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Wilmette native behind Paris hot spot

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IF YOU GO:

Spring Restaurant, 6 rue Bailleul, 75001 Paris. +33 (0)1-45-96-05-72. www.springparis.fr. Prix-fixe lunch, 44 euros; and dinner, 66 euros. Wine pairings start at 58 euros/person.

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Updated: August 12, 2012 6:08AM



PARIS — One of the brightest young culinary stars in this international haute cuisine capital didn’t grow up cooking in his grandmother’s kitchen in Lyon, somewhere in Provence, or even in Paris.

Rather, Chef Daniel Rose hails from Wilmette — yes, the one on Chicago’s North Shore — more than 4,000 miles from Spring, his acclaimed restaurant that stands just a few blocks from the world-famous Louvre and the “Mona Lisa.”

It’s so acclaimed that the May issue of Bon Appetit pronounced Spring — Rose’s second solo spot — among “The New Standards: Nine of Our Favorite Restaurants in Paris,” one where writer Christine Muhlke says “each dish feels as if it had been devised just for you.”

Rose didn’t follow a straight path to the City of Light, but he certainly carved out a delicious one. Although he didn’t have official working papers, after college this European Cultural Studies major made his way around restaurants in France — at Auberge des Abers in Brittany and Le Pre du Moulin in Serignan du Comtat, near Avignon. Then in 2003, a head chef job opened in Panajachel, Guatemala (“It wasn’t the cooking that was most important — it was the living”), and Rose took off. He returned to Paris in 2004, joining the restaurant team at the five-star Hotel Meurice. But change was coming.

He opened the first incarnation of Spring — a 16-seat, 280-square foot spot in the city’s 9th arrondisement, or district — back in October 2006 and constantly packed the house while earning international acclaim for his daily prix-fixe take on traditional French cuisine. “The fastest way to learn how to do something is to do it,” says Rose. “You build the house and then you figure out how to live in it. Then you realize the house is too small.” He decided to close after two years.

Rose signed the lease on the reborn Spring on July 4, 2008 — and following an expensive but gorgeous renovation, this glass, steel and wood-beam accented stunner opened its doors nearly two years later on July 14. The symbolism isn’t lost on Rose — July 14 is Bastille Day, when the French celebrate the 1789 storming of the famous prison and their own independence. Freedom doesn’t come cheap, but it sure tastes good.

With fewer than a dozen wood-topped tables in its main, street-level dining room, the entire restaurant can only serve about 50 people at a time. But it’s that up-close-and-personal intimacy — guests watch Rose and his team meticulously crafting and plating each dish in the open kitchen — that adds another dimension to the Spring experience. But he’s not dressed in chef whites. Rose puts his head down and works alongside his team, so unassuming that a guest walking in wouldn’t guess he owned this impressive place.

And he’s achieved all this by age 35.

With a menu that changes weekly, Spring features achingly fresh, locally sourced ingredients and only when they’re in season. “I didn’t invent this. It’s what France taught me,” he says. Guests put their taste buds in his talented hands, sit back, and wait to be wowed. Among the dishes recently served: a house-made kalamata olive tapenade atop a bed of olive oil (his tongue-in-cheek ode to the Greek debt crisis). Barely crunchy green peas and Spanish ham-wrapped asparagus served with a citrus sauce so flavorful you’d love to lick the plate. Perfectly prepared crispy-skinned pigeon, accompanied by a mouth-melting foie gras. Greek yogurt with a slight tang topped with crushed Sicilian pistachios, a dazzling array of cheeses from across France — and small-producer wines designed to enhance each taste.

Spring’s goodness isn’t cheap — for example, lunch is about $55 in U.S. dollars for five courses. But for a tourist “on holiday” or a Parisian longing to impress a business client, it’s a rewarding splurge for a meal you’ll remember long after you leave.

“There’s a creative component; there’s a technical component. All these details feed into people’s well-being — the quality of food we have, the way it’s served and priced,” says Rose. “The restaurant is not a destination in itself, but a facilitator of that experience.”

