- Billy Dec/Facebook
- Billy Dec and bro at Chicago Gourmet.
If you were to rank Chicago’s restaurateurs by their desire to see their own faces in publicity, one end would be marked by the reclusive Brendan Sodikoff and the other by Billy Dec, star of Windy City Live!, wearer of hipster hats, online bro personality and, oh yeah, owner/personification of Rockit Ranch, which has the Rockit bars, Sunda, ¡Ay Chiwowa! and others. Read his online bio or his Facebook page and the line between reality and parody instantly dissolves—his Facebook self-image is a Burberry bus stop ad he was in, the extremely white Dec somehow won “the Asian American Hall of Fame Award,” and the top story on the Rockit Ranch homepage is that Lady Gaga dined at Sunda recently, as well as Anne Burrell and Michael Bay (exactly the sort of random semicelebrity pairing we Chicagoans get excited about; maybe next week George Wendt and Ruth Bader Ginsburg will check it out together).
Lots of people make fun of Dec for his oversized, kind of goofy bro-life (assuming it’s not, in fact, a cover for fighting crime in a batsuit at night), but you know, this is the bar and restaurant business, not nuclear physics, so why not have somebody like him on the scene? It’s all good, and the worst that can happen is that in a city of ten million taco places, you wind up at ¡Ay Chiwowa! eating the queso fundido the Reader‘s Sam Worley described as “near impenetrable with the tools you’ve been given: four minitortillas, with the option to order four more for three dollars.” A missed opportunity, but not a tragedy in the grand scheme of things.
But two new chef hires suggest that Dec, whose last opening was the typically cartoon-concepted, quickly closed and never-officially-declared-dead Dragon Ranch Moonshine & BBQ, might have his ambition set a little higher for his next venture.
The official announcement last Thursday was that he had hooked up with one of the most undervalued stars on the culinary scene, Kevin Hickey of the Four Seasons’ Allium. Hickey was a chef who labored in the paradoxical obscurity of a of Michelin-starred restaurant (Seasons) on Michigan Avenue—theoretically a high-profile gig but in reality the kind of restaurant that’s better known to travelers on expense accounts than Chicagoans spending their own money. But he successfully sold the hotel on converting it into the more approachable Allium, devoted to an upscale take on comfort food inspired by his own Bridgeport upbringing—making the most precious hot dog in town (but also one of the best), as well as dishes like bacon buns (a nod to Bridgeport Bakery, around the corner from his boyhood home) and brussels sprouts with Polish kielbasa.
Still, one got the sense at events like Cochon 555 in 2012, when Hickey hosted and wheeled out carnitas on the hotel’s rolling serving carts, that he had pushed a hotel as far into funkiness as it was ever going to go. So a walk on Billy Dec’s wild side might reveal the Hickey we’ve never seen. The announcement last Thursday was that Hickey would serve as, apparently, consulting chef for the opening of the unnamed restaurant that will open in the Dragon Ranch space at 441 N. Clark this fall. It’s apparently not a permanent stop for Hickey, who is also opening his own Bridgeport restaurant, the Duck Inn, in the spring, but still, working with Hickey is a more serious collaboration for Dec than a cartoony concept like Dragon Ranch Moonshine & BBQ.
Then today came a report (unconfirmed as yet) that Dec has also had Michael McDonald, onetime chef of Michael Jordan’s One Sixty Blue, consulting for him. It’s easy to see how Hickey’s ebullient Chicago personality fits into Dec-World, but McDonald, a protege of Nobu Matsuhisa, is more of a low-key fine dining technician, so he really must be there to improve the food. Who knows what this means about where Dec is going next? The father of all these restaurant entrepreneurs (literally in two cases, figuratively in the rest) was a guy who had cartoony concepts with names like Lawrence of Oregano and R.J. Grunt’s before he started hiring chefs like Gabriel Sotelino and Jean Joho. Maybe a French star is the next improbable item in Billy Dec’s bio.