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Chicago’s Best Chefs

Meet the city’s foremost kitchen legends, the aces, and the innovators.

> The Legends Chicago’s Seven Bona Fide Kitchen Luminaries

Arun Sampanthavivat
Arun’s 4156 N. Kedzie Blvd.; 773-539-1909

chicago chef Arun Sampanthavivat
Arun Sampanthavivat

In his words
age 59 hometown Trang, Thailand kitchen upbringing “My grandfather was Chinese, and my grandmother was Thai. They never ate together. They had two kitchens. My poor mother had to cook two different things for her parents.” his grandfather “He taught me everything. If I didn’t pay attention he would hit me in the head with chopsticks.” his grandmother “I had to sit by her, reading poetry and helping her prepare curry paste.” creative inspirations poetry, painting, writing music where he’d like to celebrate his 60th birthday” In Thailand. When you reach 60, they make a big feast and people come from every village.” last meal on earth steamed curry, stir-fried curry, curry in a stock with coconut milk before he cooks “In my mind, I see the whole composition of what I am going to cook. Then I know how to approach it.” culinary philosophy “Learn from others, but don’t cook just like your grandmother used to.” how a dish should look “It’s like art: use the ingredients to paint pictures of the food.” funniest restaurant memory “A customer, an old man, found a tooth in the sticky rice. A tooth? How could that happen? We went back and found out it was the customer’s tooth.”

In our words
Sampanthavivat didn’t start out wanting to be a chef. Prodded by friends who loved his cooking, he abandoned a management consulting job (and his plans to get a Ph.D in political science) to open the most highly acclaimed Thai restaurant in the United States-all with nary a recipe. “I don’t normally use any cookbook at all,” he says. “I don’t really know how.” If he opens a cookbook, it’s to look at the pictures, which might explain the striking visual appeal of his pad Thai with coconut vermicelli in a tight upright coil, and poached red dwarf pear sliced into tentacles with litchi sorbet in a Thai pastry roll.
–D. R. W.

Rick Bayless
Frontera Grill and Topolobampo 445 N. Clark St.; 312-661-1434

In his words
age 52 hometown Oklahoma City how long it took him to finish high school two and a half years and college three years cooking schools “I’ve taught in them a lot, but never attended one.” his parents’ restaurant“When I was six, I would go into the walk-in coolers and take food, and go cook it.” what he wanted to become a food writer first gourmet meal “There was one fine-dining restaurant in town, so when I was 12, I saved my money, took the bus downtown, and got a table for one. I got planked steak served on a wooden board with duchess potatoes; then they brought an enormous bowl of chocolate mousse to the table.” his 50th birthday a day-and-a-half celebration involving chefs, mariachis, gospel singers, and an entire lamb the next morning “I come home from doing yoga and a table is set with mounds of Krispy Kremes and Dom Pérignon.” in his fridge eggs, bacon, yogurt, oranges culinary idol Julia Child: “I got a chance to cook with her [not long] before she died. Her way of handling food was very sensual.” philosophy “A meal is a dialogue between a cook and the people who will be eating it.” goal “I want to be a translator of traditional Mexican flavors that so speak to my heart for people in the United States.”

In our words
Every summer for two weeks, Bayless closes his restaurants and flies his staff to a different region of Mexico to learn more about the country’s food from home cooks, market stalls, and restaurants. This year he took the gang to the Mayan stronghold of Chiapas and came back with terrific new southern Mexican recipes such as suckling pig slow-roasted in banana leaves, and roasted rib eye seasoned with achiote marinade in red pumpkinseed sauce with crisp beef tongue nuggets. You’d better believe this tireless chef’s latest discoveries will also find their way into his next cookbook-and his PBS show.
–D. R. W.

Rick Tramonto
Tru 676 N. St. Clair St.; 312-202-0001, Osteria Via Stato 620 N. State St.; 312-642-8450

chicago chef rick tramonto
Rick Tramonto

In his words
age 42 hometown Rochester, New York days spent in cooking school zero in his spare time He goes to seminary school. “I hope to be a youth pastor.” favorite cookbook Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking first job Wendy’s: “I left school in ninth grade and became a grill cook. Next I was the spud guy at Scotch & Sirloin. Cooking is all I’ve ever done.” inspirationsCrate & Barrel, food markets, God most memorable meal Pierre Gagnier (Paris): “It was like seeing the culinary light of God.” on his rough upbringing “My dad went to prison when I was 14. My mom was a cleaning lady at night and a lunchroom lady during the day.” first trip to Europe his honeymoon with Gale Gand, 1990. “We drove from Paris to Rome and wanted to eat at all the three-star Michelins.” [Note: Tramonto and Gand divorced in 2000, but still work together.] last meal on eartha pizza from Pizzeria Bianco (Phoenix, Arizona) dish that bombed chocolate and caviar: “I’ve eaten it at Jean Georges and he pulled it off. I couldn’t make it work.” in his fridge linguine and clams, cold cuts, leftover Big Bowl what he served at Carol Burnett’s birthday party Big Macs and fries. “We served it on Limoges and had cloches.”

