Blackbird’s New Magician
619 W. Randolph
Until last fall, Blackbird was Paul Kahan. But the chef, who founded the restaurant a decade ago, also operates Blackbird’s neighbor, Avec, and was at work on a new beer-focused restaurant a few blocks away. So he decided to hire his first ever chef de cuisine at Blackbird, someone to run the place day in and day out. “I’ve been in the kitchen on a nightly basis for 20 years and I can’t work 15-hour days anymore,” Kahan says.
That made sense. The surprise was who Kahan hired: a chef from WD-50, the Manhattan home of avant abracadabra cuisine. Blackbird is famous for seasonally driven food, WD-50 for its ingenious use of powders, gums, and starches. But Kahan is close to Wylie Dufresne, the WD in WD-50, and when Dufresne talked up his sous chef, Michael Sheerin, Kahan listened. “What WD-50 is really about is great flavor combinations,” Kahan says–the weird science is just a means to an end.
After a little more than six months, Sheerin, a 31-year-old who grew up on the north side of Chicago, has subtly and smartly put his mark on the restaurant. He’s preserved the identity of Blackbird–fresh and ingredient-focused food–but his cooking snaps with unexpected ideas.
Before Kahan hired him, Sheerin says, “I think he was very worried that I was going to try to take it through this freakish metamorphosis and scare his customers away.” Instead he’s negotiated a third path between the old Blackbird and the avant-garde cuisine at WD-50. Take his pork belly–the ur cut at Blackbird–which sits in a shallow bowl of what looks like water. Sheerin makes a light version of his mother’s barbecue sauce, mixes gelatin into it, then freezes and thaws it. As it melts, the gelatin holds onto the impurities and the liquid drips down, clear and hugely flavorful. It’s a perfectly clarified consomme and a bewilderingly light preparation of a meat that’s half fat.
“I get playful,” says Sheerin, who’s soft-spoken with a vaguely bashful look. His sturgeon plate, for instance, comes with a version of pastrami and rye–rye gnocchi and guanciale (cured pork jowl)–and of course mustard. Sheerin had been frustrated trying to make pumpernickel pasta, so he deconstructed a few rye bread recipes and came up with the gnocchi instead, with rye flour, molasses, and caraway seeds.
After that you might not be surprised to hear that Sheerin’s culinary career began at the former Arnie’s Bagels on the near north side, where he worked from high school until he was 20. He was fired from his first real restaurant job, at Balaban’s. “I was partying and did a no-call, no-show,” Sheerin says. That’s when his mother told him, “‘If you’re not going to go to college, it’s either construction or cooking or working for the city.’ And I didn’t really want to work for the city, so I went to cooking school.”
Sheerin was artistic–he’d painted a lot growing up and in high school–but nothing had come of it. “I’d applied to the Art Institute, but kind of half-assed. I’d never put any effort into it,” he says. After getting some culinary training at Grand Rapids Community College, he worked at the late Toque in Chicago until his older brother, who was working under Jean Joho at Everest, the Alsatian fine-dining restaurant, helped get him in as a line chef there. Patrick Sheerin is now the chef at the Signature Room. “He was more focused than I was,” Sheerin says. “I just kind of fell into it.”
But he fell hard: he’s got the resume of someone sprinting to catch up. After Everest, Sheerin moved to New York and racked up a string of impressive posts: Jean Georges, a restaurant routinely ranked among the greats; Atlas under the young English radical Paul Liebrandt; Lutece, the legendary classic French restaurant; and WD-50. When it opened, Sheerin went and bugged Dufresne until he gave him a job as a saucier. Only a few months later, the sous chef left and Dufresne promoted Sheerin to the position, where he stayed for more than three years.
A bookish chef with a degree in philosophy, Dufresne took ingredients out of their ethnic costumes and stripped them down to sweet, salty, bitter, sour–a dish might only have four ingredients, Sheerin says, but each would represent a different category. “It made me think more independently,” says Sheerin. “He put in perspective how we taste. That’s how I think about food now.” A pine nut gazpacho he made at Blackbird, for example, was inspired by a delicious batch of soppressata made by a couple of brothers on staff. Sheerin immediately started thinking about garnishing soup with it. People always garnish with fish, he says; he wanted to use meat. In a Moleskine notebook he always has on hand, he wrote down, soppressata, English pea soup, mole– I’m thinking meat, sweet, and spice. “And then the English pea soup became gazpacho,” but instead of tomato gazpacho, a thick pine nut gazpacho, with a spine of garlic and acid. The mole got pushed out by nasturtium blossoms, which were in season, and Sheerin added a few dehydrated apricots for sweetness.
“What Mike is able to do is clean, superfocused, minimalist food,” says Kahan, who adds that although people call his own food simple, he sees it as cluttered. “For me, it’s always ‘add another ingredient.’ Mike’s much more of a technician. A few of the things he has on the menu, I would have been embarrassed to do”–because of their simplicity. “He has the balls to do it.”
For more on restaurants, see our blog The Food Chain at chicagoreader.com.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Michael Sheerin’s pine nut gazpacho, pork belly, and sturgeon plate.