2015 Chicago Rising Stars: Why They Shine

2015 Chicago Rising Stars: Why They Shine

Not only does this class of Chicago Rising Stars mark the 50th class of StarChefs.com Rising Stars, but they’re also emerging from one of the most exciting culinary markets in the country. Unlike its coastal counterparts, young chefs in Chicago can afford to go out on their own. Rents in Avondale and on Diversey Avenue start below $2,000 a month, giving places like Parachute and Fat Rice the creative freedom to take risks and make soulful, personal food.

The city, and its affordable real estate, have long nurtured a healthy artisan culture, but the last few years have witnessed an explosion of craftsmen. Since 2014, 28 breweries (and counting) have opened. Up-and-coming roasters, such as Metric, are setting the groundwork to infiltrate an Intelligentsia-dominated market. We tasted with more young charcutiers in Chicago than in any city in the country. And in the nation’s breadbasket, a group of passionate bakers, chefs, distillers, and farmers are supporting the emergence of an artisan milling scene that’s set to revolutionize the way Chicagoans, and the country, understand and consume grains.

The last time we explored Chicago in earnest was 2011, and we had some catch-up to do in 2015. We tasted with more than 140 chefs, pastry chefs, sommeliers, bartenders, and artisans to search for the industry leaders with the most compelling philosophies—and delicious food and drinks. Here are the men and women who are making it happen in Chicago.
 


 

Chefs: Johnny Clark and Beverly Kim, Parachute

At Parachute, Johnny Clark and Beverly Kim are making Korean food that’s as soulful as it is exciting. Both chefs spent time training in Parachute’s culinary motherland, but stateside the husband-and-wife duo is taking an American, chef-driven approach, one where adventure and seasonality trump stringent Korean tradition. Why load up bibimbap with beef and the same pickled vegetables, when you can lace it with salted mackerel and escarole? It’s a question answered in just one bite. Bowls of kimchi arrive at the table alongside Hawaiian-style radish pickles and chile-spike chayote. From their Avondale outpost, Clark and Kim are making Korean food relevant and personal, bringing it into the now, without sacrificing its heart.

Dishes that clinched it:

  • Bibimbab: Salted Spanish Mackerel, Escarole, Preserved Lemon, Barbecued Onions, Gochujang, and Rice
  • Boudin Noir, Kohlrabi, Apples, Raspberry Vinegar, and Seedy Salad
Chef: Abraham Conlon, Fat Rice

For Abraham Conlon, Macanese food is a calling, a culinary journey expressed five nights a week at Chicago’s Fat Rice. He’s hellbent on turning over every narrative stone in the cuisine of Macao—tracing its origins from Portugal around Africa to Goa and Southeast Asia and the tiny island nation of Macao, a mere 7,800ish miles from Fat Rice’s Diversey Avenue address. Conlon’s dishes are twisted at the messy intersection of Eastern and Western cultures; they’re comforting with a healthy dose of the unfamilar and exciting. He’s a chef with a singular vision and passion, a revolutionary leader for an underdog of international cuisine.  

Dishes that clinched it:

  • Po Kok Gai: Chicken, Coconut Curry, Chorizo, Olives, Cabbage, Potatoes, and Onion-Parrano Cheese Gratin  
  • Pig Ear Furuso, Chile Vinaigrette, Vegetable Brunoise, Marigold Flowers and Leaves, and Mustard Sprouts

 

Chef: Sarah Rinkavage, Lula Café

At Lula Cafe, Sarah Rinkavage doesn’t just cook. She feeds people. Lula is, at its heart, a neighborhood restaurant, and Rinkavage upholds her end of the deal by making food you want to return to day after day—all while leading you down the thrilling twists and turns you’d expect from a young chef on her way to stage in the epicenter-of-cool Copenhagen. Her plates display an honest elegance, dancing along the lines of comfort and risk. There’s nuance in each bite, a surprise hidden somewhere in the familiar form of a short rib or crunchy potato pancake. Rinkavage has youth on her side, plus the talent, sophistication, and deep-seated curiosity to propel her forward and give her an even bigger platform from which to feed Chicago.

