The Aces

> The Aces Six talented restaurant veterans who have found their niche, and nailed it

Paul Virant
Vie 4471 Lawn Ave., Western Springs; 708-246-2082

chicago chef paul virant
Paul Virant

In his words
age
36 hometownSt. Louis cooking school Culinary Institute of America (Hyde Park, New York) every cook should own On Food and Cooking, by Harold McGee ten years ago He was Ambria’s saucier. i n ten years “Hopefully still here at Vie.” first gourmet meal “I was 16, and it was an evening with a girlfriend and her parents. I had tournedos of beef wrapped in bacon with a bordelaise sauce. It was so intimidating.” biggest laugh“A chef who shall remain nameless was operating an electric meat slicer, and he was having a difficult time slicing. Because it wasn’t on.” most memorable meal Blackbird, 2002: “It was the first date with my wife after our first son was born. It seemed like an eternity since we had gone out, and I ordered two entrées. My wife was appalled.” last meal on earthImo’s Pizza and Ted Drewe’s frozen custard in St. Louis, with his kids definition of success“Feeling good about what you do and money in the bank.” why his wife refuses to buy pickles“She said, ‘You have a whole storage room full of pickles that you made. Can’t you bring those home?’”

In our words
Like any chef worth his whites, Virantis a dabbler. He loves to make his own preserves and breads, and he’d pickle his own mom if he thought she’d make a decent dish. OK, that’s a slight exaggeration, but the kitchen at Vie is certainly his playground, and somehow everything that comes out those doors is a fully realized creation. And for a man with no Italian blood, Virant makes absurdly good gnocchi—spotlighting guanciale, fresh tomato, sweet onions, hot peppers, and Parmigiano-Reggiano.
–J. R.

Paul Kahan
Blackbird 619 W. Randolph St.; 312-715-0708 Avec 615 W. Randolph St.; 312-377-2002

In his words
age
43 hometownSkokie, Illinois early influenceAlice Waters as a kid “I would pull out the cookbook when my mom went out. She’d come home and find bread on the counter.” his dad’s old deli “I was always there, sneaking scraps of meat from the crockpot.” glamour of the business “Yesterday, I was lying on the basement floor, scraping grease and sewage out of the injector pump.” blackbird space, pre-blackbird“It was covered with blotches of paint. The guy who owned it played paintball.” inspiration “I don’t thrive on finding different ways of doing things. I thrive on going to the market and seeing a giant golden beet.” the future “Maybe we will do a few more Avecs.” the joys of blackmail “When I was growing up, my brother tortured me. One day he gave me a swirly, and the guy who held up the [toilet] seat was named Donald Robinson. Today, Donald is an accomplished tile guy, so when we were building Blackbird, I said, ‘Donald, you owe me. You held the seat up.’” in his fridge soy milk, cheese, beer, Kalles (Swedish caviar in a tube) his 50th birthday “I’d be happy grilling pizzas with my wife.”

In our words
Kahan is a textbook minimalist, making original American food using pared-down classical technique to enhance pristine products. His Blackbird kitchen is a kitchen, with nary a vessel of liquid nitrogen in sight. You won’t find foam on his mussel and whitefish soup, just a careful application of saffron, garlic, and basil. You’ll find robust meats like seared venison loin, suckling pig, and sweetbreads. And next door at Avec, he and chef Koren Grieveson go even more minimalist, with small plates of whipped brandade, pâté with caraway mustard, and salumi of all sorts. How refreshing.
–D. R. W.

Jun Ichikawa
Japonais 600 W. Chicago Ave.; 312-822-9600 Mirai Sushi 2020 W. Division St.; 773-862-8500

In his words
age
35 hometown Tochigi Prefecture, Japan age he knew he would be a chef seven: “Most of the men in my family were sushi chefs.” most memorable meal “I comefrom a poor family, so I remember celebrating birthdays at the local noodle shop.” last meal on earthsushi: “I would make it myself.” why Japonais is a great concept “Two executive chefs and two kitchens mean the customers receive the best of both sides.” in his fridge sushi rice, eggs, sliced pork fun with crustaceans “We used to have a tank at Mirai with spiny lobster. When I cut off one of the lobster’s claws it still crawled across the sushi counter. A woman left, screaming.” how he got her to return “We used it to make a sweet miso for her later.” philosophy “Always remember who you are cooking for: the customers.”

In our words
Ichikawa is on a sushi roll: he’s executive sushi chef at two of Chicago’s best Japanese restaurants and a partner overseeing the sushi chefs heading up new Japonais locations in Las Vegas and New York. Seems as if nothing can stop him; even Chicago aldermen can’t keep him from giving his customers monkfish “foie gras” wrapped with octopus and served with house-made ponzu sauce. A waiter nicely summed up what makes Ichikawa run: “He’s a maniac about his sushi.”
–D. R. W.

