Rising Star Chef and Restaurateur award winner: Shawn McClain of Spring, Custom House and Green Zebra  - Chicago on StarChefs.com

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Restaurateur Chef Award: Shawn McClain

Spring, Custom House and Green Zebra | Chicago


Shawn McClain is the executive chef and partner of Spring, Green Zebra, and Custom House – three of the most popular and trend-setting restaurants in Chicago, each with a distinct theme. McClain’s restaurants set the bar for the city’s upscale-casual dining, with, McClain says, “Great food, great service, and interesting wine, without pretension, in an urban setting.”

McClain is a San Diego native who found himself as a teenager in Ohio wanting to impress a girl who worked in a restaurant – and the rest is history. He graduated from the School of Culinary Arts at Kendall College in Evanston, Illinois in 1990, and spent two years at The Boulevard in the Intercontinental with Chef Stephen Junta. In 1992 he opened Betise in Wilmette in 1992, and two years later left to open Trio in Evanston, Illinois under Rick Tramonto and Gale Gand. He became a sous chef in January 1994, chef de cuisine in 1995, and took over full-time soon after that.

McClain broke onto the national scene during his 7 years at Trio;after consistent critical acclaim, he left to open Spring, an Asian and seafood-focused restaurant in Bucktown in Chicago. In 2004, McClain opened his second restaurant, Green Zebra, a sleek vegetarian concept that brings vegetables to the center of the plate. In 2005, McClain swung the pendulum in the opposite direction and opened Custom House, a new American, meat-centric restaurant with a focus on artisan meats.

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Antoinette Bruno: When did you begin your culinary career?
Shawn McClain: I graduated from high school and began working in restaurants. I went to Miami University and then transferred to Kendall College in Chicago.

AB: How did you begin cooking?
SM: Honestly, I wanted to date this girl, and she worked for a restaurant in Oxford, Ohio at a place called Attractions. I thought that was the only way to get to know her, so I got a job as a dishwasher and moved my way up and took over the position. Our relationship didn’t last very long, but she got me sucked into the business.

AB: What did you study in school?
SM: I was studying business and political science, but was spending much more time cooking than studying.

AB: What did you think of culinary school? Do you prefer hiring people with culinary degrees?
SM: Culinary school was mixed for me. Hiring is a case by case basis, but it really all depends on personality, age, and experience for me. I’ve had great people who had gone to school, and great people who hadn’t. I’m on the culinary advisory board for Kendall College so I’d hate to dissuade anybody, and I do think it’s a great thing for most people who are starting at a young age with little experience. It forms a great foundation of language and it rarely ever hurts them.

AB: Where else have you worked?
SM: I worked at The Boulevard opening in the Intercontinental. They hired a great chef named Stephen Junta and it was 17 cooks, all culinary graduates, and all amazingly talented cooks. It was a great learning atmosphere but unfortunately the business just didn’t follow; I spent 2 years there and learned a ton. I opened Betise in Wilmette in 1992, and when I left there I went to work at Trio under Rick Tramonto and Gale Gand. I was on the opening crew and became sous chef in January 1994, then took over as chef de cusine in 1995. I took over full time soon after.

AB: Do you have any mentors?
SM: Henry from Trio definitely had the biggest impact as someone who brought a great palate to the table, and as a business owner and a friend.

AB: You opened Spring in 2001. How did you know you were ready to own and not just work for someone else?
SM: I didn’t know I was ready. I think that’s perhaps a family trait – we tend not to work well for other people.

AB: How did you finance the project? What is the ownership structure?
SM: It was a combination of a bank loan and some investors from Trio who were good friends (who also invested in Green Zebra). Peter Drohomyrecky, Sue Kim-Drohomyrecky and I are the primary owners and we each share 42.5%. The other 15% of Spring and Green Zebra are owned by private investors. Custom House is 100% ours.

AB: Who are your contemporaries; what restaurant concepts/restaurateurs do you respect in your city?
SM: Paul Kahan at Blackbird. I think Blackbird is definitely a restaurant that helped us when we followed suit. Prior to them, there was really only 4-star dining and then a big step down. They went for a market that was 4-star food, but a little more edgy and contemporary, with a lower price point.

