So suddenly Chicago’s a culinary mecca. Where did all these chefs come from? It’s not a question with a tidy answer, but to generalize grossly they came from right under our noses. A handful of fine-dining institutions from the 70s, 80s, and 90s have served as major incubators of culinary talent–in fact many local hotshots have worked at several. More than that, though, these places are a testament to how long fine dining has been part of the fabric of the city. They’ve all won major awards and share a devotion to innovation, detail, and customer service (and they all charge accordingly). What follows is a selective map of influence.
French | 1973-
In 1973 French chef Jean Banchet, originally brought to America by restaurateur Arnie Morton to cook at the Playboy Club in Lake Geneva, opened the wheeling restaurant that soon came to be known as the “best French restaurant west of Paris.” Le Francais, which Banchet ran with his wife, Doris, quickly became a blazon of classical French cooking. The current chef is Vietnamese-born, European-bred Roland Liccioni, who made his mark in the U.S. as the executive chef at Carlos’. He and his wife at the time, pastry chef Mary Beth Liccioni, took the reins at Le Francais in 1989. In 2000 Banchet briefly returned to the restaurant while the Liccionis took over Les Nomades, a dining club founded by legendary restaurateur Jovan Trboyevic of Le Perroquet; Mary Beth Liccioni is the current owner. In 2005 Roland Liccioni returned to Le Francais, which had gone through a few interim chefs after Banchet retired for good in 2001. In the last 33 years Le Francais has evolved to encompass aspects of contemporary French and Asian cuisine–Liccioni’s cooking is a little lighter and more experimental than Banchet’s–but the restaurant still waves the flag of classical French cooking to enormous acclaim.
RYAN POLI — Butter | Also: Mango
ROLAND LICCIONI AND ARUN SAMPANTHAVIVAT — Le Lan
–ARUN SAMPANTHAVIVAT — Arun’s | Also: Le Lan, Opera
—-RANGSAN SUTCHARIT — Amarind’s
JACKIE SHEN — Executive Chef, Red Light | Also: Lawry’s the Prime Rib, Jackie’s
CARRIE NAHABEDIAN — Naha | Also: Four Seasons, La Tour, Jovan, Sinclair’s, Le Perroquet, Ritz-Carlton
JOE DOPPES — Bistrot Margot | Also: Francesca’s, Taylor St. Bistro, Toulouse, Foley’s
YOSHI KATSUMURA — Yoshi’s | Also: Jimmy’s Place
KEVIN SHIKAMI — Kevin | Also: the Outpost, Con Fusion, Jimmy’s Place
MICHAEL ALTENBERG — Bistro Campagne | Also: Campagnola, Tucci Milan, Montparnasse, Gordon
MARK GROSZ — Oceanique
SUZY CROFTON — Crofton on Wells | Also: Cassis, Montparnasse, Cricket’s, Sinclair’s
Contemporary American | 1976-1999
Gordon was founded in 1976 by dapper former public relations executive Gordon Sinclair, who turned his interest in wine and food and his talent for hospitality into a showpiece of contemporary American dining. It was one of the first new businesses in then-derelict River North, contributing to the area’s transformation into “Eaterville.” Sinclair also pioneered, at least locally, such industry trends as collecting credit card info to discourage no-shows and no-reservation policies for parties of two, and was the first in Chicago to ban cell phones. In Gordon’s 24 years, the restaurant had 14 chefs, including Michael Foley, who went on to open Printer’s Row. Gordon’s sophisticated and ever-evolving take on American cuisine had a slight nouvelle edge, and included signature dishes like flourless chocolate cake and artichoke fritters. Sinclair closed the restaurant and retired at the end of 1999; the space is now home to Carrie Nahabedian’s Naha.
