2018 Chicago Rising Stars: Why They Shine

2018 Chicago Rising Stars: Why They Shine

We arrived in Chicago in January amid the hand-wringing over 2017s brutal round of restaurant closures. But, by nature, the StarChefs staff is on the lookout for the exceptional—for what’s going right in the industry—and we met with 130 talented professionals who are doing the hard work necessary to thrive and feed this restaurant-loving city.

Chicago is also still love with luxury. We ate caviar in Humboldt Park and the Gold Coast—on potato chips, crème fraîche-slicked brioche, hamachi, oyster pie, eggs, and meaty sturgeon steaks. Then followed the Champagne, truffles, and foie gras. We drank the last of an aged tea of wild roses foraged from the Iranian border.

More inspiring is the way that Chicago’s Mexican community has fully captured the hearts and imaginations of the city’s best restaurants. A regional Midwestern Mexican cuisine is evolving, and a younger generation of Mexican-Americans has staked its claim on chef-driven dining.

The beverage community has also stepped into a position of leadership. On the cocktail side, Chicago Style marked the country’s first woman-run cocktail conference. “Spirit free” and “no-ABV” drinks are making hospitality more inclusive. Sommeliers are pushing exciting bottles and developing wine-first restaurants that are advancing the city’s palate.

Nationwide, fewer and fewer restaurants are investing in pastry talent. Chicago has defied the trend, and it has been rewarded with most vibrant, stacked pastry community in America. (Thank you.)

Without further ado, we present the professionals who we think are making the biggest impact on their city. The 2018 Chicago Rising Stars are out-cooking, pouring, brewing, and hustling in this tough-love industry. 

Chef: Brian Ahern, Boeufhaus

The excitement of the Chicago restaurant scene lives and dies by the 40-seat restaurant, where the intersection of creativity, risk, and real estate yield a sum greater than its parts. Chef Brian Ahern’s Boeufhaus is no exception, and its humble brasserie trappings are home to some of the most honest, original cooking in town. How many cooks scatter mirepoix into hot pans each day? Ahern is the only one we know of to transform mirepoix into a concept, a salad of powdered, cooked, pickled, and raw carrots, celery, and onion. There’s beef, too, like the $80 steak that people told Ahern he’d never sell in Ukranian Village, served alongside bowl-scraping pastas and high-contrast crudos. Ahern’s gamble-of-a-restaurant is Chicago’s reward and proof that independent chefs win the day with heart and conviction.

Dishes that clinched it:

  • Mirepoix Salad: Roasted, Pickled, Raw, Puréed, and Powdered Carrots, Onions, and Celery
  • Cecci Bean Cavatelli, Merguez, Chickpeas, Chicken Jus, Caramelized Shallots, and Caciocavallo Cheese
Chef: Pete Coenen, Cherry Circle Room

Pete Coenen flexes as executive chef of Land and Sea Dept. Leading the kitchen at the historic, fine-dining Cherry Circle Room, he mixes tartare tableside and caviar might just as well be a condiment. Rum-swilling diners gnosh on Coenen's udon and pork dumplings at Lost Lake Tiki, and he’s contributing to Chicago’s evolving Mexican canon at Lonesome Rose (we’ll take another order of fire chicken tacos, please). Three kitchens, three styles—Coenen pulls it off with inspiration to spare, and as the group continues to grow, he has concepts of his own to tackle. In Land and Sea Dept., and Chicago, he has found a platform for his immense and diverse talent.

Dishes that clinched it:

  • Scrambled Eggs, Runny Yolk, Osetra Caviar, Gribiche, and Crème Fraîche
  • Beef Tartare, Guajillo Chile Emulsion, Salsa Verde, Quail Egg, L’Amuse Gouda, and Grilled Ciabatta
Chef: Jimmy Papadopoulos, Bellemore

In his partnership with Boka Group, Jimmy Papadopoulos has created a restaurant for Chicago that feels both of the moment and timeless—a place to go, escape reality, and immerse yourself in Papadopoulos’ imaginative American cooking. May we suggest Champagne and caviar-topped oyster pie to start your evening? The dish is a classic in the making. Papadopoulos is the king of texture, and the tartare at Bellemore is a playground of chewy mushrooms and crunchy turnips intercepted by soft venison and bright spheres of finger lime. It’s all about the details, even if that means a seven-minute pick-up (in his 6,000-square-foot restaurant). The line is humming, so is Papadopoulos’ creativity as he builds an enduring restaurant brand for Chicago and beyond.

