2018 Chicago Rising Star Chef Pete Coenen of Cherry Circle Room

2018 Chicago Rising Star Chef Pete Coenen of Cherry Circle Room
May 2018

Growing up in Massachusetts in the Berkshires, Pete Coenen washed dishes in the cafeteria at the boarding school where both his parents were teachers. He was further initiated into nitty-gritty kitchen life at local hot spot, Pearl’s. Teenaged Coenen enrolled at Johnson & Wales University in Rhode Island and found an early mentor in Chef John Richardson, whose kitchen at Pot au Feu bistro taught him how to cook like a cook—clean and organized.

Coenen began to learn the finesse of fine dining in Arizona at Marquesa, a five-star, five-diamond restaurant at the Fairmont Scottsdale Princess. He then rounded out his experience with sous chef roles at The RitzCarlton in Saint Thomas and at The Inn at Palmetto Bluff in Blufton, South Carolina. Coenen had friends in Chicago, who encouraged the young chef to join them. He committed to a year in the Windy City but has stayed for a decade, cooking for Giuseppe Tentori at Boka and serving as executive chef of high-volume The Gage.

Now, as executive chef of Land and Sea Dept., Coenen leads the kitchen at the historic, fine-dining Cherry Circle Room, where servers mix tartare tableside and caviar might as well be a condiment. Rumswilling diners nosh on udon and pork dumplings at Lost Lake Tiki, and he’s contributing his Asian-inflected perspective to Chicago’s evolving Mexican cuisine at Lonesome Rose. Three kitchens, three styles— Coenen pulls it off with inspiration to spare.

Interview with 2018 Chicago Rising Star Chef Pete Coenen

Caroline Hatchett: How did you get your start?

Pete Coenen: My first kitchen was Pearl’s in Great Barrington in the Berkshires. I worked the line there and figured out what life in a kitchen is like. It wasn’t until Pot au Feu in Providence that I started cooking heavily. I also staged in the early days at Clio when Ken Oringer was in the kitchen working and screaming at us.

CH: How did you get to Chicago?

PC: I was going to move out west, but I had friends in town who kept saying how great Chicago was. I decided to come for a year. Ten years later I’m still here. I started at Boka with Guiseppe [Tentori] and then moved to The Gage. I was a sous chef under Dirk [Flannigan] for a few months before he left and I eventually rose to executive chef. If you can work at The Gage, you can do anything.

CH: Who do you consider your mentor?

PC: Billy Wallace [of The Gage] is my business mentor: he taught me how to run a business. As far as chefs, I have two mentors: John Richardson, who is chef at Pot au Feu in Rhode Island and Kirk Gilbert, who was my chef at the Inn at Palmetto Bluff. Josh taught me how to be a cook, work clean, and stay organized. Kirk taught me how to treat ingredients properly and refine my cooking.

CH: What’s the biggest challenge facing your restaurant?

PC: For me, the biggest challenge as executive chef is overseeing three separate concepts [Cherry Circle Room, Lonesome Rose, and Lost Lake Tiki] at once. My time is devoted not just to the food but also to making sure that my chef team, cooks, dishwashers, and front of house staff get the face time they need. I need to be present because making those connections is the most important facet of running a good restaurant. [Cherry Circle Room] is a gorgeous restaurant, but it’s only as good as the people who staff it. We want to hire good-hearted people from the top down because these are the people who define what the Cherry Circle Room is and will be. This past year I’ve learned to take a step back from cooking to focus more on any changes that need to be made to the restaurants. I’m also learning to better balance my life. I’ve been working since I was 16, and my better quality of life shows in the quality of my food. 

CH: What’s your five-year plan?

PC: I want to own my own restaurant, preferably with Land and Sea Dept. I love working for the four owners. To grow with them and Paul McGee and to eventually open a place would be a dream.

CH: Do you have a concept in mind?

I’m ready to open tomorrow. I want to do seafood, something that combines the best of Maison Premiere in Brooklyn and Neptune Oyster in Boston.