Jessica Dukes: You began your career as a musician. What inspired you to pursue cooking professionally?
Andrew Zimmerman: I cooked because I needed to make money. My first job in a kitchen was as a dishwasher. I liked to eat, and I liked eating interesting things. I was cooking at home; although that wasn’t at all related to any idea of cooking in a professional kitchen. I started cooking Thai at home because I’d eaten it and I enjoyed it, and I started getting the message that I had a real interest in cooking. My father took me to sushi restaurants before they were ubiquitous, Indian restaurants, Thai restaurants when I was really young. I was very lucky in that way.
JD: Who are your mentors?
AZ: Renato Sommelia was the first and most important. For me [working with him] was a litmus test as to whether or not I wanted to do this really professionally. The single most important thing I learned was to trust my instincts on cooking. Renato had a good way of getting what he wanted: he told me that he wanted something, and that he was sure I knew how to do it, and then he’d go home and watch soccer! Like a chocolate truffle cake. “I want you to make a chocolate truffle cake.” It didn’t matter that I had never made a chocolate truffle cake before, that I had no idea how to make one, and there was no Internet in its current form. But I had to do it. Or the first time I roasted a whole fish—Branzino. I’d never seen one or cooked one before, even though that sounds silly now, and I remember I opened the oven door and I asked Renato, “Can you check this for me?” He looked at me and said, “You know perfectly well if it’s cooked or not.” And I did, I just had to have the confidence to know that I did. His style made me a much better cook a lot more quickly.
JD: Did you have any other mentors over the course of your career?
AZ: Terry Alexander. His work ethic is great. For somebody that’s in his position, there isn’t any job that’s too small. I’ve seen him wash dishes and clean out the sewer. I think a lot of chefs would say that’s beneath them, and he would argue that of course he has to do that, and I agree … I got a much more generous outlook on hospitality and the diner’s experience from Terry.
JD: Do you think chefs are too inflexible?
JD: You also mentioned Christophe David as a mentor.
AZ: I think that chefs sometimes get caught up in the idea that they’re creative geniuses, so if a guest wants to make a change to an item, wants something omitted or wants to add something, or alter something, it’s like, “oh no, you must be crazy!” But at the end of the day they’re eating it and they're the ones paying for it. [Terry] taught me about making sure that the guest is taken care of.
From him, I started to learn how to let my cooks cook for me, to do their job because that’s what [Christophe] does. I’d go into his office and he’d say, “I’d like a turbot with some carrots … and pomelo.” “What? Ok, sure, chef, naturally.” I’d bring it back, and he’d make some comments, and then I’d bring it back again and eventually it would get on the menu.
JD: How did you like this process?
JD: What do you mean by that?
AZ: I think that where Renato was trying to bring it out of me, Christophe just expected that it was there. I remember that another chef that was working at [NoMi] at the time told me that when he started, they showed him where the oven was and that was it. I had to figure out what I was doing, and again, that really helped me. It was also a large corporate environment, you know it’s the Hyatt, and in my mind Christophe was a real executive chef.
People call me an executive chef or they ask me if I’m the executive chef at Sepia
and I say, “You can call me that if you want to but really I’m just a chef.” [Laughs] You know an executive chef is someone who has an office and spends a lot of time there, who is sitting behind a pile of budget reports. We do budget reports to at Sepia
but nothing on the scale of a hotel.
JD: What is your philosophy on food and dining?
AZ: I get asked this question all the time, and I know why, it’s important. Food should be good. It’s important that from beginning to end, you’ve done as much as you can. That differentiates a lot of restaurants in Chicago from other cities. We shop at the same farmers’ markets, get our meat from the same farmers at the Green Market, cook the same contemporary American, European-influenced food. What makes each restaurant different is how we’ve personally translated that. Paul Virant makes sauerkraut, and if I make sauerkraut it’s going to taste different, even though we’re using the same ingredients and maybe sourced them at the same place.
JD: What advice would you give to young chefs just getting started?
AZ: Well that depends on whether they’re just starting off as a cook or if they’re a sous chef and they’re about to take on more responsibility. For the sous chef, one of best pieces of advice I’d have, aside from all the obvious, is to get the best product you can afford, respect it, do your best presentation, and make the carrot taste like a carrot.
Also, I think it’s really important to recognize that the people you hire for your kitchen are the custodians of your cuisine. Be selective about the people you choose to work with and surround yourself with professionally and personally. Treat them with respect and mentor them, all so they’re personally invested with food that’s going out. I learned over the years to try to be better about letting people do their jobs. You need to show trust, because then there’s a better chance that they’ll do it properly.
JD: Do you have any protégées?
AZ: I wouldn’t say that I have protégées—maybe in five or 10 years. But I’ve worked with some really good people, people who will do well, and I hope I’ve given them the tools. Recently Rob Leavitt opened a butcher shop. It’d really be cool if it comes back around. Five or six years ago, we were lamenting the death of the neighborhood butcher: gutsy risk takers who like the butcher angle are bringing it back. Good for them.