Dishes that clinched it:

  • Oyster Pie: Savory Oyster Custard, Osetra Caviar, Crème Fraîche, Green Apple, Lemon, and Dill
  • Venison Tartare, Grilled Trumpet Mushrooms, Tokyo Turnips, Pickled Pears, Pumpernickel, Finger Lime, and Shiso
Chef: Ryan Pfeiffer, Blackbird

Ryan Pfeiffer is the chef and leader carrying Blackbird into its 20th anniversary. Born on Chicago’s South Side, Pfeiffer cooks and comports himself without pretense, and his culinary voice is as clear and defined as they come. He has a soft spot for French cuisine, but his dishes have a whiff of intrigue and twinkle of mischief. A delicate bowl of lobster congee, smoked chestnut consommé, and roe springs from memories of his mom’s overcooked rice (she disputes the claim). His binchotan-warmed venison tartare, shallot confit, ponzu, and shellfish nage somehow tastes like a Big Mac. Pfeiffer instills a sense of wonder in his staff, too, and he’s training one of the best brigades in town, cementing a name for himself as lasting as the kitchen he runs.

Dishes that clinched it:

  • Lobster Congee, Smoked Chestnut Consommé, Smoked Trout Roe, and Lime Zest
  • Binchotan-warmed Venison Tartare, Shallot Confit, Ponzu-pickled Shallots, and Shellfish Nage
Chef: Noah Sandoval, Kumiko

Oriole is the new fine dining—for Chicago and America. It’s personal. It’s curated. It’s approachable and exquisite, and its Chef-Owner Noah Sandoval has manifested a dream of a restaurant. Each night, 42 diners enter Sandoval’s creative bubble and feast on a tasting menu full of fleeting compositions: poached king crab, black garlic aguachile, and chicharron or a Beausoleil oyster swimming in mangalitsa consommé. Sandoval’s style is unapologetically global, hopscotching and merging continents and countries in pursuit of balance, cadence, and adventure. With the forthcoming omakase bar Kumiko, for which he and his wife Cara are partnering with Julia Momose, Sandoval will explore a new format and push himself as one of the city’s foremost chefs—and burgeoning restaurateurs.

Dishes that clinched it:

  • Beausoleil Oyster with Mangalitsa Consommé, Borage; Puff Pastry, Shaved Ham, Smoked Almonds, Quince Paste, Basil, Black Walnuts, Whipped Egg Yolk, and Coriander Blossoms
  • Butter-Poached Alaskan King Crab, Black Garlic Aguachile, and Chicharron
Chef: Julie Warpinski , Big Star

Big Star is big time, where a busy day means selling 8,000 tacos on made-to-order tortillas. Chef Julie Warpinski—chief operator, menu developer, and inspiring boss lady—manages a back of house crew that’s 140 strong to make it all happen. 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 fundito has the same heart-warming heft. Three years into her leadership run, One Off Hospitality rewarded Warpinski with a brand new Big Star near Wrigley Field, stretching her as a leader and chef. And after this Cubs season, there’s no doubt Warpinski will be prepared for whatever project or restaurant she dreams up.

Dishes that clinched it:

  • Tacos de Zanahorias: Seared Carrots, Mole Spice, Chipotle-Date Yogurt, Sesame, Almonds, Pepitas, and Cilantro
  • Taco de Yuba Guisado: Yuba, Tomato-Guajillo Salsa, Onions, and Cilantro
Community: Jonathan Zaragoza, Birrieria Zaragoza

Jonathan Zaragoza’s family is the keeper of a prized Jalisco recipe for birria, and a plate of the roasted goat with tomato broth and tortillas is reason enough to fly to Chicago. The family restaurant, Birrieria Zaragoza, is a humble cornerstone of Chicago’s Mexican food community and a taste of home for immigrants who can’t return to Mexico. From that place of tradition, and from time spent in Frank Brunacci’s and Andrew Zimmerman’s kitchens, Zaragoza has emerged as a force on the Chicago restaurant scene, collaborating with some of the city’s top chefs and sharing his Mexico-meets-Archer-Heights culture in pop-ups across the country. He has a YouTube show in the works (honoring abuela cooking) and restaurant concepts itching to be developed—and the heart to bring his community along with him during his inevitable rise.

