Chef Chris Pandel of The Bristol

Chef Chris Pandel of The Bristol
April 2011

Take everything that connotes Midwestern charm: effusive goodwill and a love of community, coupled with a killer work ethic, and you’ve got its embodiment in Chef Chris Pandel. His food is just as appealing—rooted in classic French technique and mostly local Midwestern ingredients: unfussy and hearty, and at the same time fresh, clean, and elegant.

Pandel began his career helping out at a restaurant in his hometown of Riverside, Illinois. Before long, the head chef picked Pandel up by the scruff of his neck and plopped him down in the kitchen, where Pandel says, “I've been working my tail off ever since.” His next job was at Courtright’s in Willow Springs, a favorite fine-dining excursion for Chicagoans. Next, Pandel attended Johnson & Wales University and grabbed the chance to intern at Chicago chef-factory Tru under Chef Rick Tramonto.

Pandel spent what he calls “graduate school” in New York City, at Café Boulud under Chef Andrew Carmellini. Love of home brought him back to Chicago and Tru, which led to a position as corporate chef at three Tramonto restaurants. Of his mentors, Pandel says Carmellini molded him into a cook, and that under Tramonto, he earned a “sense of self” in the kitchen and the know-how to run a business. In 2008, Pandel opened neighborhood eatery The Bristol with partners John Ross and Phillip Waters. Time spent at the restaurant is time invested in cozy good humor: communal tables encourage conviviality, the staff spreads the warmth, and Pandel’s cooking follows through with just the right blend of comfort and creativity.

Interview with Chef Chris Pandel of The Bristol - Chicago IL

Jessica Dukes: What is your philosophy on food and dining?
Chris Pandel: Across the board I’d say that my personal philosophy is to make delicious food with no pretense. Dining should be a fun experience. It’s often more about who you're with than the food. We’re here to entertain you.

JD: How do you bring that philosophy into the back of the house?
CP: Our kitchen at The Bristol is small. We have the same staff we opened with two and a half years ago. It’s a wonderful thing; it’s a relaxed atmosphere. We play music, but we maintain technique. It’s serious as far as being professional, but if you're going to spend 14 hours a day someplace, you better enjoy yourself.

JD: What’s the biggest challenge facing your restaurant?
CP: We’re in the process of trying to up the ante as far as kitchen equipment, the front of house needs a little bit of help. The biggest thing is to make sure that the guest doesn't have to wait. Once we redo our kitchen in the next few months, we'll be able to serve everyone.

JD: Can you tell me a little about your work history?
CP: I worked at Tru as an intern when I was 20, I think, and I came back to Tru as a line cook and got bumped up to sous chef. I moved up the ranks pretty quickly there. Rick [Tramonto] gave me a lot of freedom. There were never so many guidelines, so I learned a lot through trial and error. It taught me a lot about self-discipline, not wasting money, and understanding that the product is very important. I learned about the value of product, as well as a sense of self. When he went to open the Osteria, he took me along as his executive sous. It was my introduction to Italian. [Andrew] Carmellini at Café Boulud had Italian on the menu at all times, but it was definitely a French restaurant. Osteria was more of an eye-opener.

JD: What do you mean by an “eye-opener”?
CP: It turned my life around. It made me realize I didn’t want to do fine dining anymore. It was the first time I worked with a wood-burning oven. The product was so simple. It wasn’t 12 cooks putting out a 15-course tasting. The one ingredient and the one plate had to be perfect or we wouldn’t even bother serving it.

JD: You also worked at Courtright’s, another landmark Chicago restaurant.
CP: Courtright’s was my first higher end restaurant. I’d go back there during summers, and it gave me another boost. It was a confidence builder. They pushed me extremely hard. I was a super young cook; I never had a down moment. As an intern at Tru I had worked every station in the kitchen, which was kind of unheard of. It was a really nice place to work, with a beautiful kitchen. I wanted to go back to something like that. I did a stage with Grant Achatz up at Trio. It was not an easy choice to go back to. Grant is pretty intense. It was a focused, driven restaurant on both ends. Tramonto was “head down, get your work done,” with a big voice and a big personality. After a while, I got to know him. We opened up to each other. I’ve known him eight, nine years now.