Dishes that clinched it:

  • Steamed Swordfish, Green Almonds, Green Garlic Broth, Morels, Sourdough Bread, and Smoked Almond Butter
  • Beef Short Ribs, Red Rice, Calabrian Chile, Orange, and Cumin Aïoli

 

Chef: Lee Wolen, Boka

Lee Wolen is finesse. He’s got soigné in spades, and he’s sharing it with Chicago as head chef and partner of Boka. Wolen comes from the ranks of uber fine-dining (Eleven Madison Park and The Peninsula Hotel). At Boka, he gets to build plates with the same level of refinement, but there’s a new confidence in his dishes, an impulse that lets bold flavors and fun come into play. Wolen wants to make Boka accessible by striping off the restaurant-as-special-occasion-destination varnish. The only problem is, dinner à la Wolen is reason enough to fly to Chicago. And if that’s not the definition of special or an occasion, we don’t what is.

Dishes that clinched it:

  • Salt Cod Ravioli, Lardo, Braised Artichokes, Artichoke Purée, Crispy Artichoke, and Cod Emulsion
  • Smoked Foie Gras, Tete de Cochon, Dill Emulsion, Radish, Onions, and Bitter Greens

 

Chef: Erling Wu-Bower, Nico Osteria

Erling Wu-Bower is a confident cat, and it shows in histechnically astute seafood cookery at Nico Osteria. Wu-Bower dreamed up Nico six years ago, pitched it to Paul Kahan, and went about proving he was ready to run his fish-driven dream project. Wu-Bower got his wish, and he’s not taking it for granted. He goes further than most chefs, tinkering with classic formulas (acid-kissed crudos and salt-roasted branzino) and turning them into their best possible selves. At Nico, seafood is sacred and Wu-Bower is missionary, one with plans to share the treasures of Italian coastal cuisine beyond the Thompson Hotel. Get ready to feast.

Dishes that clinched it:

  • Crudo Board featuring Suzuki Bass, Smoked Banyuls Vinegar, Frisée, and Crispy Potato
  • Swordfish Involtini, Currants, Breadcrumbs, Pistachio, Fennel Purée, and Winter Caponata

 

Hotel Chef: Greg Biggers, Chestnut Provisions at Sofitel Water Tower

Greg Biggers has the immense talent to fit the intense job of overseeing dining at Sofitel Chicago Water Tower. He taps into hotel resources to push the limits of what’s possible in banquets, amenities, and the fine-dining room of Café des Architectes. Charged with developing a HACCP plan, Biggers put the tedious process to glorious use, using the documentation to launch Chestnut Provisions, a restaurant-within-a-restaurant and product line that focuses on house charcuterie, cheeses, and preserved local fruits and vegetables. Whether he’s traveling to Michigan or France in search of a new cheese technique or sending out intricate, prismatic plates (translation: fussy but effing delicious), Biggers throws himself into his job with creative vigor. If you’re a hotel chef in America, looking to up your game, you should know Greg Biggers. 

Dishes that clinched it:

  • Duck Fat-poached Foie Gras Torchon, Jalapeño-Blueberry Jam, and Cheddar Doughnuts
  • Cheese Board: Taleggio, 8-month Cheddar, Tomme, Black Raspberry Jam, Sasparilla Mustard, and Pickles

 

Community: Christine Cikowski and Josh Kulp, Honey Butter Fried Chicken

When Christine Cikowski and Josh Kulp founded Sunday Supper Club more than a decade ago, community was at its heart. Now, with a bigger public presence at brick-and-mortar, Honey Butter Fried Chicken, they’re unleashing the power of fried chicken for the greater good of the restaurant community. HBFC employees earn above-average wages; they get sick days and paid vacation. They’re empowered by open-book management, a system that gives them the full picture of HBFC’s finances. Kulp and Cikowski have also worked with Restaurant Opportunities Center United to lobby Congress to raise the minimum wage and implement mandatory sick days for the restaurant industry. They’ve created a place where people come first, flavor naturally follows, and chicken is the catalyst for lasting change. 

