TWO YEARS AGO, Malika Ameen was sleeping off late-stage pregnancy sickness when Bono called. The lead singer of U2 had been winding down over some Irish whiskey at West Hollywood’s Chateau Marmont and had heard that Ameen, Marmont’s pastry chef, was sick. A fan of her cookies, he dialed her up at 3 a.m. and recited a broguish couplet of inspirational verse. Three hours later she went into labor.
For this Glencoe native, not even the adulation of rock stars is a match for home. After studying at the French Culinary Institute and working stints at top restaurants in New York (Craft) and Los Angeles (Marmont), Ameen, 32, along with her husband, the chef Mohammad Islam, has returned to Chicago and opened up Aigre Doux Restaurant and Bakery (230 W. Kinzie St.; 312-329-9400). So far, the best-selling dish is Ameen’s sticky toffee pudding, which took five years to perfect and employs satsuma orange dust, candied kumquats, and sliced Cara Cara oranges to offset the dessert’s richness.
Growing up in the north suburbs, Ameen often rebelled against her more traditional Pakistani family, who insisted that she join them for dinner every night at 6:30. She remembers telling her parents that she had no friends at New Trier High School-she suspected that her lunchbox, which was full of chappli kebabs perfumed with coriander, smelled too strong. “I was obsessed with eating SpaghettiOs because all my friends ate food out of a can,” she says.
Ultimately, the habits of a family that gathered every night for a homemade, slow-cooked, and seasonal meal took hold. She became obsessed with pursuing the lessons she’d learned at her parents’ table, seeking out whole foods grown in season and encouraging people to eat communally. In the Aigre Doux kitchen, the obsession continues. “For all of us at the restaurant, detail is everything,” her husband, Mohammad, says, “but she really knows how to bloom it.”
On a recent afternoon, Ameen wears chef’s whites, hoop earrings studded with red currants, and a Grace Kelly–style headscarf while massaging focaccia dough like a shiatsu specialist. This attention to detail requires endless hours, and Ameen, who now has two boys of her own, has experienced moments of doubt about her commitment to career. But then another feeling takes hold: “After a few days off,” she says, “I feel itchy for the kitchen, and that if I don’t bake, I’ll die.”