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Made in Chicago

   Three chefs who aren't leaving the city or their kitchens With one Top Chef winner under our belt, plus numerous James Beard Award-winners and a boatload of great restaurants opening each month, it’s safe to say Chicago’s not just a “second city” anymore when it comes to superior food and dining. So who’s to thank for giving us these great pleasures and stamping our Windy City on the national culinary map?  While many chefs come from many other big-time foodie cities, there are many native Chicago chefs who have worked to make our city a better and tastier place. We caught up with three of them:

Beverly Kim
Executive Chef, Opera
   Talk to Beverly Kim for just a minute, and you’ll likely get the laugh. Unleashed and almost giggly, Kim’s clearly happy disposition puts a smile on your face.
   That’s the thing about Kim. She has this intoxicating gregariousness, despite what seems to me to be complete physical exhaustion. Now that she has the money, she says, she treats herself to regular massages. “I wake up with pain every day,” Kim says, nonchalantly. “I guess it’s from being on my feet all day for so many hours. Anyway, I just try not to think about it.”
   As executive chef of Opera, Kim works hours upon hours to keep the delicious food flowing, create new, inspiring dishes, manage her staff and generally oversee the pan-Asian-inspired mainstay in the South Loop, which is seemingly packed almost every night of the week. “When I have a day off, it’s like I don’t know what to do with myself,” she says, again with a hearty laugh.
   Running Opera would certainly be a dream job for any up-and-coming chef who’s put in years of hard kitchen work, and for Kim, at 29, with a cooking resume that already spans more than a decade, it’s not even near the end of the line.
   Kim grew up in Downers Grove, with parents who emigrated here from Korea 35 years ago. “It’s funny, he actually delivered me,” she says of her obstetrician father. But it was in the kitchen with her mother where Kim developed a love of cooking.
   An A-student in high school, Kim wrote letters to Chicago’s top chefs—Rick Bayless (Topolobampo/Frontera Grill), Roland Liccioni (Old Town Brasserie, Les Nomades), Sarah Stegnor (Prairie Grass Café), who at the time was running the nationally acclaimed Ritz Carlton Dining Room, and others. While many answered her letters, it was Stegnor who brought her on board as an intern at the Ritz during the summer after her high school graduation.
   “It was hard work—it took me three hours to get there every day, too,” Kim says. “I got to experiment with different colors and textures and tastes. I thought, wow, this is something really different.”
   Wanting to pursue cooking, Stegnor recommended that Kim apply to Kendall College.  So Kim saved money, applied for scholarships and went straight from high school, turning down an acceptance to Northwestern University for Kendall, which was at that time also situated in Evanston. “That wasn’t a very popular thing to do at the time.”
   After graduating, Kim went back to the Ritz and then on to Charlie Trotter’s, but 90-hour workweeks began to burn her out. She switched gears and took a job as a sous chef for a small catering company. While she says it was really fun, after a year and a half, she says, “I decided I really missed the business.  I was getting further away from my dream to open my own restaurant.”
   Kim hooked up with Stegnor again, this time working the grueling hot line. “I was always going back to Sarah,” Kim says. “She’s always there for me, even to this day I can call her and ask her questions.  She was really tough on me and my skills, but always thought I had a lot of ambition and really worked with me.”
   On a trip to Korea to visit family and do some “soul searching”, Kim began to explore Asian cooking. When she came back, Chef Jackie Shen of Red Light hired her as a grill cook and when the sous chef left, she filled in.
   In staying with the restaurant group, she applied for the chef de cuisine position at Opera when it opened and landed it, a perfect match at the time for her intrigue of Asian cooking. “It’s been a path in the right direction,” she says. “I guess I never had the will to go back to school. There’s so much opportunity for work here, and to me, that’s more valuable than a degree. I realize I’ve only worked in Chicago. I never left.”

