Last Sunday was the night before the James Beard awards iconic first hosting in Chicago, and a panel of three well known Chicago restaurateurs and chefs (and one from New York) came to the lush backdrop of Chicago’s Vermilion restaurant to talk to an audience of food lovers about how they define their style and how they continue to evolve their art and business in the competitive but surprisingly supportive environment of Chicago food. The night was devised by the Chicago Humanities Festival. The panel was moderated by James Beard Foundation’s president, Susan Ungaro. They spoke passionately about their businesses, how their love of food started, where they got their restaurant name from, their brand and their techniques for involving their staff in the creative environment. Following are some of the more entertaining excerpts from the evening:
Rohini Dey of Vermilion on what made her restaurant a success:
“My philosophy on the restaurant is very simple. One is that it’s got to be sensual. Two is that it’s got to be subversive in some way shape or form, and three is it has to be substantive. So the sensual—the melding of the Indian and the Latin is provocative, it’s fun and it’s not been done. I could go on and on about the historical and the geographical commonalities that are underlying the two cuisines but it is the subversive that makes it more fun. Think about the tandoori skirt steak. It’s blasphemy, but it works! It’s delicious. Sealed in the tandoor and marinating the perfect cut of beef. Sensual—well you can see the black and white photography of Indian women taken by India’s leading beauty photographer. When I opened the place, I was accused of putting pornography on my walls. But hey it works! Substantive—for me the cardinal sin is lack of flavor. It becomes an ode to wizardry and finesse and style that goes beyond just basic cravings. So for me it has to be memorable and flavorful and that’s what I wanted to accomplish with Indian and Latin.”
Daniel Humm of Eleven Madison Park & NoMad on simplicity and creativity:
“So my mother put me on salad washing duty. I kept washing the salad and putting it in new water and it just wouldn’t stop being sandy. So I was complaining, you know, ‘how many times do you need to wash this? Why can’t we just be like everybody else and go to the store and just buy the salad box?’ Then she pulled me to the side and took some of the salad out of the water and she said, ‘Well, taste it.’ I remember the taste and the texture of that salad and the sweetness of that green. It just stuck with me. She said, ‘That’s why.’ Only later on, as I was eating salad at a restaurant or a friend’s house would I start noticing the difference. It’s been a very important lesson to me that the most humble ingredient—if taken seriously—can be the biggest luxury.
I believe now that creativity can be systemized. Early on in my career, some days I was more creative and some I was less and I just sort of accepted that. But I started to really challenge that, because I believe everyone is creative and I saw some people who thought they weren’t creative become the most creative. So if you create an environment where everyone thinks creatively and collaboratively, it’s like a muscle that you train. It’s unbelievable how it works. We are very lucky at Eleven Madison, we have the resources and the space and chefs who really work creatively on new dishes. We change the menu four times a year and we create about 100 new dishes a year. We really push ourselves to go forward. We don’t go back. Sometimes it’s a shame, good dishes we created, but after 3 months we move on. But everyone is involved in the creative process. Even the cook. It’s mandatory when you work for us, every 3 months every cook has to submit an idea for a dish. We have 70 chefs, so out of 70 ideas we pick the best ones, usually 10, then the cooks have to cook the dish and explain that dish and it is unbelievable what we have learned from the cooks who have worked for us for 6 months or a year. Then we do the same thing on a higher level with the sous chefs. It’s amazing what a collaborative environment does. We also work between the kitchen and the dining room, because even if you aren’t a chef you can have a great idea on food.”
Michael Anthony of Untitled Supper Club on new dishes:
“One of the things we have to do in the tasting sessions is to have the courage to cook something that might never make it to the menu, but it’s part of the process to only know as we cook and taste things. I don’t want to be so silly as to say that it’s the mistakes that make the dish better, but the reality is it’s in the act of making something that you find new ideas. Cooking is not a spectator sport. It’s partly nourishment but it’s mostly the achievement, the satisfaction of the ritual, the ceremony and celebration of being together.”
Stephanie Izard of Girl & The Goat on the inspiration for the brand:
“When I went to open Girl and the Goat, I had just found out that my last name in French meant goat— a type of mountain goat that lives in the Pyrenees mountains. I feel like it is kind of a lame inspiration because that is my name. We were originally going to name it the Drunken Goat because before this I maybe had some cocktails, but luckily a woman in New York who had a cheese wouldn’t let us name it the Drunken Goat. My friend who created the goat logo, he created this painting that’s now hanging in Girl and The Goat of a girl and a goat and the dancing beer cans and there’s actually a circus in the background because all of my family in the 1900s was actually in the circus. Yes, I can do the trapeze!
When I decided to name the restaurant Girl and the Goat, I hadn’t actually cooked goat yet, and I don’t even think I’d even eaten it before. But I don’t think that’s a strange thing, since a lot of people haven’t had goat before. So we decided to find a goat farmer and start cooking goat. It’s very different, it’s not as fatty. We decided to get inspiration not only in my cooking the goat with all of these flavors but also in creating more of a brand around this little guy that kind of inspired us to create Girl and the Goat, Little Goat, Duck Duck Goat, and who knows what goat will come next. My staff gets behind it and we shoot around silly ideas and it gives them something to be proud of and excited about and I think that fun comes out in our food and we play off of each other for inspiration.”