Dishes that clinched it:

  • Roasted Beets, Mole Amarillo, Marcona Almonds, Chapuline Vinaigrette, Fennel, Fermented Radish, and Goat’s Milk Feta
  • Tacos Sauderos: Cured and Braised Beef Belly, Avocado Salsa, Rajas con Crema, Romanesco Escabeche, and Tortillas
Pastry Chef: Leigh Omilinsky, Nico Osteria

Leigh Omilinsky is the product of one of the finest pastry communities in America, and after running programs across Chicago, she has reconnected with her first love—Italy—at Nico Osteria. There, she recreates modern versions of desserts she fell in love with on her travels: a Negroni meringata or an apple crostata with cider zabaglione, rum-poached apples, caraway, and fennel gelato. Within the context of the Thompson Hotel, Omilinsky also executes viennoiserie, cookies, mignardises, and amenities, instilling in her staff the technical precision that has molded her. Outside the kitchen, she also rallies around causes and her pastry peers, setting an example for pastry chefs who want to make an impact far beyond the plate.

Dishes that clinched it:

  • Concord Grape Meringata: Cheesecake Mousse, Negroni Jam, Crisp Meringue, Concord Grape Sorbetto, and Thyme
  • Monte Bianco: Hazelnut Mousse, Whiskey Dark Caramel-Chocolate Crunch, Orange, and Honey-Cardamom Gelato
Pastry Chef: Amanda Shepard, Lula Café

Lula Cafe is a restaurant home for so many Chicagoans, and its diners want to feel the embrace of comfort. Pastry Chef Amanda Shepard delivers Lula-style warmth while also embracing the joy of surprise. She might tuck a spice blend into cookie batter or pump up an ice cream base with funky brie. In her hands, a homey sticky toffee pudding has improbable character of an amaro courtesy of matcha, butterscotch, and smoked dates. In her relatively short career, Shepard has made it a point to work for the best mentors she could find and push herself to master new skills. At Lula, she’s coming into her own with a defined, edited style meant to please and sure to bring the national attention that Shepard’s pastry program merits.

Dishes that clinched it:

  • Roasted Sweet Potato, Sorghum Vinegar Glaze, and Sorghum Popcorn paired with Concord Grape-Fig Leaf Soda
  • Sticky Toffee Cake, Dates, Warm Butterscotch Sauce, Matcha Crumble, Smoked Dates, and Matcha Whipped Cream
Pastry Chef: Emily Spurlin, Bad Hunter

Emily Spurlin knows how to do delicious, and at Bad Hunter she gets to express it in a multitude of forms—biscuits and sourdough croissants at brunch and glorious, unexpected desserts after 5pm. Spurlin doesn’t shy away from nostalgia, but she drop-kicks desserts outside of any comfort zone. A peanut butter and jelly riff is a vibrant vegan torte of peanut-coconut mousse, raspberry gel, and peanut butter-coconut-tofu-oat crunch. Warm chocolate pudding, seed crisps, and sunchoke ice cream come together in an outlandish plate of chips and dip. As Heisler Hospitality expands its reach, so too will Spurlin’s. Her sensibility, plating, and originality make her a stand-out in the American pastry scene.