André Christopher
Executive Chef, Club Royale
   When André Christopher talks, he does so at a bit of a clip, introducing one thought after the next, like he’s a friend telling you a funny story. It’s clear there’s a lot of activity going on in his brain—also evident in the creativity in his food. A sous chef at Japonais, Christopher trained under Gene Kato and picked up an interest in how Asian cuisine can interact with “Western” cuisine.
   Now, as executive chef at Club Royale, a “culinary lounge” concept launched by the Japonais team this summer, he has more freedom to explore that avenue. A grand opening event at the time featured appetizers in the form of oysters Rockefeller with sake-infused cream spinach and a hollandaise sauce mixed with Thai chili pepper, as well as salmon sashimi rolls drizzled with extra virgin olive oil and topped with fresh dill.
   “You would never see something like olive oil on sushi or mixing truffle oil in wasabi,” Christopher says. “This is like ‘contemporary Japanese’ or ‘western Japanese.’ It’s a little cooler, a little hip.”
   At the same time, though, Christopher says he’s trying to be experimental without going overboard or being confusing. “If people don’t understand what they’re eating, they’re not going to want to eat it. The more simple the food, the more comfortable people are ordering it. But... I [also] think people want to see that next level of sophistication in food.”
   Christopher’s days of experimenting with food started in childhood, hanging out with many extended family members and friends in the kitchen with his mother, a master home cook, which made him popular in the Chicago neighborhood now known as Bucktown. Christopher attended Lane Tech high school on the North Side, and when graduation neared, he started exploring his options. An older brother (Christopher is one of seven siblings) took him to a college fair where he talked to students and staff from Kendall College. “I was interested in checking it out,” he says. “I must have liked what I tried because it’s 15 years later, and I’m still doing the same thing.”
   Christopher says casually that he “hung out” at different restaurants like Ambria (now closed) and Spiaggia while in school. At Ambria, Christopher worked under the chef de cuisine at the time, who traveled to New York and has since returned to Chicago, opening Takashi in the former Scylla space. “I’m really glad to see Takashi back in Chicago,” Christopher says.
   After Kendall, he returned to Spiaggia for more work under Executive Chef Paul Bartolotta. During that time, he heard about a scholarship for culinary study abroad in Piedmont, Italy, through Roberto Donna, acclaimed chef/owner of Washington D.C.-based Galileo (Donna was born in Piedmont, Italy).
   “I felt this was a great opportunity to take a break before going to work my whole life,” Christopher says. “If you go to any country you see how they do things there, and what I liked about Italy was the way they use simple, quality ingredients—olive oils, cheese, cured ham.  Now, I pride myself on using the highest quality ingredients in my cooking.  You don’t have this long, involved process of creating a dish. It’s just about simple processes, good ingredients and seasonings.”  Think back to the high quality olive oil drizzled on sushi mentioned earlier.
   When he returned, he took a break from cooking, serving as the pastry chef for Green Dolphin Street, and later moved to onesixtyblue as the chef de partie, a “fancy name for line cook,” he says.  He then took a job as sous chef for the Hotel Monaco and also worked on the line at Ohba, headed up by Gene Kato, which stayed open for just a year. Kato partnered with the Mirai Sushi owners to then open Japonais, where Christopher transferred to become sous chef. Then the chef de cuisine they had lined up quit.  “I was next in line so I was promoted a week right before we opened,” he says.
   After two years of running the helm there with Kato and 12 years of professional cooking, Christopher started to get the itch to branch out with his own style of cooking.  He saw an opening for head chef at the soon-to-open Pops for Champagne in downtown Chicago. “I interviewed, and they showed me all the plans and blueprints and hired me.”
   Christopher says he ran an ambitious kitchen from thereon. “I kind of wanted to show what I could do.  My menu was all over the place. We had 16 cheeses, a raw bar with signature rolls, 16 hot plates, many small plates. Everything was very technique-oriented. We made our own veal stock, made our own flatbreads. We braised short ribs. Breaking down all that meat is very labor intensive. It was my first executive chef job, and I admit I was a little overzealous. In that process, I burned out a little.”
   Since then, Christopher says he’s relaxed his style, trying to make food fun and playful without pretension, and he seems to be accomplishing this at Club Royale, another Japonais business endeavor.
   Christopher says he wouldn’t move elsewhere right now. “I own a home here, my family’s here. Chicago is a great city for younger chefs. I don’t feel that young because I’ve had 15 years of experience, having gone to culinary school when I was 17 years old, but I’ve learned that it doesn’t matter what age you are—it’s the commitment you have to the project.”

