Chef Jimmy Bannos Jr. of The Purple Pig

Chef Jimmy Bannos Jr. of The Purple Pig
April 2011

If you ever ordered a gumbo at the Louisiana-style Heaven on Seven in Chicago’s Loop during the late 1980s, you may remember having your table bussed by a 5-year-old version of the chef. A fourth-generation restaurateur, Jimmy Bannos Jr. was practically swaddled in dinner napkins at his father’s restaurant, and raised on restaurant and cooking lore. His passion for people and food was clear from a young age, and when the fork in the professional road arrived, Bannos chose culinary school.

He went to Johnson & Wales University, and while there interned at Emeril's in New Orleans. Upon graduation, Bannos helped Gabriel Viti open Miramar Bistro in Highwood, Illinois. He also teamed up with Scott Harris for the opening of Mia Francesca in Chicago. As his palate inclined further toward the flavors of the Mediterranean, Bannos—Chicago’s reverse version of Marco Polo—plotted a course for the Old World. He embarked on an excursion to Italy to immerse himself in the culture and cuisine, working at two restaurants near Rome and two more in Florence. Once back on U.S. shores, Bannos made the move to New York City, spending the next three and a half years working under Mario Batali at Del Posto, Lupa Osteria Romana, and Esca.

Bannos’ passions—food, family, and the restaurant business—eventually brought him home to Chicago and his first independent venture. This chef-partner describes his restaurant, The Purple Pig in Chicago's Gold Coast, as “a Mecca to food, swine, and wine.” Here he puts out rustic, vibrant dishes that showcase a tendency toward the simplicity and purity of Mediterranean ingredients.

Interview with Jimmy Bannos Jr. of The Purple Pig - Chicago IL

Antoinette Bruno: Did you go to culinary school? Do you hire people with or without a culinary school degree?
Jimmy Bannos Jr: I went to Johnson & Wales. At the end of the day it’s about whether they cook or not. That is what is important.

AB: What is your philosophy on food and dining?
JB: I play with a lot of different parts of the pig and with Mediterranean influence—Southern Italy, France, and Spain. There’s a lot of acidity, and really good olive oil. I think people have an open mind about dining here. Our pig tails are a really big seller. Value is really important to my dad and me. Nobody's wallet should be hurting when they come here.

AB: What goes into creating a dish?
JB: What season we’re in is important. I'm constantly thinking day and night about what to do next—11:30am to midnight, seven days a week. So I don't get a lot of time to think. It is a challenge. I read a lot of books. You’ve got to keep your mind fresh. I’m constantly looking for stuff that is different.

AB: What’s the biggest challenge facing your restaurant?
JB: The biggest challenge every day is that we do so many covers. We are so busy, the biggest challenge is to keep a high level of consistency—600 covers a day is a lot in an all electric kitchen.

AB: What’s the toughest thing you’ve had to do in your job?
JB: Opening this place. I was 25 when this place opened up. It was a really big challenge. It controls your whole life. It is really difficult to open your own place.

AB: If you had to do one thing over again, what would it be?
JB: I was in Italy for six months before I went to work for Mario Batali for almost four years. I maybe should have done New York first, then Italy.

AB: What trends do you see emerging?
JB: In the culinary scene in Chicago, communal seating is becoming big. Small plates as well. Some people do small plates for perceived value.

AB: How do you keep abreast of the latest trends?
JB: Really through reading. I could go to New York once a month just to try the new places. Reading The New York Times every week. TimeOut New York, TimeOut Chicago, Grub Street.

AB: Which person would you most like to cook for?
JB: Ferran Adrià.

AB: What’s next for you? Where will we see you in five years?
JB: My number-one goal right now is for this place to reach its full potential.

AB: What does reaching that mean?
JB: Training, developing, promoting from within, to someday have sous chefs that get it and know as much as I do. So if I want to do another concept things won't go to shit when I am gone. You have to surround yourself with people who are just as good as you are so you can grow. That is how you build a team.

AB: If you weren’t a chef what would you be doing?
JB: I've always felt that I was someone that was a good teacher, and I would have been a coach for athletics.

AB: What inspired you to start cooking professionally?
JB: For me it’s always been, since I was a little kid, to go to my dad’s place on a Saturday morning. It’s all I’ve ever wanted to do. I’m fourth generation. I haven’t ever considered doing anything else. My dad gave tons of advice. My whole life has been advice, not just from my dad but from everyone. He would always say, “If you’re looking in the mirror and you’re happy with what you see, then that’s success.” To me, though, success is about looking out into the dining room and seeing those seats full.

AB: If the Chicago culinary community were a stage, what would your role be?
JB: What we’re trying to do here, we’re trying to bring the food and atmosphere, just not make it pretentious. A lot of restaurants act like they’re doing you a favor or something when you walk through the door. My mentality even though we do a lot of pig is that we also do Mediterranean flavors. We just got some fried sardines in from Portugal.

AB: Where do you see yourself in the evolution of Chicago dining?
JB: I don’t know. I have no idea. It just goes hand in hand with the kind of food we do. I think this town could use more really good Italian restaurants. That’s where you’ll find me in the future.

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