Dishes that clinched it:

  • Peanut-Coconut Mousse, Raspberry Gel, Powdered Raspberry, Peanut Butter-Coconut-Tofu-Oat Base, and Coconut Chips
  • Chocolate Crémeux, Seeded Crisp, and Sunchoke Ice Cream and Chips
Artisan: Antonio Fiasche, Tempesta Market

There are Calabrian chiles in Antonio Fiashe’s blood, along with five-generations of salumi making wisdom. He started ’Nduja Artisans with nothing but a prayer and 200 pounds of the company’s namesake product, and in three years he has grown the business into a 30,000-pound-a-month curing operation. In 2018, Fiasche opened his first retail space and restaurant, Tempesta Market, enabling him to introduce more diners and wholesale customers to his brand. Sopressata, culatello, guanciale, and Toscano salumi reflect his Italian heritage, but Tempesta’s case is stocked with a greater range of styles: melting wagyu pastrami, spicy sriracha chicken liver mousse, and sobrassada, a Spanish cousin to ’nduja that José Andres uses in his restaurants. Building on exceptional, heartfelt product, Fiasche’s business and national reputation are on a chile-fueled rise.

Dishes that clinched it:

  • Charcuterie Board: Culatello, Speck, Sobrassada, Spicy Coppa, Wagyu Pastrami, Chicken Liver and Heart Pâté, Pork Liver Pâté with Sriracha and Soy Sauce, Mortadella, Fabri Cherries, and House Pickles
  • Porchetta, Brun-uusto Cheese, Pickled Fennel Chimichurri, and Grilled Broccolini on PQB Sourdough with Rosemary-Pork Jus
Artisan: Alexander Roman, Somerset

After years on the savory side of the kitchen, Alexander Roman found his calling in bread. Now, he serves as Boka Group’s first full-time bread baker at Somerset, where his bagels, dense loaves of rye, airy baguettes, and burnished miche accompany meals made by Rising Stars alum Lee Wolen. His program puts an emphasis on locally grown, freshly milled flours, and as a founding member of Chicago’s Artisan Grain Collective, Roman connects area bakers and restaurants to small Midwestern farmers. He also brings his Mexican heritage to the table with speciality breads and an unforgettable negro mole croissant. Roman is among the city and country’s great bakers. He sees the world and his profession holistically, where ingredients, producers, and perspective are inextricably linked.

Breads that clinched it:

  • Mole Negro Croissant
  • German Rye
Brewer: Brian Taylor, Whiner Beer

Brian Taylor made a few gallons of IPA and his fair share of lagers during time spent at brewery behemoths Flying Dog in Boulder, Boulevard in Kansas City, and Chicago’s Goose Island. When it came time to open a brewery of his own, he knew exactly what he wanted to make—and what he didn’t. That means no IPAs at Whiner Beer Co., which he co-owns with Ria Neri. Instead, Taylor pours his energy into robust wild ale and barrel-aging programs, going so far as to add a 10 percent barrel-aged inclusion in his flagship Le Tub soured saison. Even with a coolship, canning line, and 30-barrel system, they have more than enough physical room to increase production, which will be necessary, no doubt, as Taylor’s thirst-quenching, focused roster of beers gains a following outside of Chicago

Beers that clinched it:

  • Le Tub Sour Saison
  • Bridgette Bardot American Wild Ale
Sommelier: Leslie Lamont, Leña Brava

From her previous post at Formento’s, Leslie Lamont merely had to cross Randolph Street to take over the wine program at Leña Brava. But diving from Italian into Mexican cuisine pushed her into exciting and uncharted territory. When an aggressively spicy-sweet pineapple aguachile hits the table, Lamont strikes back with somm favorite Riesling. A briny, seductive plate of grilled bread, tuna, avocado, habanero, and uni gets washed down with a methode Champenoise Barbera from Valle de Guadalupe in Baja, Mexico. If that combination of words seems out of place, welcome to the joy of discovery at Leña Brava, where Lamont’s 125-label list is priced to encourage diners to step outside their American and Old World habits. Lamont has created an essential wine experience at one of Chicago’s most exciting restaurants—a feat she’s destined to replicate with any program she touches.