Dishes that clinched it:

  • Chicken and Grits: Roasted Chicken, Crunchies, and Honey Buffalo Sauce
  • Fried Chicken and Honey Butter
Concept: Hunter Swartz, Drew Gordon Davis and Erin Byrne, Eastman Egg Company

If we had to put our money on a Chicago restaurant concept, it would be Eastman Egg Company, run by a trio of food lovers and business maestros, Hunter Swartz, Erin Byrne, and Drew Gordon Davis. For a restaurant in the business of peddling egg sandwiches, Eastman left no detail unattended—from quality sourcing and interior design to its location-based app that orders sandwiches for you while you’re walking to work (hunger pangs, be damned!). Eastman is built on quality, convenience, and the undeniable reality that an egg sandwich is one of the most pleasant ways to jump-start the day. Its food truck beginnings gave way to a brick and mortar in late 2014, with additional funding poised to send Eastman across state lines to a downtown near you. 

Dishes that clinched it:

  • The Crown: Egg, Chorizo, Egmont Cheese, Avocado, Salsa Verde, and Ciabatta
  • Scoundrel: Smoked Turkey, Egg, Wilted Spinach, White Cheddar, House Mustard, and Pretzel Roll
Restaurateurs: Matt Eisler and Kevin Heisner, Heisler Hospitality

When Matt Eisler and Kevin Heisner open a new restaurant or bar, they do what they want to do, not what they think they should do. It’s a maxim that has served them, and the Chicago restaurant industry, well. The duo behind Heisler Hospitality has opened seven of Chicago’s most distinct, well-designed, and fully-formed concepts: Bar DeVille, Nightwood, Trenchermen, Lone Wolf, The Revel Room, Sportsman’s Club, and Pub Royale. (With more are on the way in 2015.) Eisler and Heisner open spots that they want to frequent, places to which they’re emotionally connected, and they attract rock stars of the industry (Jason Hammel, Wade McElroy and Jeff Donahue, and Michael McAvenna, for example) who are fully invested in their team and vision. Eisler and Heisner’s concepts are sparked by people and their passions. It’s a model for a soulful restaurant, a successful business, and the future of the restaurant industry. 

Pastry Chef: Greg Mosko, NoMI at the Park Hyatt Hotel

Greg Mosko is making breakthrough pastry. During the six-plus years as pastry chef at Northpond, Mosko developed a fearless style. He leans heavily on the savory playbook, punching up his desserts with salt, acid, smoke, and crunch. But he plates with the light touch of modern, refined patisserie. It’s a combination that works well in the spare, fine-dining environs of the Park Hyatt’s NoMI, where he’s now stationed. The formula works equally well being scraped up with a spoon. Mosko’s desserts have wow factor. They’re delicious, beautiful, and tight on technique. And they make him a breakout star of Chicago’s serious pastry scene.

Dishes that clinched it:

  • Smoked Valrhona Chocolate Mousse, Macadamia Nut Feuilletine, Avocado Purée, Black Pepper Dulce de Leche, Jerk Pineapple Sorbet, Chocolate Crumble, and Vanilla-poached Pineapple
  • Mint-White Chocolate Cremeux,  Salt and Pepper Streusel, Hisbicus Sorbet, Hibiscus Meringues, Passion Fruit Gel, and Candied Pistachios

 

Pastry Chef: Anna Posey, The Publican

Anna Posey is an artist whose media are sugar, eggs, and flour. Her pastry-as-art at The Publican is full of whimsy—sophisticated flavors take the form of a seemingly simple ice cream cake, and banana pudding and phyllo get stacked like relaxed Napoleon. Posey is a classically trained pastry chef with the chops of a line cook and an imagination that travels far beyond the four walls of The Publican. It’s an explosive combination. There are ideas she just needs to get out, to translate from conception to menu. As Posey prepares to open a restaurant with her husband, David, she will have an even more personal dining room-as-gallery from which she can share her growing, bursting talent.

