s a lot of European tradition in my cooking. In general you have to respect the classical techniques developed over the years, but I also wanted to have fun with forward-thinking food. I want to bring a reference point to something in the diner’s childhood and do something unique with it. Like with carrots, there are lots of different techniques in cooking them: purée, work into a powder, pickle, etc.

NR: Your Angus beef dish is more a celebration of the garnish—carrots—than of the meat itself. Do you prefer to limit the number of garnishes on the plate?
CN: Yes. When you add too many ingredients to a dish, you confuse the diner. I try to stay focused and bring the dish in. Try to pick one or two things and focus on that for the dish. With a tasting menu, it’s smaller bites so you need to stay focused. And since you have multiple courses you don’t have to put all of it on one plate.

NR: Were you surprised at the immediate success of your restaurant, beating out Next and other notables and being lauded as the best restaurant in Chicago by Chicago Magazine?
CN: When we signed the lease in July, we were very much under the radar. When we opened, we didn’t have much time to do public relations, so I was pleased by the neighborhood reaction and the word of mouth. It was very personal for me. I lost my brother when he was 38 years old. I’m 38 now. We actually opened the restaurant on his birthday, which was a nice tribute.

NR: Chicago’s food scene has lost Trotter’s, but there are so many other great chefs in the city.
CN: I’ve been working in Chicago since 1995. I knew certain people would come to us, but I didn’t quite think it would happen so quickly. Everybody on the Chicago Magazine list is outstanding. There is a great food scene here. I always say, ‘you can’t fool the Chicago diner.’ They’ve always had great chefs. It’s a city where the guests and clientele know what great food is.

NR: Was switching to the chef/owner role difficult?
CN: I would say that I’m in a more unique scenario. Everywhere I’ve worked at I’ve had to wear a lot of different hats. I have taken a lot of ownership in projects where I’ve worked. So when it came time to open Goosefoot, it wasn’t as difficult as you’d think. Plus, my wife was a director of finance for Hilton. She knew a little bit more about how to go around town and figure out taxes and permits. I got to focus just on the food and the menu. She’s since left her finance position and manages the front of house and also some of the behind-the-scenes accounting and PR. She’s really committed to what we’re doing here. I used to see her just on Sundays and early Mondays. Now we see each other every day.

NR: Goosefoot is a fine-dining restaurant that is also BYOB. Was that by design or because of permit issues?
CN: The city was very helpful in every regard [when we opened]. We opened without investors, which was our dream. It was important to focus on food. We have all the elements to help with wine service (decanters, burgundy glasses), but we wanted to utilize our capital to focus on the food. Maybe later on if the business model works, I’m fine with having [wine service]. We’ve seen some wonderful bottles come through the restaurant. Some people have brought their wines for their five-year anniversary that they’ve had for many years. It’s a huge honor. It’s a risk [for them] to open [that special wine] and enjoy it with us.

NR: But your servers are able to talk about wine?
CN: We deal with it in a few ways. On our website we have wine recommendations for the current menu. I also have a friend who is a sommelier who has worked every bottle you can imagine, and he knows my style and what will go well [with my dishes]. If I have questions I’ll call him. I have a speed-dial sommelier on hand at all times. The wine shops in the neighborhood always come in so they understand our flavor profiles. The servers talk about wine during [the] service meeting every day.

NR: This is almost a silly question, considering that Goosefoot just opened, but what are other projects do you have in the works?
CN: Everybody is always asking us what’s next. This is our dream, to open this restaurant. Our plan is to focus on Goosefoot in the short-term future, one year or so. We also have plans to produce an artisan chocolate line. A small line sold to the restaurant. Chocolate is a passion of mine.

NR: I didn’t know you had worked on the pastry side.
CN: When I was younger I worked with a German-Swiss pastry chef [in upstate New York]. I grew up in the restaurant business, started when I was 11 after my mother passed away. I moved in with [Chef John Daly], who was a friend of the family. He kept an eye on me. I would wash dishes, clean lobsters, other stuff. He was very classically trained. It was sort of like the stars aligning to have somebody that talented in our town. The most important things in life are character and integrity, and he was a big influence on me.

NR: Did any of his children go into the business?
CN: His daughter, Erin, wanted to. But they made me persuade her not to. She became a doctor instead. She just graduated with doctorate in physical therapy. She would have been a great chef.