Interview with Chef Kendal Duque of Sepia – Chicago, IL

May 19

Antoinette Bruno: Can you describe the food at Sepia?
Kendal Duque: We have an Italian aesthetic to our food. We have a grill section on our menu – it’s part Chicago, and it’s Italian. We serve the protein with a contorno. The only thing we have with a starch is our flat iron steak, in which case it’s just some potatoes in duck fat. The summer menu was really light, playful and vibrant.

AB: What year did you start your culinary career? What inspired you to pursue cooking professionally?
KD: I enjoy eating – I'm from South America and it's part of what you do. Eating means hanging out with the family and having wonderful memories, so food was always important for me. I started my career in my mid 20s. Before I went to the University of Pennsylvania as a biochemistry major.

AB: You have a background in biochemistry – why aren’t you into molecular gastronomy?
KD: When I’m done with a stage of my life, I’m done with it and I move on. I started cooking because I was no good at it – I was in grad school at Berkeley and was on my way to Harvard to do a PhD in literature, and I wanted to become a better home cook. Berkeley was where I had my first adult, mature food experiences and it was the entire approach to food, wine and culture that appealed to me. I said “I’m going to try this to be a better home cook.” I did an internship at Masa’s, and it was such an amazing, life-changing experience that I dropped everything else. I never looked back.

AB: Why not science?
KD: I thought at the time that I had done as much as I could with it, and it wasn’t satisfying. I’m a very visceral, sensual person. Cooking was so tangible – it was something that I could do with my hands.

AB: Where have you worked?
KD: Masa's, then Everest Room for Jean Joho. He’s tough, and very old-style French, but I wanted to get my butt kicked. I worked for 4 months with Julian Serrano, my mentor, when he was opening Picasso's at the Bellagio, and then I opened Tru in 1999.

AB: What did you learn there?
KD: More than anything, Julian Serrano taught me to be humble in the kitchen. Masa's was the “it” place and he was there every day. He was the best cook on the line and he ran the stations, but he knew everything that was happening in the restaurant.

AB: What question gives you the most insight to a cook when you’re interviewing them for a position in your kitchen?
KD: I need to have a balance in my life, so I desperately need to know what they do besides the job - what it is that defines them. Once I know their personality, I know how to approach everyone individually. I like to know them as personally as I can.

AB: What advice would you offer young chefs just getting started?
KD: You have to go to the bottom depths and suffer. Then you realize whether you love this or you don’t.

AB: What ingredient that you like do you feel is underappreciated or underutilized? Why?
KD: We're doing a lot of work with offal. We have a lamb sirloin dish where I like to incorporate hearts – anything that speaks of the animal that people are unfamiliar with, but that we used to eat back in the day. I use a lot of acid, high herb tones and lemon and limes, with a base of good olive oil and good vinegars. I try to keep my flavors up top, but something has to bring them down.

AB: What’s your most indispensable kitchen tool? Why?
KD: Sturdy pans – we use a lot of cast iron and black steel. I eschew using tongs unless working on the grill, so I use mostly spoons and forks. I like to handle things as lightly as possible.

AB: What are your favorite cookbooks?
KD: When I started it was the classical books like, Ma Cuisine. Right now it's Mario Batali and Zuni Café Cookbook.

AB: If you could go anywhere in the world for culinary travel, where would you go?
KD: Japan. It's an aesthetic that I intuitively love and want to experience more of.

AB: What is your philosophy on food and dining?
KD: That there's not much to it. I think the whole dining experience has to be fulfilled: [great] service, you feel special, the food is right-on. The style of food isn't "ta-da" but rather, when you finish, "that was great."

AB: Who would you most like to cook for you?
KD: I would like to have Freddy Girardet cook for me. I feel that maybe I have some insight into what he's gone through in his career.

AB: How are you involved in your local culinary community?
KD: We are still young but we're setting ourselves up through the help of [our PR representative] to work with associations and charities next year, and, more importantly, with the farmers – not just the main markets here, but with some of our co-op farmers outside Chicago.

AB: What does success mean for you? What will it look like for you?
KD: I want to be as happy as I can be. Professionally I want to have a balanced life. I set up my kitchen so that I can walk in at any moment and know exactly what's going on. I want 2 or 3 restaurants where I can do the same thing.