Dishes that clinched it:

  • Vacharin: Salted Meringue, Vanilla Ice Cream, Hazelnut-Almond Dacquoise, Sweet Tea Ice Cream, Tea-compressed Green Almonds, Candied Almonds, and Tea-infused Olive Oil
  • Lime Curd Tart, Chamomile-infused Pinapple, Chamomile Crumble, Kefir Ice Cream, and Black Lime

 

Roaster: Xavier Alexander, Metric Coffee Co.

After years of waking up to cups of Intelligensia and Metropolis, Chicagoans are better primed than most to enjoy the finer points of artisan coffee. Roaster Xavier Alexander is a beneficiary of such good taste, and he’s bound to push palates further with Metric Coffee Co. Team Metric (Alexander and partner Darko Arandjelovic) bootstrapped their dream project so they could do it on their own terms, increasing volume one bag of green beans at a time. Now they (lightly) roast 500 pounds a week for 15 accounts, plus retail, with an education center and coffee bar set to open this year. If steady, thoughtful growth is their hallmark, the proof of their success is in a cup of complex, chock-full-of-character morning Metric joe.

Brews that clinched it:

  • Metric Coffee

 

Artisan: Gregory Laketek, West Loop Salumi

Go forth to Italy, young man. Study with a world-renowned master of culatello (in a castle, no less), come home, and share the fruits of pork and labor with Chicago and then some of the best chefs in the country. This is how the story of Greg Laketek and his West Loop Salumi unfolded, at least the beginning. As a rule, Laketek always starts at the source with tradition and DOC mandates, and then builds a product by weaving together superior ingredients, precise technique, and patience. It’s as much a craft as an exercise in micromanaging detail. Laketek’s studied, meticulous approach yields some of the best salumi in the country, and with an expanded market and restaurant in the works, he’ll be able to shape the story of salty meats for an even wider audience. 

Dishes that clinched it:

  • Culatello
  • 'Nduja

 

Artisan: Greg Wade, Publican Quality Bread

Greg Wade is a flour and fermentation guru, pursuing the ancient craft of bread making with little more than milled grains and water. But he’s doing it in the wholly modern, fast-paced, high-volume environment of One Off Hospitality. Wade’s team at Publican Quality Bread is in charge of supplying 20 types of bread to 30 restaurants every day; they go through 150 kilos of dough on a weekend, plus another 50 kilos of his signature 1979 Multigrain. Restaurants need Wades bread now, but the dough takes its time, fermenting for 60 hours to develop full-on flavor. Local whole grains, a long-term study with the University of Illinois, and an undying love of the loaf are but a few things that set Wade apart as one of the country’s most formidable bakers.

Dishes that clinched it:

  • Rye Berry
  • Country Sourdough Bread

 

Brewers: Dave Bleitner and John Laffler, Off Color Brewing

In a beer town, with a new brewery opening, seemingly every week, Off Color Brewing stands out. Instead of recreating the ubiquitous IPA, Brewers Dave Bleitner and John Laffler obsess over the obscure, resurrecting near extinct styles and grafting fresh flavor profiles onto classic bones. Above all, they seek balance—two-thirds of the beers they’ve made fall below 5 percent ABV—drinkability, and originality. The beers they produce are born from creative unrest, a yeast- and malt-fueled quest to push themselves and their craft. With rapid growth, room to expand to 8,000 barrels, and a select national reach, Off Color makes the beer to watch (and drink) in Chicago. 

