Late night eats with Chicago chefs
BY SEANAN FORBES Jul 19, 2010
Hot Chocolate chef Mindy Segal and boyfriend Dan Tompkins share pozole and tacos at Arturo's, 2001 N. Western.
If you envision chefs, at the ends of their shifts, lingering in the kitchen and searing slabs of foie gras while sipping champagne, then brace yourself for an imagination adjustment. Reality is much less romantic.
When Josh Adams, chef and owner of June in Peoria Heights, leaves work, he wants sugar. To be precise, he wants Jelly Bellies. He likes juicy pear, tangerine, all the fruit flavors.
He eats them in the car, on the way home, washing them down with a bottle of sparkling water. It's hardly organic, Adams admits, and not sustainable and "against most of my food philosophies. . . . I'm trying to quit. I got the Jelly Belly patch; we'll see how that works."
They spend their lives feeding people, but chefs have to eat, too. Spiaggia's Tony Mantuano cuts to the core of the problem: "When you've been cooking all day, who wants to cook, right- " Hence, the lure of the quick bite.
And where Adams yearns for sugar, Mantuano goes for salt: "Cape Cod potato chips - love 'em - but I eat them with thinly sliced Manchego cheese." Crispy, creamy, salty - what more could a man need- Mantuano rolls out a warm chuckle. "At midnight," he says, "not much more."
Sometimes, after 14 hours in a kitchen, Jeff Pikus of Gilt Bar doesn't even want to look at food. For him, "The goal is typically the procurement of alcohol in all of its forms." Don't imagine him ordering ornate cocktails. "High Life, a shot of Jameson. I like to keep it simple," he says.
Still, a chef does not live by booze alone. The 24-hour Korean barbecue joint, San Soo Gab San, at 5251 N. Western, serves "unpretentious food," Pikus says, and draws many a hungry chef in the wee hours.
That 24-hour detail is important. Chefs may start work at 10 a.m. and not leave until 1 or 2 in the morning. There's not much time between work and work.The homebodies
Not all chefs choose to go out for food. Take Laurent Gras of L20, 2300 N. Lincoln Park West.
"I stay home when I finish my shift," he says. "I usually eat fruit, yogurt."
Four days a week, Gras gets up at 5:30 a.m. to exercise; the nights before those mornings, he stokes up on carbs, but nothing complicated.
"When you work a lot," he says, "your routine is pretty simple."
Also a homebody: Phillip Foss of Lockwood in the Palmer House Hilton.
"Nineteen out of 20 nights," says Foss, "I'll be going home."
When he does go out, it's usually with fellow chefs, and he aims to try new food at such places as the Purple Pig and the Bristol.
"We end up being the last reservation, and usually we're the last people to leave," Foss says.
Closing restaurants, going out for drinks - how do chefs stay lean- Foss laughs. "Being on your feet and running around the kitchen without time to eat does not hurt that," he says.
In Carrie Nahabedian's kitchen at Naha, 500 N. Clark, her crew might gather for what is essentially a scraps sandwich - fragments of one dish and another, brilliantly composed into something that proves that the sandwich is greater than the sum of its parts, if only briefly.
That's not for every night, though. Most nights, Nahabedian's a member of the go-home-and-eat-simply school of chefs. Spam and family
Sunda chef Rodelio Aglibot stores Spam in his office. "I'm always craving Spam and eggs at midnight," he says.
He pan-fries the Spam, deglazes the pan with soy sauce and eats it in a bowl of steamed rice with two crisp, sunny-side-up eggs on top. Be warned: This stuff's habit-forming. Aglibot has merrily gotten sous chef after sous chef hooked on Spam and eggs.
His other craving: Top Ramen, shrimp flavor.
While Aglibot likes hot stuff, Sarah Stegner of Prairie Grass Cafe and Prairie Fire has a hard time keeping her hands out of the freezer and off Prairie Fire's booze-sicles.
"I've kind of been craving them," she admits. There's a selection: lemon and North Shore vodka, blueberry and vanilla cognac. The latter "has a little bit of yogurt in it," Stegner says, "so I can justify that it's healthy." A new version is coming - peaches and cream with rum. In the heat of summer, that's midnight seduction on a stick.
After Stegner's shift, she cooks scrambled eggs or an omelet "with lots of local vegetables. That's my all-time go-to right now."
Bill Kim, chef and owner of Urban Belly and Belly Shack, doesn't have to cook his at-home suppers: His mother-in-law, Lola Alicea, is a generous, old-school Puerto Rican cook. He loves her arroz con gandules (rice and beans), and after a 16-hour day, he's happy to eat at home with his wife.
So, too, does Boka's Giuseppe Tentori, a newlywed. "At the end of the week, my midnight temptation is a wonderful Scotch or rye whisky, when I go home," he says.
He likes Bruichladdich and Pappy Van Winkle, drunk neat - and he loves popcorn. He adds chili flakes for a little kick, fresh Parmesan and freshly ground pepper. His wife's portion gets truffle oil as well.
Curtis Duffy, chef de cuisine at Avenues in the Peninsula Chicago, keeps this rule: "Don't go out on a school night."
But on non-school nights, Duffy's another fan of the Purple Pig, 500 N. Michigan, which serves "great chef food." (Interpretation: the odder bits of beast.)
After spending a day in a hot kitchen at Rockit, James Gottwald wants salt - specifically,
"One of my absolute favorites is the handmade artisanal sopressata that's made by Phil [Stefani] and all of his chefs," he says.
Gottwald gets his fix from Phil Stefani's 437 Rush, and he feels no guilt. "I want to smell like an Italian deli when I wake up, no matter how many times I brush my teeth," he says.
Mindy Segal of Hot Chocolate is devoted to Arturo's, 2001 N. Western. She orders tacos lomo (ribeye tacos).
"They come with caramelized onions," she says. With giardiniera, "They are heaven."
Eating like a chef isn't expensive, after all. Keep a stash of Top Ramen or Jelly Bellies, grab some friends and go out for tacos. Time it right, and a chef you admire may be at the next table, digging into pigs' ears and tilting back a beer.
Seanan Forbes is a free-lance writer based in New York and London.