Two miles off Oak Street Beach, in the Carter H. Harrison Water Intake Crib, the phone rings. The chef looks up from his notebook, glances at the caller ID, and turns instead to a glass bong half filled with a corked ’82 Petrus. He fires it up and takes a long pull on the tube.
“I used to smoke during service a lot,” says Albert D’Angelo. “Totally irresponsible. But it helps with menu planning. Opens the doors of perception.”
If you’ve never heard of D’Angelo, he doesn’t care. The 13 two-tops his designers jimmied into the cramped 108-year-old cylindrical water collection facility are booked for the opening on Tuesday, April 1, and every night thereafter for two months. The voice-mail box has been full since the day the unpublished phone number for Crib went active in late February. If the call is coming from a local area code, he doesn’t even bother answering.
D’Angelo, the 24-year-old son of a New York Stock Exchange trader, embarked on his meteoric culinary career seven years ago, after dropping out of his Upper East Side private school. His father, a habitual restaurant junkie who “collects reservations the way some people collect elephant tusks,” called in a favor and laid down the law—either his wayward son took a job washing dishes at the Mario Batali flagship Babbo, where Dad was a regular, or he was out on the street. Three weeks later D’Angelo turned in his dishrag and parlayed his brief stint at the sink into a series of stages in the restaurants of telegenic figurehead chefs like Rocco DiSpirito and Bobby Flay. “I told people I worked the pass at Babbo for three years. It was surprising how easy it was to get in,” he says. He kept his eyes open, grabbed every chance he could to work prep, and muscled or bribed his way onto the line. “If I had to call INS on some line cook who got territorial about his station,” he says, “I would.”
But D’Angelo felt the lack of face time with his bosses was inhibiting his progress, and he quit just as the itinerant underground restaurant craze was kicking off in Manhattan. “I realized I could cook for people who appreciated me without taking orders from some asshole sous chef with half my chops and no hope of ever rising out of the galley,” he says.
In the spring of 2005, with the help of two Salvadoran line cooks poached from Flay’s Bar Americain, he launched the Last Supper, a weekly nomadic dinner publicized with pseudonymous postings on food blogs and anonymous invitations to rising celebrities and tastemakers. One night it was held in the back of a Lower East Side bodega, the next in a subway power station, but at every elaborate multicourse bacchanal the chairs were filled with artists, musicians, writers, bloggers, and other chefs.
Before long, suspiciously familiar analogs of some of his dishes began to show up on the menus of fine-dining restaurants all over the country—including Chicago. “Edible menus? Mine. Foie gras lollipops? Mine. That cat who was serving sushi on a naked girl? I did that first—with pasta.”
But the manifold pressures of staging weekly 20-plate dinner parties began to take their toll. D’Angelo started losing sleep, breaking wine glasses, and ejecting customers for taking pictures.
“The night [GQ critic Alan] Richman came in I just looked down at my hands and decided I had to get away,” he says. D’Angelo dropped out amid wild speculation—some said his operation had been infiltrated by the health department, others that he was being blackmailed by jealous chefs, still others that he’d lost his teeth to meth mouth.
Now D’Angelo is banking on a comeback. He acknowledges that the rumors and his unruly reputation help fill the Crib’s voice mail. But he resists the implication—leveled by a number of his older colleagues—that he hasn’t paid his dues. “I’m no different than any other chef-owner. I’ve worked my ass off. I had to submit a business plan to my investors. I had to go out and grease palms to get my permits and location like anybody else.”
D’Angelo promises a “transgressive” menu but is keeping most of his plans for opening night a secret. “If I told you anything I’d have an animal rights naval blockade on my hands,” he says. He did offer some hints: “Ducks and geese aren’t the only animals that you can force-feed for big livers.”
I was allowed a peek at the tiny remodeled kitchen that once served the water crib’s four-man crew, where the four-seat chef’s table commands $1,600. Security will be tight around the customers, but not for their benefit. They’ll be frisked for digital cameras, and D’Angelo’s requiring them to sign nondisclosure agreements before they can step off the speedboat that will pick them up from staggered locations along the shoreline. “I do not want to see my creations on the menu at Alinea in three weeks,” he says. “If that happens again I’m unleashing the lawyers.”
Asked when Chicagoans might get a taste of his work, D’Angelo paused and took another pull on his bong. “I’m not opening a great Chicago restaurant,” he says. “I’m opening a world-class destination. And for better or worse, diners that make those distinctions live in New York, Los Angeles, London. These people have read that Chicago is the new front line in the culinary jihad. They don’t compete for reservations at Gordon Ramsey anymore. They’re looking for something most people can’t have—and now Chicago is the place people can’t have it. Most people, I mean.”