JD: What got you into professional cooking?
CP: Once they discovered that I liked working in a kitchen, my parents pushed me in that direction. This is all I've ever done aside from mowing lawns. I studied culinary arts at Johnson & Wales.

JD: Do you recommend culinary school?
CP: I think for some people it’s good, but I don't think it’s for everybody. It’s very expensive for what you get out of it.

JD: What advice would you give young chefs just getting started?
CP: I would say find a person to work for who inspires you. Don’t settle for a good name or a good restaurant. Allow yourself to get inside his or her head. Carmellini didn't know me at first; I was terrified. David Chang referred to the Café Boulud team as culinary ninjas—the precision was incredible; there’s a level of stress that was unbelievable. And it’s the best experience I’ve had in my entire life—the food, people, and relationships I formed. Everyone I worked with there is a chef somewhere.

JD: What’s the hardest thing you've had to do in your career?
CP: Fire my wife. How's that for awful? She was one of the sous chefs on staff. I had to fire her. We had too many people on staff. She understood; she knew why.

JD: What are you most proud of?
CP: Career-wise, I would say opening The Bristol. I always had a goal to open a restaurant by the time I was 30.

JD: How do you perceive your role in the Chicago community?
CP: I believe my role in the community as a young chef involves many responsibilities. The ability to give back to our local community through Common Threads, The Spence Farm Foundation, Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, and other local charities is a very important. And through our restaurant we are able to raise quite a bit of money for those in need.

JD: How are you involved with Common Threads?
CP: I'm on the board of Common Threads. It basically teaches underprivileged kids that it’s OK to eat healthy food. It’s local, but it’s going international. It was started by Art Smith here in Chicago, but they just started to open offices in Miami, DC, and New York, and they’re looking to open offices in LA.

JD: What differences do you see taking place?
CP: For lots of kids, mostly on the South Side, it’s either McDonald’s or a bodega, so we bring them to different classes and we bring in chef volunteers and try to introduce good food. It’s a huge movement to try to help kids understand that it’s OK to be a farmer and live off your own land. A little kid grows our green peppers for us. We feed him his own food when he comes up here and it blows him away.

JD: What about the culinary community? Do you feel connected to the chef community in Chicago?
CP: I am an advocate and supporter of the Chicago Green City Market, supporting local agriculture and small family farms. I believe that our restaurant has been an inspiration for other Chicago chefs to reach out and become independent owner-operators. I also think of myself and my role as a chef in Chicago as one that has to keep pushing forward for the simplicity of food. We have some of the greatest avant-garde restaurants in the world here in Chicago, and I really try to stay on the opposite end of the spectrum. I also know that my role in this culinary community allows me to serve the food that I want to eat. I have gained the trust of the Chicago community to serve everything from a comforting roasted chicken to herring soft roe, allowing for a menu that changes daily based on what is good right now.

JD: I understand you’re personally involved in steps toward sustainability at The Bristol. Could you tell me a little more about your role?
CP: We make an effort to be a sustainable restaurant by supporting our local food systems and small local businesses. I have personal relationships with all the farms we use at The Bristol, which allows us to contribute to supporting local food systems. We introduce new restaurants, they introduce new farms, and we all decide what to grow together so no one has waste at the end of the season. We use local fresh water fish, whenever available, to cut down our foot print. Our recycling contractor is a Chicago-based man who only has a few accounts, but he takes all of our paper, plastic, recyclable metals, compost, and glass to be recycled throughout the city.

JD: Is this effort toward sustainability at all difficult to achieve?
CP: It is a conscious effort that does take more work and more time from all parties involved, but after two and a half years, we find that it has been very much worth it. We cook in a manner that allows for little to no waste of food in the restaurant. We butcher whole animals and use everything, and we’re not fearful of putting offcuts on our menu. The rotation of our menu allows us to have items on the menu that may only last one evening’s service. And we’ve found that our guests come back because of the constant change in food, allowing us to further our mission.

JD: Speaking of your mission, where do you see yourself five years from now?
CP: Owning multiple restaurants. I would like to do an Italian concept. I'm trained as a French cook. For the most part, I let the ingredients speak for themselves. I would like to go Italian, and I would like to do a little French bistro, something classic.

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