Chicago ties run deep

After graduating from New Trier Township High School in 1995, Rose set off for St. John’s College in Santa Fe, N.M. He longed to move to France — and going the student route made the most sense. He transferred to the American University of Paris in 1998, graduating two years later. Like so many, he was wooed by “all the things you imagine about France. You come to for the mythology, the promise of what it’s going to be. The reality is probably more profound and different.”

Although Rose is now a culinary star in his adopted home, he gets wistful when chatting about Chicago.

“A city is only as interesting as the people who live there,” he says, “and Chicago is a wonderful mix of all sorts of people. You have the culture, theater, music — the Lyric Opera and symphony. And surrounding all these things are normal, accessible, nice people. There are plenty of entrepreneurs, industry, tons of great restaurants.”

One thing Rose packed up and brought to Paris is that good old Midwestern “can-do spirit.”

At Spring, “The food’s very French, but it really is an entrepreneur’s approach,” he says. “You have an idea and you do it, and don’t worry much about whether it will turn around.

“That’s what I learned from Chicago — you make it work. It’s not naive, but optimistic. What happened was I left Chicago because I wanted to see something else. Not something better, just something other.”

The Windy City and Midwest sometimes figure into Spring’s menu — but it isn’t always easy. “Trying to find sweet corn is a major problem,” says Rose. “The idea of eating corn (in France) as other than something you would give to ducks to make foie gras doesn’t exist. I haven’t served it on the cob yet.”

But Rose has a “taste memory” from his growing-up days that find their way onto his Parisian plates. “In the Midwest, we have excellent peaches, apples, blueberries, cranberries, cherries from Michigan. And even outside Chicago, I tasted some better tomatoes in the Evanston farmers market than I have in France. Also the wonderful thing about the city was the strengths of the seasons. The piles of leaves, the smell of them — these are the things that go into your memory.

“If my cooking is based on making what I want to eat, the change of seasons is so essential. Sometimes you have very strong cravings, and the seasons excite cravings.”

Melange is the spice of life

These days, Rose returns to Chicagoland about twice a year to visit relatives. And when he and wife Marie-Aude (she’s French, and is the restaurant’s former sous chef) go this year, their 2-month-old daughter Wilhelmina France — named after an animated character Rose remembered from “Sesame Street” and a great-grandmother — will make her American debut.

As he usually does, either on the way to or from O’Hare Airport, the chef will stop for dim sum at an Asian eatery along Argyle Street on the North Side. He loves Lou Malnati’s pizza and Hecky’s Barbecue, an African-American joint that’s been an Evanston staple for 25 years.

And just as Rose’s personal tastebuds are diverse, so is his 15-person team. His current sous chef — who started as a stagiare, or kitchen apprentice — is from New York City, while others come from Canada, the Ukraine, Martinique, Senegal, Argentina, the UK. One is half-Moroccan, half-Spanish; another is half-Italian, half-Swedish. But all have bought into Rose’s true-blue cuisine française. And he loves giving ambitious young chefs a chance.

“That is a very satisfying experience,” says Rose, who gets loads of stagiare requests from around the world. But he wishes more were from Chicago. He’d love to get “excellent, interested people to come and cook in France. I can give them access to an experience they won’t get in Chicago — and they will appreciate their Chicago experience even more.”

Despite his immense talent and impressive success, Rose is easygoing, relaxed and unaffected — someone the French would call tres sympa. And this likeability is on full display, whether he’s offering up a smile from behind the counter or, once the kitchen rush slows down, steps out to chat with guests who’ve come from all over the world to sample his cuisine.

Spring draws everyone from Saudi princesses to Hollywood heavy hitters — but Rose is hesitant to confirm or deny which celebs have dined here. (Bon Appetit claimed that director Woody Allen ate here almost nightly during filming of “Midnight in Paris.”)

“The mission is to create a restaurant where you want people to be; you want to attract people not because they think they’ll see Woody Allen,” he says. But when celebrities do “decide to come here, it’s precisely because it’s a place they can be normal. They come with their wives and their friends. It’s a luxury for them, and for me it’s an honor.

“They want something delicious, something authentic — what all our customers want. Our greatest compliment is, ‘When can I come back?’ ”

Former Chicago Sun-Times Features reporter Maureen Jenkins is a freelance travel and food writer who lives outside Paris. She blogs about “living globally through international travel” at www.UrbanTravelGirl.com.



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