In our words
Tramonto’s culinary philosophy sounds straightforward enough: “It’s simple. It’s fresh. It’s just basic. It’s salt and pepper. It’s great olive oil. It’s great products.” But to get from that credo to braised lamb shoulder ravioli with English pea emulsion and minted lamb jus or sautéed cod in sauce basquaise with fried chickpea panisse takes more than salt and pepper-it takes Tramonto’s culinary acumen. And his gorgeous presentations, like the signature caviar staircase and his brown butter asparagus-mussel cappuccino in a Versace cup, require a sensibility way beyond basic Cooking 101.
–D. R. W.

Gale Gand
Tru 676 N. St. Clair St.; 312-202-0001

chicago chef gale gand
Gale Gand

In his words
age 50 hometown Riverwoods, Illinois cooking schools La Varenne (Paris), French Pastry School (Chicago), International Pastry Arts Center (outside New York City): “Jacques Pépin was in my sugar-pulling class. He was so cute.” creative inspiration painting, penny candy, Gael Greene’s books her feminist mother“She couldn’t believe that I wanted to cook. Spent her life trying to get out of the kitchen I was going right back in.” first gourmet meal Le Français on her 21st birthday other skills “I was a silversmith and a diamond setter, and I had my own business selling jewelry and clothing.” last meal on earthmom’s cold fried chicken, a crisp apple, root beer float best comeback “Jean Banchet comes in to eat at Trio and I’m designing an elaborate dessert menu for him. Then he announces that he is now diabetic. So I put on some red lipstick, kiss a plate, and send it out to him. He loved it.” philosophy“Always wear comfortable shoes. If your feet hurt, you can’t think.” in her fridge fresh ricotta, homemade jam, Oberweis milk, six kinds of yogurt, ten kinds of cheese, Frontera’s guacamole mix when Robin Williams came to Tru “He wandered into the kitchen and said, ‘I want to be a waiter. Can I run some food to a table?’ We said, ‘Sure; here’s what you need to know: serve from the right, clear from the left.’ All we had left was one table. And it was Michael Taus from Zealous. I figured Taus would go back and tell his staff, ‘You’ll never believe who Rick [Tramonto] and Gale have working for them!’ He [Williams] was delightful, speaking in fake French. He’s just a child-in all the good ways.”

In our words
For years, Gand has fashioned outrageously dreamy desserts, from an orange tian with caramelized oranges, crème Chantilly, and blood orange sherbet to a witty chocolate malted semifreddo with dark chocolate Rice Krispies, bitter chocolate sauce, and blackberry sorbet. When her three-tiered mignardises cart rolls past at Tru-holding delicacies from lollipops to chocolate truffles-grab what you can, even if you’re not hungry. Long after your glucose high fades, they’re great midnight snacks. No wonder Gand named her dessert menu and her Food Network show Sweet Dreams.
–D. R. W.

Tony Mantuano
Spiaggia and Cafe Spiaggia 980 N. Michigan Ave.; 312-280-2750

chicago chef tony mantuano
Tony Mantuano

In his words
age 52 hometown Kenosha, Wisconsin mentor Kurt Weber at Nantucket Shores in Milwaukee: “We made our own pasta. No one was making fresh pasta in America in 1979, let alone in Milwaukee.” chef he’d love to cook with Alain Ducasse where he’ll be in ten years somewhere in Italy how his grandmother made pasta “She would roll the pasta around a twig from a willow tree, then pull the twig out so you would have this long hollow tube.” instrument he played in college trombone most memorable meal El Bulli, 2000: “They were so gracious. The captain asked my [nine-year-old] son if he’d like a steak. At El Bulli!” last meal on earth in southern Italy, on the ocean, eating spaghetti con vongole [small clams] first thing he does when he arrives at work sample the espresso: “If you are a serious Italian restaurant, your espresso had better be perfect.” philosophy Use as few ingredients as possible in a dish. currently in his fridge at home beer, wine, giardiniera. “But we’ve also got Freschetta frozen pizza and microwave french fries. My son is 13 now.”