MICHAEL KORNICK — Chef-Owner, MK | Also: Red Light, Marche
–GIUSEPPE SCURATO — Boka | Also: Spago
TODD STEIN — Executive Chef, MK | Also: Spruce, Hudson Club
Contemporary French | 1981-
Carlos’ was founded in Highland Park by Carlos Nieto and his wife Debbie in 1981. Nieto, who was born in Mexico, began his career as a busboy at Lucien Verge’s L’Escargot and went on to work front-of-house at Le Francais. He patterned his own restaurant after Le Francais, although the focus at Carlos’ is on contemporary, not classical, French cooking. Carlos’ is the ultimate special occasion restaurant: intimate, relaxed, with a famous wine cellar and opulent dessert cart. The current chef de cuisine is Ramiro Velasquez, who also worked his way through the ranks, starting as dishwasher. Nieto’s first chef team was Roland and Mary Beth Liccioni (see Le Francais), who spent seven award-winning years there. Other alums of note not listed here due to our focus on the city proper include many who’ve gone on to great success as suburban chefs, such as Gabriel Viti of Gabriel’s, Jonathan Harootunian of Courtright’s and Ken Hnilo of Gilbert’s. The Nietos also run the more casual Cafe Central in Highland Park.
JACKY PLUTON — Chef-Operator, Narra | Also: Pluton, Jacky’s Bistro, Le Titi de Paris
DIDIER DURAND — Cyrano’s Bistrot & Wine Bar | Also: La Boheme, Le Perroquet, Gordon, La Foret
Italian | 1984-
Spiaggia, founded by Levy Restaurants in 1984, has had just two chefs in its 22 years: Tony Mantuano, a Wisconsin native, was in charge until 1990, when he left to run his family’s restaurant in Kenosha and, later, open Tuttapasto and Mantuano’s Mediterranean Table in Chicago. He was replaced by fellow cheesehead Paul Bartollotta, who held down the fort until Mantuano returned in 2000. Mantuano, under whom Spiaggia is nominated for a 2006 James Beard award, currently runs the place with the help of executive chef Missy Robbins, a vet of Marche. The restaurant is known for high-end Italian and Mediterranean cooking, signature dishes like wood-roasted sea scallops and pumpkin risotto, and luxuries like a climate-controlled cave of artisanal cheeses. The only four-star Italian restaurant in Chicago, it’s the jewel in Levy’s crown–or was until the restaurant and catering firm was sold in January 2006 to British firm Compass. Spiaggia and its casual sister, Cafe Spiaggia, occupy a beautiful tiered space with a view of the lake in a building the Levys built at 980 N. Michigan.
CARLOS CONTRERAS — Fundajo Grill | Also: Saffron, China Grill, Boka, Bin 36, Roy’s
MARK MENDEZ — Carnivale | Also: Gioco, Harvest on Huron, Spruce
JOE CALABRESE — Zia’s Trattoria | Also: Ambria, Park Hyatt, Mia Cucina
THEO GILBERT — Terragusto | Also: Trattoria No. 10
JACK JONES — Rioja | Also: Atlantique, Bistro Marbuzet, Jack’s on Halsted, Daniel J’s, Terczak’s, Printer’s Row, Yoshi’s
STEVE CHIAPETTI — Cafe le Coq | Also: Mossant Bistro, Rhapsody, Grapes, Mango, Costa d’Oro, Ritz-Carlton
Mexican | 1987-
Oklahoma native Rick Bayless, whose family ran a barbecue restaurant, turned a lifelong interest in Mexican food into a career that’s had a direct influence on American awareness of the diversity, sophistication, and subtlety of south-of-the-border cuisine. Bayless followed a late-70s TV program about Mexican food with six years of Mexican travel, stopping everywhere he could to take notes from street vendors and restaurant owners. He published the cookbook Authentic Mexican in 1987, the same year that he opened River North’s Frontera Grill, which serves casual contemporary Mexican; the adjacent fine-dining room Topolobampo followed in 1989. Both restaurants, co-owned by Bayless with his wife Deann, continue to be enormously popular, especially as he’s published more cookbooks, hosted more TV shows, and developed Frontera Foods, a line of salsas, spices, rubs, and tortillas for the home chef.
RAUL ARREOLA — Fonda del Mar
PAUL KAHAN — Blackbird | Also: Metropolis
–KOREN GRIEVESON — Avec | Also: Spruce, Crofton’s
PRISCILLA SATKOFF — Salpicon
Contemporary American | 1987-
The notorious Charlie Trotter is a Chicago native and culinary school dropout who knew he wanted to be a chef after life-changing meals at Louis Szathmary’s Bakery and Le Francais. He worked at many restaurants before opening his own place in 1987, but credits as mentors Gordon Sinclair, king of “New World” cuisine Norman van Aken, and Bay Area impresario Bradley Ogden. Trotter’s, which discreetly occupies a pair of Lincoln Park townhomes, is a temple to the owner’s highly personal contemporary American cuisine, distinguished by the finest local, seasonal ingredients, vegetable- and fruit-based sauces, and complex layers of flavors and effects–in recent years he’s even started experimenting with raw foods. He’s one of the most visible name-brand chefs around, with a TV show, a series of both luxe and more practical cookbooks, restaurant management primers, plus expansions like the upscale takeout joint Trotter’s to Go and a restaurant in Los Cabos, Mexico.