Pairings that clinched it:

  • Pan de Campo, Tuna, White Soy-Lime Vinaigrette, Avocado-Habanero Purée, Arugula, Uni, and Micro Shiso paired with Barbera, Casa de Piedra, Espuma de Piedra, Blanc de Noir, Valle de Guadalupe, Baja, Mexico
  • Arctic Char, Alubia Beans, Winter Spinach, Fish Broth, Tomatillo-Serrano Salsa, Bacon, Avocado, and Fish Broth paired with Sangiovese-Cabernet, Casa Magoni, Valle de Guadalupe, Baja, Mexico, 2015
Bartender: Kevin Beary, Three Dots and a Dash

Kevin Beary is in constant forward motion. When he took over the juggernaut tiki program that is Three Dots and Dash, he revamped every aspect of prep, installing industrial cold press juice machines and centrifuges to ensure consistency and quality of every one of the 1,600-plus cocktails his team pumps out on Saturday nights. With the systems in place, now he’s taking on tiki as a genre, working on comprehensive menus that throw out rum-soaked norms. Don’t be fooled though, Beary is a lover of rum, so much so that he led his 16 bartenders through an 11-week rum course, and he’s working on master’s degree in brewing and distilling. Beary doesn’t know how to leave well enough alone. He’s wired to rewire and rethink, and he’ll leave a lasting impression on American cocktail culture by doing so.

Cocktails that clinched it:

  • Idle Hands: Clarified Banana Rum, Cane Sugar, and Lime 2.0
  • The New Mai Tai: Neisson Blanc Rhum Agricole, Avua Cachaca, Wray and Nephew Overproof Rum, Orgeat, Lemon, Yellow Chartreuse, and Curacao
Bartender: Kristina Magro, Prairie School

Kristina Magro is defining the quintessential Midwestern cocktail experience at Prairie School, a partnership between Jim Meehan and Heisler Hospitality. The pillars of her program are hospitality, seasonality, sustainability, and community. Every two weeks, her Sekki menu—with three cocktails, two teas, and one coffee—changes to reflect the microseasons. Thirst-quenching Tokyo highballs are always available, as are no-ABV drinks to make everyone feel welcome at the bar. Magro herself is essential to Chicago’s bartending community, leading events and pushing her peers, and she’s also a figure on the national scene at events like Paris of the Plains, Portland Cocktail Week, and the San Antonio Cocktail Conference. Magro is a woman who works her vision into existence, and she understands better than most the potential for a cocktail bar to gather, soothe, and inspire a city.

Cocktails that clinched it:

  • Gin Blossom: J. Reiger Gin, Dolin Blanc Vermouth, Hans Reisetbauer Apricot Eau de Vie, Suze, and Dwarf Peach
  • Falling Water: Four Letter Word Cold Brew Coffee, Rhine Hall Plum Brandy, Cardamaro and Whole Egg
Concept: Donna Lee , Brown Bag Seafood Co.

Eat more seafood. That’s Donna Lee’s mantra at Brown Bag Seafood Co., a modern day fish shack delivering $10 lunches to a growing number of Chicago diners. Mix and match salads and boxes, plus tacos, sandwiches, plates, and tots (why not?) yield a menu with more than 50 SKUs and seemingly endless choices—built exclusively with sustainable seafood. Four locations strong, Lee and her management team plan to take the concept across the country, and they’re creating a culture that promotes the team members who have helped Brown Bag get this far. Lee is a woman on a mission to feed you, to give diners better, healthier take-out options, and to build a fast-casual empire that doesn’t take people or the health of the oceans for granted.

Dishes that clinched it:

  • Curry Fish Cake Powerbox
  • Salmon Veggie Box
Restaurateur: Michael Ciapciak, Bang Bang Pie & Biscuits

Michael Ciapciak’s success lies in giving people an affordable, comfortable, best-in-category experience. With the first Bang Bang Pie & Biscuits, he set out to open a low-key bakery and corner coffee shop. Ciapciak did that, but the lure of sweet pies by the slice, homey pot pies, and loaded biscuits and grits transformed the restaurant into a weekend hotspot with 800-cover brunches. Building on that success, a second location followed, along with a commissary kitchen that supplies 30 restaurants, including Chicago-area Shake Shacks. Later this year, Ciapciak and Rising Stars alum Dana Cree will launch Cree’s long-awaited ice cream concept, Pretty Cool, and there are more Bang Bangs in the pipeline—giving more Chicago neighborhoods and diners access easy-to-love food done well.

Dishes that clinched it:

  • Biscuit, Candied Bacon, Pimento Cheese, Jam, and Pickles
  • Chicken Pot Pie, Chicken Gravy, Carrots, Peas, Leaf Lard Pastry Crust