Joseph Heppe, of Oak + Char

Food media loves stories of prodigies who always knew what they were meant to do—young Rick Bayless grinding masa for his PB&J tortillas, young Grant Achatz spherifying his Froot Loops. But few of us are really like that—we start out pretty clueless, we learn something here or there, we get to be pretty good at it, and we put our experiences and influences together to make something of our own. It’s not genius—it’s professionalism. The guy or gal who knows how to do what he or she does and gets it done at a high level without a lot of fuss is the guy or gal who keeps the world moving.

Joseph Heppe, the chef of River North’s high-end comfort food spot Oak + Char, which opened at the tail end of last year and was pretty much instantly popular, is that kind of pro. He rose steadily through kitchens in Chicago and nearby, but never managed to get what are usually perceived as the top-rank names onto his resume. But he picked up skills and mentors and honed his own cuisine at all of his stops, and when he finally got a star position at a place he could make his own, he knew what to do with it—food that reflects international influences and modern techniques in a comfortable way. A neighborhood restaurant that has the requisite burger and chicken wings, but also makes beautifully hand-crafted pasta and isn’t afraid of odd farm-to-table meat cuts, what sometimes gets called “modern midwestern.” I spoke with him recently about his path to Oak + Char:

Joseph Heppe: I grew up in Milwaukee. My first cooking job was at Hardee’s; I was 15, all my friends that I skateboarded with worked there. I worked there for two years and figured out that I had the skills to do well in that environment—I worked well with people, a little bit of controlled chaos I seemed to do well in, I was fine with the night life.

From there I went to the University of Milwaukee to get an English degree, and I cooked throughout just to pay the bills. I got in with a company called Harry’s Bar & Grill, who owned the Knickerbocker in Milwaukee and a place in the North Shore called North Shore Bistro. So three different places for three different crowds—twentysomethings drinking their late-90s Cosmos, North Shore Nancys, and rich older people who wanted classically prepared food. So I kind of worked my way through those three places, learning three different skill sets.

I graduated college after seven years—I was working full time so [college] was kind of off and on. I worked at a couple of different restaurants, and I worked with a chef who had worked at Spago here back in the day, and he would tell me stories about working there, which introduced me to more of a fine dining approach—truffles and foie gras and that kind of thing.

I moved to Chicago with my girlfriend, now my wife—she dragged me out to Chicago because she wanted to see a bigger city. I knew a friend who had just opened Schwa, I thought maybe he could help me get a job. He didn’t, but I wound up getting one at Vermilion. I bluffed my way into an Indian-Latin Fusion restaurant. From Hardee’s to Indian-Latin fusion!

I busted out some Madras curry and they looked at it and said, you bought that at the store? And I said yeah, and I knew I was in some deep. . . because they made all their curries in house. But I got the job there as their sous chef, worked for Maneet Chauhan for two, two and a half years, and helped out in New York to open their midtown location. She was a great chef; I learned a lot.

From there I went to Mercat a la Planxa and worked with Jose Garces’s cuisine and the chefs that were there on site. Also great with another ethnic cuisine, specializing in Catalan cuisine.

With Maneet I traveled to Indonesia, Singapore, Jakarta, and at Mercat I did my honeymoon in Barcelona and did two weeks in Spain, so that really opened me up to different sorts of flavors.

Michael Gebert: Your first head chef role was at Untitled, which—speaking of controlled chaos—is a busy River North bar kind of place, more than a restaurant like this.

Right, I met Art Mendoza [former Untitled manager, now managing partner of Oak + Char]. They had a strong cocktail program, run by “Choo” Lipsky, and I had to make food that fit a strong cocktail focus. I learned a lot of things at Untitled—volume was one of the biggest ones. With Untitled I finally felt like I was falling into my style of what I wanted to cook—to incorporate those international nuances, and to work with good farmers. I think I finally kind of knew what good food was, after working at Vermilion and Mercat.

Were you consciously trying to get a lot of different kinds of experiences, or did that just happen?

It just happened. When I graduated from my extended time in college, I didn’t know if I was going to go to graduate school or culinary school. I was already a sous chef, working for a chef, making a solid $32,000 a year, which I thought was good money at 26. And I went against that, I wanted to push it to see how far I could go in this business. I had all the cookbooks, Jean-Georges and all the studs of that day, and I wanted to pursue that cuisine.

And I noticed when I got to the city—I interviewed with [James Beard Award-winning chef redacted] and I did a stage there. And I quickly realized that you don’t make a lot of money in these fine-dining restaurants. I was already too old to make ten bucks an hour. I came back from the stage and told my wife I was offered a job and how much I was going to get paid, and I said, I’m going to make ten bucks an hour and work 30 or 35 hours a week. And she said, “Are you crazy? That won’t pay for one of our bills.”

So I had to find positions where I could balance myself between my financial requirements and doing some kind of an elevated cuisine. So that bounced me around from a place like Vermilion to Mercat, and that kind of organically developed my style.

Chicken wings with a raita-like yogurt-cilantro dip

When you and Art Mendoza came here, how did you see it as being different from Untitled?

Untitled had a little more restraints than here, and much higher volume—we’d do up to 500 dinner guests a night. I had guidelines I had to follow a little more as far as what we wanted to put on the menu. Here we’re doing smaller volume, so the blinders are taken off a little more. I can do more of what I want as long as we’re thinking, let’s keep it relevant for a neighborhood restaurant.

I feel like Untitled started it for me—that’s where I started to see who I was on the plate. People ask me what kind of food I do. And I say, I do my food. I know who I am on the plate. It’s harder to say that than to say, “I’m an Italian chef,” or “I cook in the style of Barcelona,” so I think that’s where the term “modern midwestern” came into play from a marketing standpoint.

How different is modern midwestern from “chef driven”? It’s no different if I’m in the midwest. With the midwest, we’re a lot more meat-centric, produce-driven. It’s working within the confines of the products we see, from the vegetables that we’re given, as hyperlocal as we can be. Is there going to be molecular cuisine in it, yes, a little, but it’s not going to be the focus. For me, modern midwestern is pushing all these things together to make what people will be comfortable with today.