MINDY SEGAL — Hot Chocolate | Also: MK, Gordon, Spago, Ambria
GRAHAM ELLIOT BOWLES — Avenues | Also: Tru
HOMARU CANTU — Moto
DEAN ZANELLA — 312 Chicago | Also: Grappa, Mare, Relish, Gordon
–HEATHER TERHUNE — Atwood Cafe
MICHAEL TAUS — Zealous | Also: Le Titi de Paris
–TED CIZMA — Soundings at the Shedd | Also: Elaine, Grace The Outpost, Daniel J’s
Contemporary American | 1993-2006
Henry Adaniya worked the front of the house at Ambria and Cafe Provencal before opening his own restaurant in 1993 on the site of the latter in Evanston. Trio, specifically designed to showcase the work of innovative chefs, went through four major phases, beginning with the period under Adaniya’s original partners, Rick Tramonto and pastry chef Gale Gand (thus the name). The restaurant quickly gained international acclaim for cutting-edge cuisine and unusual presentations using items such as slabs of glass and test tubes. Tramonto and Gand left in 1995 (see Tru) and were replaced by sous chef Shawn McClain. McClain departed in 2001 to open Spring and was himself replaced by Grant Achatz, a young alum of Thomas Keller’s French Laundry, who took Trio to even more creative extremes. When Achatz left in 2004 to open Alinea, Dale Levitski was hired to helm a new incarnation, Trio Atelier, an experiment in more relaxed, casual dining. The restaurant closed for good this past February.
GRANT ACHATZ — Alinea | Also: Charlie Trotter’s
DALE LEVITSKI — Stone Lotus (opens spring ’06) | Also: La Tache, Orange, Fortunato, Blackbird, Saussy, Deleece
SHAWN MCCLAIN — Executive Chef, Spring/Green Zebra/Custom House | Also: Prairie, Les Plumes
–DARIN BIECK — Chef de Cuisine, Spring | Also: Trio
–STEPHANIE IZARD — Scylla | Also: La Tache, Vong’s Thai Kitchen
–RICHARD CAMAROTA — Chef de Cuisine, Custom House | Also: Cafe Spiaggia
–CHRISTINE KIM — Chef de Cuisine, Green Zebra | Also: Spring, Spago
MICHAEL CARLSON — Schwa | Also: Lovitt, Spiaggia, Gioco
Contemporary American | 1999-
Rick Tramonto and Gale Gand (see Trio) talked for years with their friend Richard Melman (see cover story) about what their perfect restaurant might be like. Tru (short for Tramonto Unlimited), which opened in Streeterville in 1999, is the offspring of their culinary vision and Melman’s money. The restaurant’s luxe environment (complete with velvet stools for ladies’ purses) showcases Tru’s playful contemporary cuisine. The restaurant’s best known for dishes such as the caviar “staircase”–five different caviars served on an ascending set of blue-glass steps. Before opening Tru, Tramonto and Gand worked together in New York and England and at Trio and Brasserie T, and separately at restaurants like Trotter’s, the Pump Room, and Bice. They divorced a few years ago, but continue to work together at the restaurant and on cookbooks. Tramonto recently partnered with Melman again to open Osteria via Stato; Gand has published three of her own cookbooks, has a Food Network show, and recently launched a line of bakeware.
ALEX CHESWICK — May Street Market | Also: Le Francais
DANIEL JACOBS — Chef de Cuisine, Narra | Also: Green Zebra, Spring
CHRIS NUGENT — Les Nomades | Also: Betise, Park Avenue Cafe, MK, Prairie, Zealous, Grace
BRAD PHILLIPS — Saltaus | Also: Blackbird, NoMi
BOB ZRENNER — X/O | Also: Tournesol, North Pond Cafe