Brews that clinched it:

  • Eille Biere de Miel
  • Troublesome Gouze

 

Sustainability: Art and Chelsea Jackson, Pleasant House Bakery

Pleasant House Bakery started as a modest British pie shop trading in nostalgia, but Art and Chelsea Jackson grew their cafe into a dynamic, multifaceted business, hyper-conscious of sustainability. After opening a brewery and second cafe in Michigan, they launched an indoor Pleasant House Farm, which they hope to turn into a nonprofit education center. The Jacksons also run a South Side composting program, and a grain milling operation and bakery is in the works. They didn’t start out with any fancy LEED certification, but Art and Chelsea lead by example. Pleasant House proves that as a business evolves, it can make a deeper connection with the environment and community around it. 

Dishes that clinched it:

  • Steak Pasty
  • Chicken Baltie, Coriander Chutney, and Minted Peas

 

Bartender: Jacyara de Oliveira, Sportsman's Club

You go, girl! That’s pretty much the bartending community’s sentiment as it cheers on Jacyara de Oliveira, who’s tearing up the scene as a brand ambassador, competition champion, and, most notably, head drinks slinger at Sportman’s Club. De Oliveira is an industry lifer at an industry-focused bar that turns its menu over every single night. That format requires focus, imaginitive mojo, and a propensity for dispensing fun. A beer-and-a-shot brand of hospitality reigns at Sportsman’s, bringing in all manner of top-notch tenders to shake behind the bar one night a week. De Oliveira is leading the pack, influencing what the city drinks from ground zero for cocktail culture in Chicago. 

Drinks that clinched it:

  • Coast to Coast: 3-year Rum, Palo Cortado Sherry, Honey Syrup, and Salt Tincture
  • Anti Matter: Rittenhouse Rye, Campari, Punt e Mes, and Bigallet China China

 

Bartender: Tyler Fry, The Violet Hour

Tyler Fry is a singular bartender, one who’s devoted to the most foundational and heady aspects of his craft. He enjoys making the drink you just ordered—regardless of its provenance. He likes to craft cocktails that come with a witticism (or a dirty joke). He revels in literary references and historical details. Fry’s style of hospitality is deeply rooted in the classic ethos of The Violet Hour, but it’s steeped in a deep reverence for Japanese culture. He’s a tea aficionado; he use principals of aikido to dictate his movement behind the bar. Combine that idiosyncratic, intellectual sensibility with palpable ambition and a good dose of Midwestern earnestness, and you have one of the most compelling young bartenders in America.

Drinks that clinched it:

  • The Cruellest Month: Amaro Braulio, St. George Terroir Gin, Punt e Mes, Lemon Juice, and Saline Solution
  • Suika-Wari: Houjicha-infused Lichiko Schochu, Watermelon Juice, Lime, Simple Syrup, Apricot Liqueur, and Orange Peel

 

Sommelier: Ryan Arnold, Lettuce Entertain You

We’re not sure Ryan Arnold sleeps. As a divisional wine director for Lettuce Entertain You, he builds lists, trains staff, and works the floor of five-plus concepts in Chicago and Los Angeles, including RPM Italian, which runs, oh, just 825 covers on a Saturday. He curates the wines for Chicago’s Taste of the Nation, co-launched Squire Wine Company to promote wine events and camaraderie in the Chicago somm community, and has his own label of Sonoma County Pinot Noir. He wants to be the Anthony Bourdain of wine—a TV show is forthcoming. Arnold is a super somm with the energy, juice knowledge, tableside manner, and ambition to reach an audience far beyond Chicago.

Pairings that clinched it:

  • Pork Arrosti, Fennel Pollen, Pepperonata, and Fennel Sausage paired with Carricante, Tenuta delle Terre Nere, Etna Bianco, Sicily, Italy, 2011
  • Fried Artichokes, Chopped Parsley, and Lemon Aïoli paired with Verminton/Cortese, Matthiasson, "Tendu," California, 2013