Interview with Chicago Rising Star Chef Erling Wu-Bower of Nico Osteria

by Caroline Hatchett
May 2015

Caroline Hatchett: How did you get your start?
Erling Wu-Bower:
My mom was a food writer and my dad is Creole, so there was no choice! Actually, it never occurred to me. I went to college for philosophy. But before I became a professional cook, Rick Bayless, who was a good friend of my mom’s, took me under his wing. I did some jobs around San Francisco and then one day I called Chef Paul Kahan at Blackbird. He happened to pick up the phone, and gave me a job as a line cook at Avec.

CH: How was Nico Osteria born?
I pitched this idea to Paul [Kahan] six years ago. I was obsessed with catching and cutting fish. There is a sacredness to fish more than other proteins because it takes such care to present it correctly. I started telling Paul I wanted to do fish and Italian, since I spent 6 months in Rome and fell in love with the food and lifestyle there. He was like, “Who is this kid? There's no possible way a seafood restaurant would make it in Chicago, and I hate Italian food.” Persistence is a strong suit, as are commitment and loyalty. I opened Publican with him, and Publican Quality Meats as well. Then I went to avec as chef de cuisine to reconstruct and revamp its menu before Nico Osteria came about.

CH: How are you involved in the local culinary community?
I go to farmers markets and eat out a lot to support what other local chefs are doing. Chicago has a rich community, and we do a lot of events together. It’s competitive, but we find every excuse to barbecue and light fires in the streets together.

CH: What’s the biggest challenge facing your restaurant?
We’re a huge restaurant group, and we tend to open in unchartered neighborhoods. Blackbird was the first restaurant to open on Randolph Street, and there was nothing on Fulton Market when Publican started. Here, in this neighborhood, we have a bunch of steakhouses that have been around for 30 years. People are used to a certain type of cuisine. We have to know our diners and create a balance between what they’re used to and something new.

CH: What’s your five year plan?
I’d like to expand and have small satellites in Chicago that focus on different concepts like gelato, oysters, etc. But I’m really happy with where I’m at right now. I have an incredibly sweet gig with an incredible staff. I have nothing to complain about.