Updated: May 28, 2014 6:02AM
For the newly minted James Beard Award nominee and stylish restaurateur, a driving force behind several of Chicago’s most popular restaurants (including Blackbird and The Publican), success is in the details.
And while those details often drive him crazy, he’ll gladly trade his sanity for a roomful of satisfied guests.
There’s an emotional attachment to the details.
I never knew I would be this detail-oriented or drive myself completely mad because things weren’t correct.
I think the reason I am the way I am, with OCD tendencies, is because the nuns and the brothers at Gordon [Tech College Prep] whipped me into [believing] that I wasn’t going to turn out to be a success.
They didn’t know they were telling me that, and they didn’t set me up for the success [I have] now, but I think that’s the way it turned out. Because they brutalized me [laughs].
I was problematic.I had difficulties with reading and writing.
With hyperactivity, which is now ADD, I also took Ritalin in school to calm me down. I would just walk around. I had no attention span whatsoever. I would just get up in the middle of class and look out the window.
This was the late ’60s and ’70s. The nuns’ only way to [teach] was discipline. Take your desk and put it outside and face in so everyone in the class could look at you like you’re an idiot
I didn’t know at that timeand all through high school that I was dyslexic. I didn’t find out until a girl that I was dating — she was dyslexic — gave me a Newsweek article in 1999, and I read this article and went, “That’s me.” Then things really started to come together.
When I come home at night and my son’s already sleeping, we have this pad that he plays on that has all of his toys. And every night, it’s a ritual: I straighten out all of his toys and put everything in place.
For me to work,things have to be in place.
All of my OCD tendencies came from my aunt [Rita], because she was obsessed with perfection. Every cookie had to be right.
Every dinner. Every sauce. Every pasta cooked al dente. Everything.
Every Saturday, I remember stripping the beds in our household and making them with her. I learned tucking corners and all that stuff. If you were to walk into my house right now, the beds would be perfect.
Am I proud of that?I think I am. I think it shows that I care, that I don’t falter in certain areas, and hopefully that makes its way to the restaurant[s].
My mother and my aunt were incredible hosts in their homes. And I think they laid the foundation, although they probably didn’t know this until Blackbird opened [in 1997], for me to be successful in touching people.
Not only did they cook and bake and prepare incredible meals, but everybody — friend, acquaintance, friend of a friend — were always the important people. They were secondary.
A rock star was at Blackbird and he was probably out of his mind. He finished his dinner and thought that maybe he wanted to interact with other guests, [so] he sat in between a six-top on the left and a young couple on his right and he was waving his hand over the lady’s head.
So I politely went up to him and said, “Hey, man, you had a good time. Can you just let the rest of the guests have their dining experience and not bother them?”
He asked me who I was.I told him I was one of the owners, and he goes, “Nice to meet you, you” — he called me a bad racial word.
So I grabbed him by his neck and I pulled him out of the chair. And he fell into me and then we fell into the bar with a few guests. We said hello to the bartender, then I just grabbed him and I threw him outside.
That’s pre- almost six-and-a-half years of therapy. I definitely had some angst that I had to get out.
I interact with a great [therapist].I go every other week now. I think when you have tendencies of OCD, you want to have everything perfect, but you know it can’t be perfect every night. So I’ve learned to minimize the frustration.
I still have my bouts , but I’m much better than I’ve ever been.
There’s nothing greater for methan when the music’s right and the lights are right and you look around the dining room and everybody’s smiling. I mean, isn’t that satisfaction?