AB: Can you describe the 3 different restaurant concepts?
SM: Spring is a seafood-dominated menu. We always wanted an eastern-inspired look without being overt, and wanted the cooking to reflect that with simple preparations, raw preparations, and no boundaries.

Green Zebra is a vegetarian small plate concept. (The designer is the same for all three restaurants.) It’s a storefront on Chicago Avenue; it’s loud and raucous, we play AC/DC, and it’s 95% vegetarian, with only 1 fish dish. I found it hard to believe that no one had done that before. We’re not trying to substitute for meat; we’re just trying to highlight these great vegetables. There are about 25 dishes on the menu that are seasonal collections of flavors.

Custom House is at the other end of the spectrum from Green Zebra. The menu is meat-centric with a Mediterranean influence that’s very new American. People initially caught the tag “steakhouse,” which is not so accurate. We do veal cheeks, sweetbreads, rabbit, pork cheeks, pork loin, and aged meats. We really ran the spectrum trying to showcase different meats, but not steak.

AB: How has Chicago changed since you opened here, and how have you had a hand in changing it?
SM: Chicago’s food scene has grown leaps and bounds in the last 10 years. People saw our success and thought that there was another niche in the market for great food, great service, and interesting wine without pretension in an urban setting.

AB: How do you inspire yet retain your employees?
SM: I enjoy working with people and I think I’m a fair person. I like to prove to them that I’m not above any job that I ask them to do, and that I can do it probably better than they can. I’ve never been militaristic and I want everyone to have fun. We spend a lot of hours in the kitchen, and when people enjoy what they do it shows. I’ve had great success in employees staying, having long term friendships, and mentoring.

AB: Do you have any favorite interview questions when you hire new cooks?
SM: I like to ask: why here and why now? What am I going to do for you? I also ask: Why am I the right choice to work for?

AB: What’s your target margin for each of your restaurant concepts?
SM: I’d love to get 25% return on investment but realistically, I would say 5-8% would make us happy.

AB: How much business do you do? Choose a range: Under $2 million; $2-5 million; $5-10 million; $10-15 million; over $15 million?
SM:All three restaurants together are 5-10 million.

AB: What are your top 3 tips for running successful restaurants?

  1. You’ve got to have a firm grasp and understanding of financials and accountability for every dollar that goes out of the restaurant
  2. Communicate with managers and don’t be afraid of creative input when it comes to managing
  3. Listen to your guests

AB: How do you do listen to your customers?
SM: For me it’s a matter of really trying to communicate, and hearing feedback through service people. It’s not necessarily formal (though it can be) and obviously we do our fair share of reading blogs and reviews and online sources.

AB: Do you find blogs helpful?
SM: You wish you could censor them and have control over their language, but I think whether somebody tells you in person or not, you can get a good sense of what food people really like.

AB: Do you have any favorite restaurants off the beaten path in Chicago?
SM: I love the food at Le Colonial, which is not off the beaten path but I get the shrimp beignets, the bo satay tenderloin and the sweet potato on rice. I also love the lounge upstairs and sitting up there. I also like Sushi from Bob San, Mirai, and Kamehachi.
AB: How do you treat the concept of sustainability in your businesses?
SM: It’s a very big focus of all three restaurants. We work directly with farmers, with farms, even a mussel farm. I think [partnerships with farmers] are important for many reasons. It feels good, it’s nice to have accountability and there’s one source who are accountable for a single product. So they’re accountable for it, and one of the big things that have come out of all of this is origin of product – you have to know the origin of products.

AB: What do you think about the market culture in Chicago?
SM: I think it was a great idea because a lot of relationships are forged with chefs and farmers. The Green City Market has allowed farmers who wouldn’t have made it to Chicago to get there. But the market itself is overpriced, so we just deal directly with the suppliers.

AB: What is your 5 year plan?
SM: Right now we have some things going and unfortunately it’s a little premature to talk about them, but I think we’d like to expand carefully. We’re very proud of our 3 restaurants and know that there’s a point where we begin to feed on ourselves. To avoid this, we’ve put together 3 different chef-driven concepts that are carefully managed day-by-day. The next project may not be fine dining– it may be an alternative concept, and it may be a larger restaurant that could be out of state.

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   Published: April 2008