Michael Sheerin
Chef de Cuisine, Blackbird
   There’s one word to describe Michael Sheerin: Modest. Sure, that’s an overused, boring word, but after talking to the executive chef of the nationally recognized, five-star restaurant that’s had a major hand in putting Chicago on the worldwide culinary scene, as well as being named a 2008 Rising Star by StarChefs.com, Sheerin says he feels like he’s still got plenty of work and improving to do.
   “I think it’s definitely important to buy locally and support the local economy like we do at Blackbird, but I feel my seasonality could be stronger,” Sheerin says. “We still had asparagus on the menu toward the end of the summer, and I haven’t looked into squash yet for the fall.”
   From an outside perspective, it seems like Sheerin’s being pretty hard on himself, considering he and Blackbird continue to score major points, and at press time, the menu showcased dishes like roasted Hudson Valley foie gras with preserved grapefruit, sherry-braised radishes, sea beans and artichoke kimchi, buttermilk spaetzle, chicory lychee-espresso and grilled wagyu flatiron and green grapes.
   But it’s precisely this pressure Sheerin puts on himself that has made him excel. Prior to joining Blackbird in 2006, Sheerin spent three and a half years as sous chef under the nationally acclaimed Wylie Dufense at WD-50 in New York City, known for its highly experimental dishes not unlike Alinea, the former Trio or Moto. To get the job, Sheerin sent Dufense his resume every week and helped out in the kitchen on his days off for four unrelenting months until finally a position opened and Dufense hired him. Prior to that, Sheerin showed the same dedication and hard work at Lutece, Atlas and the acclaimed Jean Georges, also in New York.
   Sheerin’s been in the food industry since a teenager, working at Arnie’s Bagels when he was 15 and living on the North Side at Foster and Broadway. And he wasn’t alone—his brother Pat Sheerin has headed up The Signature Room on the 95th floor of the John Hancock Center since 2006, following a promotion from sous chef after four years. Sheerin says his brother was an inspiration for him to consider culinary school himself. “My parents were worried about me not going to college, so they suggested going to culinary school, too,” he says. “So I tried it and found I enjoyed it very much.”
   After school, he spent some time at the former Toque restaurant, now in the de cero space on Randolph Street, then joined his brother— at the time—fish cook at Everest Room as his assistant (Sheerin spent some time at Everest during high school).
   Four years later, Sheerin was looking for a change and moved to New York, where he picked up a job as amuse bouche chef at Jean Georges in the summer of 2000, working nights there after a long morning at Vong. He bounced around town, working long hours to pay the rent.
   It was at WD-50 where Sheerin says he found his cooking style—“creative American,” as some call it. “We were definitely thinking outside the box there,” he says. “We did a lot of research on improving techniques or creating our own. For a while we called it research-based cooking, but it started to sound a little scary.” As sous chef at WD-50, he used vegetable purees, hydocolloids and sous-vide, low-temperature “vacuum” cooking.
   Soon Sheerin looked for a change again. “I was turning 30 and wondering if I should stay in New York,” he says. The opportunity to move back to Chicago came about when he attended Charlie Trotter’s 19th anniversary party. Trotter, knowing Sheerin, talked to Paul Kahan from Blackbird, who was looking for a chef de cuisine. “The rest is history, as they say, I guess,” says Sheerin.

Published: October 11, 2008
Issue: November 2008 Investing In Chicago