Chef Shin Thompson of Bonsoirée

Chef Shin Thompson of Bonsoirée
April 2011

Chef Shin Thompson is living out a chef’s fantasy: on the brink of an economic crisis, he opened a fine-dining BYO restaurant with 28 seats and proceeded to serve exactly what he wanted to for 30 to 50 covers a night. Economic crisis weathered, at the age of 31, Thompson’s Bonsoirée earned a Michelin star. Chalk it up to a blend of ingenuity and perfectionism or to a brand of risk-taking bordering on reckless insolence—if you ask Thompson, he’ll say he just goes with the flow.

Thompson was born in Honolulu, Hawaii, spent most of his childhood in Japan, and was inculcated with a love for street food early on, both from these dual island cultures and the internationalism of his father’s career with United Airlines. Thompson graduated with a culinary arts degree from Kendall College in Chicago in 2001 and earned a second degree in Hospitality Management from Chicago’s Roosevelt University. In the years that followed, Thompson culled together a résumé full of fine-dining kitchens and hotels across the United States.

Thompson returned to Chicago and began hosting a series of underground dining parties in 2005, which led to the opening of Bonsoirée in Chicago's Logan Square neighborhood. Thompson’s interpretation of French and Japanese fare in degustation format quickly garnered attention, and in 2008, Food & Wine included the restaurant in its “Go List” of “Best Local Dining Destinations in the World.”

In addition to a newly awarded Michelin star, Bonsoireé received a three-star rating from the Chicago Tribune, and it was named one of the “Best American BYO Restaurants” by Travel + Leisure. Furthermore, Thompson has been invited twice to prepare dinner for the James Beard Foundation. Today, his friendly neighborhood BYO still offers monthly “Underground” dinners in addition to “No Menu Sundays,” a catering service, and online “Underground” wine recommendations.

Interview with Chef Shin Thompson of Bonsoiree - Chicago IL

Antoinette Bruno: What is your favorite restaurant?
Shin Thomspon: Schwa. My [other] favorite restaurant is called Ethiopian Diamond. It's authentic Ethiopian in Lakeview.

AB: What ingredient do you feel is over-hyped?
ST: I love pork belly, but it’s definitely gotten out of control as far as people using it. On one menu you'll see it like five times.

AB: What steps are you taking to become a sustainable restaurant?
ST: We don't have menus. We try to use sustainable product whenever possible, especially fish. I’m definitely interested in it and learning on my own about it; it’s becoming more popular, and it’s also the right thing to do.

AB: What inspired you to pursue cooking professionally?
ST: My parents and Japanese background inspired me. My mom is Japanese and my dad is American. My dad traveled around the world and met my mom in Japan. At a very young age, I grew up tasting a lot of different things. We grew up in a relatively poor family. We didn't go out to restaurants. We ate at home. I didn't really eat out in restaurants until I started cooking professionally.

AB: Do you recommend culinary school to aspiring cooks? Do you hire chefs with or without a culinary background?
ST: I went to Kendall College. It’s not for everybody. But it helped me accelerate to where I am now. I don't recommend it to everybody. It takes the right type of person to know what they can get out of cooking school and use it to their advantage. I learned a lot. I had great instructors, some of whom I keep in contact with.

AB: How are you involved in your local culinary community?
ST: First and foremost, we have a ton of people that want to stage in our kitchen. I usually let students stage and see what we do. We encourage that. We get a lot of people that are wowed by what we do. It’s a lot different working in a kitchen that is our size. It's about 200 square feet.

AB: What is your philosophy on food and dining?
ST: For me personally, I want to provide a memorable meal, most importantly people remembering the flavors and the tastes of the food. Enhancing the taste as well as the presentation is important. You eat with your eyes. If it looks like ass, people are going to think it tastes like ass. People get excited to taste!

AB: What goes into creating a dish?
ST: A lot of thought. A lot of experimentation.

AB: Did you ever create a dish that came out different than you thought? Is there any dish you want to put on the menu that you can't?
ST: I have different scallop dishes, but every time I try to take off my scallop dish I can't do it. Customers get angry when the scallop dish changes.

AB: How do you keep abreast of the latest trends?
ST: To be honest I don't pay attention. We get direct feedback from our customer base. We are as creative as possible and try to do things people haven't seen before. I travel to Japan often and I bring those ideas back here.

AB: What’s the biggest challenge facing your restaurant?
ST: A lot of people don't know this, but we do quite a bit of off-premise catering. The challenge is that our kitchen is so small. Sometimes I have to rent kitchen space to do the catering. Here we do 30 to 50 covers per night. When I first opened, nobody knew who I was or to come. The way I made this business viable was through the catering.

AB: What is the biggest take away for a diner to Bonsoirée?
ST: I think a lot of people appreciate the thought behind the dishes. I used to work in a hotel. I was chef de cuisine. I would try to come up with creative dishes, but hotels don't like you to think outside the box. I made the decision to quit my corporate job and start my own thing. When I started this I only had an idea. Not a dime to my name.

AB: So how did you start?
ST: I put a business plan together. I went to 14 banks. It was 2005. I tweaked my plan after each presentation and finally someone said yes! If I tried to do it now, it would be impossible. Quite a few rejections before someone said OK.

AB: If you had one thing you could do over again, what would it be?
ST: I would have traveled more!

AB: What’s your proudest accomplishment in your career to date?
ST: Maintaining a successful business. We've been fortunate that we haven't felt the economic crises. We are BYOB. You can spend what you want to spend on wine and bring it.

AB: Where do you see yourself in five years?
ST: No idea. What's next? I a “go with the flow” kind of guy. If an opportunity presents itself, I will jump on it. It depends on the opportunity that comes my way.

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