Chefs on the Grill with Michael Nagrant
This month, Nagrant sat down with Gabino Sotelino, whose 27-year-old Lincoln Park masterpiece, Ambria (2300 N. Lincoln Park West; 773-472-5959), will serve its last meal on June 30th.
PODCAST: To hear more from Nagrant's conversation, click the podcast player above. (00:17:57)
MN: I understand that during your childhood in Spain, your mother sent you away to the seminary.
GS: I'm a religious guy-I believe in God, but I don't go to church every day. I'd prefer to be next to the stove than next to the altar. So I escaped twice, and the third time they threw me out.
MN: And what happened?
GS: It was the best thing that happened to me. Thirteen years old, I need to find a job. I started as a bellboy, then in the kitchen, and since then, I never stopped.
MN: When you were chef at The Pump Room, you hired one of Chicago's first female sous-chefs, Nancy Immel. What was the response?
GS: The French chewed my ass for that. I was a very respectable man, at work and as a person. She worked hard. I had to pick a person I could trust.
MN: You set up very specific rules at Ambria, didn't you?
GS: Mr. T walked in with sneakers, and he had all these chains. I said, "Sorry, but you need to go put on a jacket and no sneakers. Go change." He left. Daniel Barenboim is a very good friend of mine. He liked to smoke cigars, so we put a table in the hotel lobby and he ate over there. The rules apply to everybody.
MN: While Ambria was taking off, you found time to develop several Lettuce Entertain You restaurants.
GS: My kids grew up without seeing me because I was in the restaurant. The day my daughter graduated from college, she gave me a kiss and said, "Daddy, I hope you spend more time with us." It's the only thing I'm not proud of.
MN: If you had it to do over, would you do it the same way?
GS: I don't know. I might even go the same way. When you do something you believe in, and you work very hard for it, and you're so proud of it, you put all your energy behind it.
MN: Are you content with the decision to close Ambria?
GS: I'm sad a little bit, yeah. But I'm going out on top.
Photograph: Tyllie Barbosa