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Letter From the Editor Vol.9

In Pursuit of the Chef Dream in Chicago

December 2006

We’ve heard the tales of woe and seen the sad story transpire before our very eyes: the restaurant of a creative and driven chef, who garnered rave reviews and enthusiasm from the dining world, fold under the pressure of a universal reality: economics. America’s major cities are afflicted with a plague of high rents, high labor costs and high food costs, New York being the worst of them all, with San Francisco and Washington DC following closely behind. While this is not enough to deter openings, it is a direct challenge to creating a “dream restaurant,” i.e. a chef-driven restaurant that is a true extension of the chef within. We ask every chef we taste the same question: “where do you see yourself in five years?”, and nine out of ten answers sound something like this: “a small restaurant where I can cook whatever I want, no more than 50-60 seats…”

December’s editorial travel brought us to Chicago, already known for its cuisine, but singular in the scheme of major dining cities in one crucial way: restaurant economics. In the industrial metropolis on the banks of Lake Michigan, we found low rent, well-priced produce, low labor rates and diners who are enthusiastic and adventurous. We found small fine dining restaurants where the chef rules; where they serve the food they like to make, play the music they like to listen to, and are relatively unhindered by worries about food cost, restaurant build-out and the necessities of service.

For 12 years Trio told this story, and set a precedent with vibrant, boundary-pushing cuisine served in a personalized atmosphere. Its location in the outskirts of Chicago made for good economics and made it a destination restaurant whose diners were well-informed and looking for adventure. Homaro Cantu’s Moto is a current example inside the city, serving an unadulterated, unapologetic post-modern menu of fairytale meets mad scientist cuisine to a small number of diners per night, while easily meeting their bottom line. At the other end of the spectrum is Alinea, a chef vision where the food is the star, but the experience of food, service and wine is minutely tailored from entry to exit.

A new-comer, Schwa ignores these preconceived notions of fine dining. The intimate, white tablecloth restaurant has imaginative cuisine, but no service staff and no wine. It is run by a staff of three, Chef Michael Carlson, sous chef Nathan Klingbail and a dishwasher, who cook, serve and control all aspects of the operation, from the music (Philly hip-hop, when we were there) to the hours (switching over to dinner Monday-Friday in the new year). The experience is just about the chef's vision, and the diners buy it. This freedom, and this success, is any chef's dream; it is Schwa’s low rent and low labor that enable the dream to be a reality.

The spectrum of chef-driven restaurants stretches from the chefs-as-waiters Schwa at one end, Hot Chocolate, Lula Cafe, Scylla, the soon to open Aigre Doux (from LA transplant Mohammad Islam), and Moto in the middle, to the meticulously-crafted, total dining experience of Alinea. (It's worth noting that despite its lack of a formal service and wine program, Schwa has received three stars from two of Chicago's major publications.)

While adventurous and enthusiastic diners are a key part of the equation, these restaurants would not be possible if not for the economics. Unlike most American cities, Chicago is a place where one has the opportunity to create the ultimate chef dream. What’s more, you don’t have to wait ten years make it happen.

Here's wishing for all your chef dreams to come true. Happy Holidays from all of us at See you next year!

Antoinette Bruno




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