“Bespoke means ‘made-to-order’ or ‘custom-made,'” says Kim Shambrook, executive chef for Bespoke Cuisine. While the catering company offers set menus from which customers can choose appetizers, entrees, and desserts, Shambrook is eager to rise to the challenges of special requests–which recently have included a Ukrainian birthday party and a Polish funeral luncheon. “It gives me an opportunity to research and figure out what we can do,” she says. But no matter what the menu, there are certain culinary standards she will not abandon: “We believe margarine is the devil incarnate,” reads the manifesto at bespokecuisine.com.
Bespoke, which got its start in 2002, acquired its own kitchen and dining space late last year. Before then, Shambrook and co-owner Jeannie Lukow worked out of rental kitchens or clients’ homes. In January they moved into digs on the Randolph Street foodie strip. A vast, gleaming kitchen abuts a dining room with dark wood floors, and the yellow walls are hung with close-up photographs of produce. The long dining table is from Cost Plus, the chairs are from a 1940s bingo hall, and the floor-to-ceiling drapes don’t look like burlap–they are burlap. The atmosphere reflects another of Shambrook and Lukow’s culinary philosophies: good food should be appealing, not intimidating.
The kitchen and dining room were designed to facilitate on-site customized cooking parties. “You get to use a professional kitchen and then sit down and be served,” Shambrook says. Many clients want to learn to cook organic or Thai dishes; French bistro cuisine is also popular. One customer held a cooking party to fulfill her husband’s lifelong dream of learning to make beef bourguignonne.
Bespoke is becoming known in particular for its Mocktail parties, at which kids learn to create appetizers and garnishes, make nonalcoholic drinks in a martini shaker, and serve guests (usually their parents and grandparents). The first one the company did was for an 11-year-old girl and 14 of her friends. “They were walking around being very gracious,” Shambrook says. “I always tell people it’s a way for me to train my new staff.”
Since then their kid clientele has expanded to include boys. “The boys tend to be a little more shy about wanting to cook,” Shambrook admits. But one recent attendee, an eight-year-old named Miles, proved an exception. “He was dynamite. He was right at my hip the entire time. He was dying over the walk-in freezer. He washed all the dishes.” Shambrook, who has a master’s in education, loves this part of the job. “I have five nieces, all of whom have an Easy-Bake oven, thanks to me,” she says.
Shambrook is fairly new to professional catering. She too got hooked by the Easy-Bake as a kid, but until two years ago the closest she had come to chefhood was a stint as a country club waitress. Before opening Bespoke with Lukow she was vice president of operations at an Internet consulting firm. After things went downhill there, “I laid myself off,” she says. Since she’d always liked to cook and entertain, she decided to go to evening classes at Kendall College in Evanston for culinary training. The idea was to indulge a hobby while she looked for a job, but she liked cooking school so much that she wound up enrolling full-time.
After graduation, Shambrook knew she didn’t want to take an entry-level position at a restaurant. “You never really get the opportunity to be creative when you’re on the line,” she says. And she didn’t want to take on the financial risk of running one. “Restaurants have to be open whether one person walks in or 100 people walk in,” she says, but a catering firm can husband its resources. In late 2002 she and Lukow, whom she met when they both worked for the National Association of Realtors in the mid-90s, went through their Rolodexes and called everyone they knew to announce they were starting a catering business. “Lo and behold,” says Shambrook, “the phone started ringing.”
While Shambrook remains the executive chef, Bespoke uses freelancers as well, many of whom have worked at restaurants such as Frontera Grill and Tweet. Shambrook encourages them to participate in menu design. “We try to get people who can feel that they have some creativity in the kitchen,” she says. “They say, ‘I’ve never been in a kitchen this clean, and I’ve never been in a restaurant where I had access to everything.'”
Despite her commitment to creative license and flexibility, Shambrook frowns on fusion cuisine. Lots of ethnicities are represented on the sample menus, but “we don’t mix them up. We’re purists.” French bistro food is her favorite; Lukow favors Asian. Is there any cuisine they wouldn’t explore? Shambrook thinks a minute. “I don’t think so. I’m open to trying really anything.” So long as it doesn’t contain the devil’s butter substitute, of course.
Bespoke Cuisine is at 1358 W. Randolph, 312-455-8400.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/A. Jackson.