2018 Chicago Rising Star Chef Julie Warpinski of Big Star

2018 Chicago Rising Star Chef Julie Warpinski of Big Star
May 2018

Big Star
1531 North Damen Avenue
Chicago, IL 60622



An Illinois native from a family of farmers, Julie Warpinski studied dietetics in college. After realizing she wasn’t keen on working in hospitals for the rest of her career, she enrolled in culinary school at Kendall College in Chicago. After graduation, she trained at Xoco, Rick Bayless’ quick-service street food spot, which was her first foray into Mexican cuisine. At Xoco, Warpinski was struck by how close the Mexican flavors were to the food of her own upbringing—food that was slow-cooked with fresh vegetables and homey authenticity. She also has cooked with Rising Stars alums Jason Hammel at Lula Cafe and Erling-Wu Bower at Publican Quality Meats, whom she credits with teaching her how to think critically about food.

In 2015, Warpinski took over the kitchen at Big Star, where a busy day might mean making 8,000 tacos. Where a lesser chef might get crushed by the volume of al pastor, Warpinski has chosen to define a new era of Big Star. She has added more vegan and vegetarian dishes to the menu and streamlined production to make sure every double-broiled order of queso fundido has the same heart-warming heft. Three years into her leadership run, One Off Hospitality charged Warpinski with a brand new Big Star near Wrigley Field.

Interview with 2018 Chicago Rising Star Chef Julie Warpinski

Caroline Hatchett: How did you get your start?

Julie Warpinski: I come from a family of farmers who farm mostly commodity crops like soybeans and corn. At the farm where I grew up, we have a huge yard where my mom planted a big garden. We always had fresh fruit and vegetables growing—tomatoes, peppers, and sweet corn. I still have an aversion to sweet corn because we ate so much of it. Cooking was such an important part of my daily life growing up, and by sixth or seventh grade, I knew I wanted to cook for a living. Despite my love of cooking, I didn’t go to culinary school right away. Instead, I went to the University of Illinois and studied dietetics with the goal of working in medicine. But after graduation, I found I didn’t want to work in hospitals and decided to pursue my passion for cuisine.

CH: Where have you cooked?

JW: I went to culinary school at Kendall College and made connections while I was there with Frontera Group. I helped open the first airport location of Xoco for them. It was my first foray into high-volume Mexican cuisine, and it was eye-opening. I never thought I would end up getting into Mexican cuisine and those flavors, but they were so reflective of my upbringing—everything was stewed, all the vegetables and flavors were so familiar. It was so homey, and I fell in love with it. After that, I wanted to expand my expertise, so I moved to Lula Café. It was a leap in the opposite direction from Xoco; the cuisine was more refined and I got the chance to work with Jason Hammel. His mind is amazing, and I really appreciated my time with him. Eventually, I found my way onto the opening team of Publican Quality Meats with Erling [Wu Bower] and Paul [Kahan]. I fell in love with butchery and all its processes. I was a sous chef at the Publican and got involved in as many ways as possible; I wanted to get more experience on the line, so I jumped in headfirst. That’s how you learn to cook and manage. Eventually, a spot at Big Star opened and I found my way here. 

CH: Big Star is beloved. How are you making an imprint on such an institution? 

JW: It’s hard. There are dishes like tacos al pastor that are original and will never change. But during my time here I’ve been able to pause and ask, “What is Big Star?” As a city, Chicago is very well known for Mexican cuisine. We have amazing traditional taquerias. At Big Star, we get to make unique dishes that are different from traditional Mexican cuisine. We get our inspiration from tradition but have also diversified our menu to include dishes that more people can come in and enjoy—including dishes that are vegan and vegetarian-friendly. I’ve been playing around with that, and I think it’s worked pretty well.

CH: Have you traveled anywhere recently for inspiration?

JW: The Baja region. I also went to Austin to hit those honky-tonk areas that are like Big Star. Mexico City is next on my list. It’s fun to visit and get inspired by those places: after visiting Austin, I decided to put a breakfast taco on the menu with flour tortillas and eggs.   

CH: Who’s your mentor?

JW: Erling Wu Bower. He was the first chef to teach me how to cook and pushed me to have an opinion on cooking, to have ideas and to listen. When I had a question, he would stop and ask, “Well, how do you think you should cook that?” I was scared shitless. But I embraced his way of doing things, was inspired, and started creating dishes. Creating dishes is one of the hardest things to do as a cook. I was nervous— it’s hard to gain that confidence. He helped me with that. 

CH: How are you involved in the local culinary community?

JW: My good friend Sarah Rinkavage created something, a women’s brigade, while she was at Lula Café. It’s called Grilling Girls, and it’s comprised of women chefs from the Chicago area. It brings together women chefs and farmers for a day out on the grills, and it benefits a women’s shelter. I’m hoping to continue the tradition at Big Star and maybe get Wrigley Field involved in the future.

CH: What’s your biggest challenge?

JW: One of my biggest challenges is creating dishes that taste good, are fun, and can be cooked over and over and over again. It’s an insane challenge. Consistency is critical: our goal is to make sure everyone who walks in gets the same delicious food.

CH: What’s your five-year plan? 

JW: It’s changed a lot with time. I never pictured myself running an establishment this big. It’s so much more complex than just tacos. Seeing the challenge and what I’m able to accomplish—my staff is 140 in the back of house—managing those people, managing managers, doing all that while staying inspired; it’s a unique experience. My next step: continue to grow the Big Star brand. At some point, we’d like to open in a different state. Down the road, I think I’d like to open a sandwich shop— something with American and French sandwiches and tortas. I’ll keep an eye out for any opportunities that present themselves. [Big Star] is a bigger restaurant than a lot of people ever run, and I’m very curious to see where the path I’m on leads me.