Q & A with Best Chef Michael Carlson

Schwa’s brain trust: chef Michael Carlson (left) and sous-chef Nathan Klingbail

This past September, Michael Carlson, a 31-year-old west suburban native who skipped out of culinary school, quietly opened Schwa (1466 N. Ashland Ave.; 773-252-1466). From the tiny kitchen of his 28-seat BYO storefront, Carlson turns out astonishingly haute dishes. We love his food—and his genuine sense of surprise at Schwa’s success.

How did you become interested in cooking?
I don’t know. My mom says I watched Julia Child as a little kid. I don’t remember it. I got a job during college in a little bar and decided to step up to the next level. Just kept doing that.

Did your journey include any formal training?
Not really. I went to CHIC [the Cooking and Hospitality Institute of Chicago] for a semester and opted to take my money and go to Europe instead. I went three separate times for anywhere from seven months to over a year. Spent most of my time in Italy in a place called San Domenico in Imola. Gets two stars in Michelin—at least it did when I was there. Traveled all over Italy working in small kitchens.

But your style isn’t really Italian. How would you describe it?
You have to look at my two main influences. I worked under Grant Achatz at Trio for a year and a half and then my most recent stint in Europe was at The Fat Duck just outside London, where I staged (“stazhed”) for five weeks. So I’m taking those influences and thinking about what I saw, but I am also very rooted in classic Italian food. My sous-chef, Nathan Klingbail, has a lot to do with the food, too. He’s a very talented chef.

You’ve been compared to Achatz. Does that bug you?
No. I love him. No one really compares us. I like where our food is going. It’s simpler. Not as refined or complicated as Grant’s. They [Alinea and Schwa] are two totally different experiences.

What is the best dish you’ve come up with?
I’m always happy with the prosciutto consommé, but my favorite dish is quail egg–filled ravioli, which is probably our simplest dish.

Are you shocked by your success?
Oh, yeah. Just doing it to do our thing. Guess we’re making other people happy, too. Nathan and I really love coming to work.
–Penny Pollack