“You need to love what you’re doing,” Steve Chiappetti repeats like a mantra. “You don’t need to be a genius to cook–you need passion.”

Chiappetti’s passion has made him, at 30, one of the city’s most honored chefs–as well as one of the busiest. He develops recipes and creates the ever-changing menus for all three of his restaurants–Mango, Grapes, and Rhapsody–which are quite different in style and ambience. “They reflect all the aspects of my personality,” he says. Chiappetti designed Mango and Grapes and did a lot of the carpentry himself; he also had a major hand in the design of the elegant, glass-walled Rhapsody.

“I come from three generations of butchers,” Chiappetti says. “I worked in the family business when I was a kid. I knew I wanted to be in the restaurant business, but I wasn’t sure how at first.” The family business is Chiappetti Lamb and Veal Corporation, located in the old stockyard neighborhood at 39th and Halsted. “They started out in a garage on Taylor Street 51 years ago. Now they do 40 or 50 million dollars a year. I worked in the slaughterhouse from three in the morning to three in the afternoon. I made deliveries to restaurants, and great chefs like Jean Banchet and Jackie Chen used to come down and select meats. That’s when I became intrigued with the idea of being a chef.”

Chiappetti started at Boston University but soon came back to suburban Kendall College, which was opening a professional cooking school. He was in its first graduating class, in 1986, then did stints in some of Chicago’s great kitchens: the Ritz Carlton Dining Room, Spiaggia, and the now-shuttered Crickets. He also worked in several bistros in southern France. The first kitchen he got to run on his own was Costa D’oro, which was a hit, though when he left in late 1995 to create Mango the place collapsed.

Mango (712 N. Clark, 312-337-5440) is a true American bistro, with mango-colored walls and beautifully detailed wood struts and ceiling beams. Among other things it offers paper-thin strips of homemade duck prosciutto with chive dressing ($7), tiny mussels bedded on julienne carrots and celery with a posh chardonnay cream sauce ($6), a flavorful lamb shank glazed with molasses ($16), and an ethereal espresso tiramisu ($5)–though the sampler of Asian dishes was simply routine ($17).

Grapes (733 N. Wells, 312-943-4500), which opened last July, is Chiappetti’s tribute to his days on the south coast of France, where he worked with many Moroccan chefs. He built the wooden banquettes himself and painted the colorful abstract mural above the bar. The food navigates the Mediterranean, ranging from a creamy rendition of Greek taramasalata ($5) to a North African couscous with roasted veggies ($14) to deep-fried chickpea fritters ($4) to an incredibly juicy whole baby chicken that’s first poached, then coated with an onion batter and deep-fried ($14). My favorite dessert was a dense chocolate tart with mango and a white-chocolate sauce ($5).

Rhapsody (65 E. Adams, 312-786-9911) opened in October, along with the Symphony Center. It’s clearly in the fine-dining category, drawing on Chiappetti’s classic French training as well as Pacific Rim stylings. The blue cheese and walnut terrine is crunchy and savory ($5), and the grilled foie gras, which sits on a small pillow of butternut squash puree accompanied by glazed chestnuts, is buttery rich ($12). The lobster tempura–draped with garlic chives and batter-fried rings of lemon peel and accompanied by a sesame dressing–is crisp and succulent ($11). The roasted garlic chicken is full-bodied French comfort food elevated by a ginger sauce ($17), and the moist sturgeon fillet–a great fish–sits in a crisp onion crust on tender Swiss chard and butternut squash ($18). The wonderfully flavored and lean rack of lamb is drizzled with an aromatic herb oil and comes with crisply fried salsify chips ($24). And I could wax rhapsodic about the chocolate and hazelnut brownie with maple syrup ice cream ($5).

Chiappetti doesn’t take all the credit for his success. He points to his managing partner, George Guggeis, and to sous chefs Christine Subido, Eric Murken, and Jon Novak. And then there’s his mother–he says she gave him his passion for food.

–Don Rose

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Eugene Zakusilo.