Kevin Hickey at the Duck Inn

One of the things that was most striking about a preview event a couple of weeks ago at Kevin Hickey’s the Duck Inn in Bridgeport was simply that everyone wasn’t 28 years old. That’s rare for preview events, and no doubt rare for Rockit Ranch, the restaurant group headed by media personality Billy Dec, which has mainly opened busy bars in River North (including Bottlefork, which Hickey initially consulted on). But it was a sign of how Duck Inn really is what it claims to be, a place rooted in the Bridgeport neighborhood, that so many people of all ages from the neighborhood turned out, from Ed Marszewski (who owns the beloved Maria’s Packaged Goods and Community Bar) to John Daley (of those Daleys).

In the first part of our conversation, we talked about that connection to the Bridgeport neighborhood. In this segment, we talk about how Hickey devised the menu and how the Michelin-starred chef and veteran of swanky hotels wound up partnering with Rockit Ranch.

Michael Gebert: Tell me about how you approached creating a menu for the neighborhood where you grew up.

Kevin Hickey: The bar menu—the bar’s open seven nights a week—I wanted to have a neighborhood place where you could get a bite, and you could spend a lot or spend a little. There’s a hamburger, and the duck hot dog, and the cocktails and the draft beers are pretty reasonable.

A couple of things were spurred by the neighborhood, and by that original photo of the Duck Inn. When I saw hamburger sandwich [on a sign in that photo], I thought I have to make a hamburger sandwich, not on a bun because that’s not really a sandwich. So we wound up making a square hamburger, grass-fed from Tallgrass Beef, and we put everything on the grill at the same time. The patty goes on, the cheese goes on, the onions go on, the buttered rye bread goes on; you slap the cheese on the patty, the burger on the bread and we can put out a burger in three or four minutes. We use that Brun-uusto cheese from Brunkow that you always see at the farmer’s markets. So that’s the hamburger sandwich.

The tamale—because she had a tamale on the menu too. So we do a duck tamale, duck confit and foie gras, that comes together really nice. The hot dog—I always intended to do a different version of the one I did [at Allium]—the only thing is, I can’t really make them myself at this point, because I just don’t have the space. The equipment is one thing, but to link out 125 pounds of farce made into sausages, and tie ’em up and hang them and smoke them—that’s a massive undertaking.

So I started working with Makowski Real Sausage, which is right around the corner. The original Makowski Sausage was across the street from the original Duck Inn, and they moved to Bridgeport in the 40s or 50s. It’s incredible—they have all the smokers from the 30s, they have Buffalo chopper grinders from Buffalo, New York, that are bolted to the floor and big enough for you and me to sit in and have a drink. It’s so amazing to see that facility.

So I started working with Nicole about a year ago about modifying my recipe. At first I just wanted to add rendered duck fat, but that didn’t really work. Then she ended up putting duck meat with fat on it into the hot dog, not understanding what I meant, and that actually kind of came out better, so then we did about five versions until we got it exactly where we wanted it. It’s an all-natural hot dog, beef and duck in a hot dog casing. We won that trophy behind the bar, in that Food Network challenge event at Ravinia, for best hot dog when we weren’t even open yet.


Well, and speaking of duck, you have the rotisserie duck.

I’ve always wanted to do rotisserie duck. Duck was a big thing for me, as a chef, and personally I just love duck. We ate out a ton, and we used to go to this place on the southwest side called Old Prague. I would get the half duck with bread dumplings, I can still taste it. I don’t know if it’s still around, I heard it had a fire. [It’s gone—ed.]

So I always loved duck, and when I really started learning about cooking, you know, duck is really, really prolific in French cuisine. I learned early on to use everything; I really respected that. So in higher-end restaurants, I’ve done multicourse deconstructed duck tastings.

I was at a restaurant that will go unnamed in New York, that I loved and still do, and they had expanded into the back and they put a rotisserie in. I went in before they opened it and said hi, and I said, “What’s with the rotisserie?” And they said, “It’s for rotisserie duck.” And I said, “I’ll be back tonight and I’m going to sit right there.”

I went back and I look and . . . there’s no ducks in the rotisserie. Oh, you have to order 24 hours in advance, they say. That’s lame. And I’m like, they probably do 5-600 covers a day, minimum: you can’t sell a duck? So I’ve had that in my mind for the last three years, that there’d be ducks on the rotisserie.

You were doing pretty high-end stuff in fancy hotels for a long time. And now you’re doing bar food . . .

But the technique is still there; it’s not easy, it’s not simple. Tamales are not easy. That’s a tough thing to do right and do well, consistently. You have to get masa dough just right. You can’t cook them to order, you have to hold them hot. And how do you hold them and they don’t suck after an hour? Okay, chili’s easy. But even a good French fry is not easy. There’s a lot of technique to a good french fry.

Anything good, I don’t care what it is—a baked potato, chili, a hamburger or a deconstructed duck course—none of it’s easy. It all requires technique and effort and conscientiousness and checking and making sure and making sure again.

Rotisserie duck at Duck Inn

The big question for a lot of people has been, how did you, coming out of five-star hotels and a Michelin star, end up with Rockit, which is a bar group with a reputation for being mainly for bros?

I was at the Four Seasons, a wonderful company but I think I’d run my gamut with them. I would have stayed there if I could have just had a job opening restaurants. But that didn’t really exist, so I was looking to do my own thing.

Billy [Dec] and I had known each other for years, seeing him at events and fund-raiser things like that. And I always respected what a huge Chicago champion he was. Whatever he does, it’s all about Chicago. And I’m kind of the same way, because I’ve lived all over the world and in conversation it always came back to . . . “Well, Chicago is AWESOME, it’s the best, rahhh.” So I really connected with him on that. He knew that I was looking, and he said, “Hey, I’ve got this space on Clark, come check it out. See what you think, and I’ll let you do whatever you want.”

Cool! Nobody else had said that to me. So I went to look at the space, which had been Dragon Ranch, and I walked in and there was some smoke damage, which was nowhere near the fire department damage. I thought there was one huge long bar which had been smashed by the fire department—it was actually two, a small bar and then an open kitchen with a bar. But my immediate thought was, bar kitchen: the food and the drinks and the beer and cocktails have food in them and the food has cocktails and beer in it.

And Billy was like, yeah, that’s awesome. So we made one giant bar [at Bottlefork]—what is it, 41 foot, 42 foot—pretty substantial. And the bartenders and the cooks really work together, which they have to because you can’t get into the bar without walking through the kitchen.

And that went so well. And I was trying to make this happen, and it wasn’t easy. So Billy just said, “join us”—we want to do so many things, and we worked so well together—”come be a partner with Arturo [Gomez] and Brad [Young] and me, and we’ll fold that one in.” It was too good of an opportunity, too good of a relationship, to say no.

So now we’re one company, and this is our seventh restaurant. We’re getting ready to close down Rockit Bar & Grill and completely update and reinvigorate it—because they were doing some pretty innovative stuff ten years ago, wagyu burger, foie gras burger, truffle fries—nobody else was doing that then. That’s pretty par for the course now, but ten years ago?

Everything evolves. And part of Rockit’s big evolution is where we’re going in the future and me coming in and working with those guys and being partners and part of the fabric of their company.