David Bryson, aka Johnny Casserole
David Bryson, aka Johnny Casserole Credit: andre j. jackson

A couple Thursdays ago I had mouths to feed, but I was floundering way beyond a deadline and just in front of a flight out of town early the next morning. That happened to be the very week that Michael Ruhlman called bullshit on the claim that we—as a society—don’t have time to cook, so I was feeling a bit guilty about what was about to happen. But it had to happen.

And it did: Around 6 PM, as promised, the doorbell rang and I was greeted by David Bryson, aka Johnny Casserole, bearing a tightly wrapped, oven-ready Pyrex dish containing enough chicken potpie to feed us three times over, plus a whole Red Hen baguette.

Bryson is a voice-over actor and an alum of the Cooking and Hospitality Institute of Chicago (now a Le Cordon Bleu school). After graduating he bounced around for some time, both cooking and waiting tables at Speakeasy Supper Club, South Water Kitchen, the Atwood Cafe, the Gage, and Sweets & Savories. Like so many other cooks in this town, he had an idea for a food truck (sustainable fish tacos) but couldn’t figure out a way to make it work under the city’s municipal code.

Bryson also had a deep and abiding love for the all-American casserole. But a restaurant devoted exclusively to hotdish just seemed too improbable. So he started thinking, “How can I stay small, doing what I want to do, which is getting people to eat some damn casseroles?” he says. “And eating them well again, getting back to what it used to be—not canned soup and bad leftovers thrown in.”

About four months ago he started the Johnny Casserole delivery service. Give him 24 hours notice and he’ll drop off a fully prepared dish, made from scratch with as many local and organic ingredients as possible. After 45 minutes in the oven and 15 minutes out, you’ve got dinner for six to eight people. Among the options: the Atchafalaya, jambalaya with crawfish or shrimp and andouille and smoked ham; the Great Plainsman, shepherd’s pie with grass-fed beef and cremini mushrooms; and For Your Thighs Only, a four-cheese cavatappi mac ‘n’ cheese with optional meat and veggie add-ins. Bryson also offers a selection of breakfast and dessert casseroles—seasonal fruit cobbler, an eggy pizza strata, French toast.

He wasn’t too busy at first. While he navigated the city’s licensing labyrinth he delivered mostly to friends and customers who found him by word of mouth. Getting square with the city’s health department was a hassle—they couldn’t get a grip on how to classify his license. (He’s now considered a caterer.) But on Friday, April 23, he went legit. He’s headquartered at the communal Kitchen Chicago.

Our chicken potpie, aka the Beth Ann, was terrific, loaded with crunchy vegetables and roasted chicken in creamy gravy and topped with biscuits that crisped up perfectly. Bryson even provided a small recyclable container of milk to brush on top to burnish the biscuits and prevent burning.

While they’re substantial, and $5 of the price is a refundable deposit on the Pyrex dish, this isn’t cheap Hamburger Helper—prices range from $24 for the oven-baked French toast with nuts to $40 for the jambalaya.