In our words
Mantuano’stravels have always been more culinary than cultural. “You need to see what the top chefs in the world are doing,” he reasons. That makes every meal at Spiaggia fascinating, because you taste what Mantuano brought back. He also adheres to Marcella Hazan’s dictum: “The most important ingredient in Italian cooking is the one you leave out.” Whatever Mantuano left out of his slow-roasted lamb shoulder with creamy polenta, sweet peas, sugar snap peas, and pea tendrils, it was pure genius.
–D. R. W.

Jean Joho
Everest One Financial Place, 440 S. LaSalle St.; 312-663-8920 Brasserie Jo 59 W. Hubbard St.; 312-595-0800

chicago chef jean joho
Jean Joho

In his words
age 53 hometown Barr, France his first trip to the States “The owner of Maxim’s offered me a job in 1984. I never spoke a word of English before. And I said, Why not? I like it, I stay. I don’t like it, I go back.” if he could cook with anyone Fernand Point (La Pyramide) favorite cookbook “I like old ones, like The Royal Cookery Book from 1884 by Jules Gouffe.” home dinners “My father was a successful businessman, and he entertained at home, about eight people every day. The meals lasted hours. We had a meal schedule posted every day.” philosophy “What’s good today is not good enough tomorrow.” first gourmet meal Auberge de L’Ill: “I was six. Whole black truffle baked in ash- truffe sous la cendre-and lobster Vladimir. The chef had worked for Czar Nicholas II.” last request “On her deathbed, my great-grandmother wanted foie gras and choucroute. My grandmother made it for her. She ate it, and she died. She was 98.” not-so-grand opening “Every time we were ready to open [Everest], the exhaust system broke down. Three days in a row. We had to throw everything away and start from zero.” in his fridge mustard and cheese. “And always my milk for my café au lait for the morning.”

In our words
Here’s an immigrant success story to delight red- and blue-staters alike. Joho,an Alsatian transplant, has used American ingredients for the past two decades to seduce his adopted country. “Never serve something you wouldn’t eat yourself,” he says-which might account for the sheer number of French-speaking patrons in his elegant dining room. They, and the rest of us, feast on haute-Heartland fare like a potage of sunchoke and black trumpet mushrooms, roasted ham-wrapped wild sturgeon in cabbage sauce pinot noir, apple beignets, and Sophia goat cheese from Indiana.
–D. R. W.

Charlie Trotter
Charlie Trotter’s 816 W. Armitage Ave.; 773-248-6228, Trotter’s To Go 1337 W. Fullerton Ave.; 773-868-6510

In his words
age 47 hometown Wilmette, Illinois cooking school California Culinary Academy in San Francisco: “After three months, I un-enrolled. I was restless.” what he tells high-school graduates“Go work for two years; then go to cooking school. You should be in school to learn more advanced techniques.” how he felt about college“I had nothing in common with left-wing sycophants who were down on everything, nor with the fraternity set.” colleagues at his first kitchen job (Sinclair’s in Lake Forest)Carrie Nahabedian, Suzy Crofton, Gordon Sinclair, Norman Van Aken in his fridge tea, milk, Gatorade, canned Spanish squid what he remembers from Chicago’s first review of Trotter’s (1988)“The gist of it was: Let’s see how long this place can last.” four-word culinary philosophy“Purity and provocation simultaneously.” j unior prom at The Bakery, 1976 “At the end of the meal, Chef Louis [Szathmary], a bold, intimidating man, comes out to the table and asks, ‘How’s the Champagne?’ We tell him we’re not old enough to buy Champagne. He told someone to get Champagne over here right away, opened it, and poured it. We were trembling.” last meal on earth“It would include a bottle of 1900 Château Margaux.” why his staff doesn’t want him in the dining room“They fear that I will comp every diner based on their excitement and enthusiasm.” cooking style “It’s about refining and honing and tasting-over and over and over again.”

In our words
Forget the TV Iron Chef: Trotter is the real deal. By day he trainsfor an Ironman triathlon; by night he produces sensations like a “study” of Oregon porcini mushrooms-grilled, roasted, and in a custard under red-wine-braised carrots with elephant garlic and Black Mission fig sauce. A self-described “hermit” at 19 and a cooking school dropout at 23, Trotter has risen to the top of the contemporary American restaurant scene with an uncanny ability to “intuit flavor before it happens.” He’s driven, he knows exactly where he wants to go, and lucky are the folks who’ll meet him there.
–D. R. W.

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