Shawn McClain
Spring 2039 W. North Ave.; 773-395-7100 Green Zebra 1460 W. Chicago Ave.; 312-243-7100 Custom House 500 S. Dearborn St.; 312-523-0200

shawn mcclain, chicago chef
Shawn McClain

In his words
age
39 birthplace San Diego how he landed in Chicago “I came here to go to Kendall College [School of Culinary Arts].” why he’ll end up in motown “My fiancée is from a suburb of Detroit. I’m trying to size up the market.” definition of success smiling 95 percent of the day first gourmet meal The Celestial Steakhouse in Cincinnati: “I was ten. I had a filet with Béarnaise sauce.” mom’s cooking style “She always talked about how she hated to buy a whole bottle of lemon juice for one teaspoon. We went out a lot.” most memorable meals El Bulli, 2005; Daniel, 1996 philosophy “Don’t worry about rules.” dish that bombed roasted squab with foie gras, smoked pear, risotto, and ginger-beet reduction at Trio: “We couldn’t give it away.” best practical jokes “When an employee leaves, we’ve been known to hook giant fish heads onto their car bumper or freeze their keys in a big block of ice.” chef he’d kill to cook with Nobu Matsuhisa last meal on earth “It would definitely involve french fries.”

In our words
McClain started out as a dishwasher in college. Today he pumps loads of imagination into his three contemporary American restaurants, the first featuring seafood, the second vegetables, and the third meats. Go to Spring for seared scallops in sliced potato “ravioli” with mushroom–black-truffle reduction. Hit Green Zebra for grilled trumpet royale mushrooms with roasted white corn polenta and herb vinaigrette. And go to Custom House for dry-aged New York strip steaks and braised veal cheeks with tomato-anchovy preserves. That about covers it all.
–D. R. W.

Carrie Nahabedian
Naha 500 N. Clark St.; 312-321-6242

In his words
age
48 hometown Morton Grove, Illinois ten years ago She was at the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills. in ten years “I want to help friends open restaurants.” why she adores Charlie Trotter “The day before Naha opened, he told me to meet him at his restaurant at 7 o’clock. I was freaking out, but I went. Alain Ducasse was there. We ate dinner and talked about food and wine in France for five hours. And Charlie cooked for us.” last meal on earth Greek chicken with friends and family philosophy “Start with the best quality you can afford, and you will never ruin it unless you overseason or burn it.” in her fridge skim milk, slab bacon, wine (“I don’t know where else to put it.”) inspiration “I try to go every year to two places I’ve never been before.” daily ritual writing menus in the walk-in cooler definition of success“Being able to enjoy success is the best reason for achieving it. That’s from a Four Seasons matchbook cover.”

In our words
Nahabediangot accepted at the Culinary Institute of America in 1976, and promptly turned the school down, opting instead to learn in restaurant kitchens with Norman Van Aken and Jean Banchet. Thirty years later, she has arrived. Naha’s chic vibe and contemporary sensibility are pure Nahabedian, and her signature dish—braised osso buco with shaved fennel, Gala apples, confit goose potatoes, and a rosemary- and orange-scented jus—proves she learned her lessons just fine. “And I saved my dad $50,000,” she says.
–J. R.

Bruce Sherman
North Pond 2610 N. Cannon Dr.; 773-477-5845

chicago chef bruce sherman
Bruce Sherman

In his words
age
45 hometown Chicago unlikeliest Alma mater London School of Economics most exotic place he ever lived “My wife was employed in New Delhi, and I was there as a dependent spouse. I highly recommend that.” while he was there taught Rajasthani villagers to cook Western food before India owned a catering company in the Washington, D.C. area favorite cookbook Larousse Gastronomique childhood birthday dinners“It was always a tossup between braised lamb shanks and potato-stuffed veal breast.” in his fridge real French Dijon mustard, organic milk, organic yogurt last meal on earth “A greasy cheeseburger with french fries.” one child-rearing advantage for chefs “My wife can cook something good and the kids say they don’t like it. I cook the same thing and they’ll eat it up.”

In our words
Sherman has a dry sense of humor, even about the waterside location of his Lincoln Park restaurant—he serves thyme-basted frog legs in creamed corn soup with grilled corn relish. (He’s a founding member of Chicago’s Green City Market, so the amphibians obviously come from somewhere better than the pond.) He’s also not afraid to stick to his guns: there’s always an egg dish on North Pond’s menu—not the most popular American dinner item, he admits—like a soft-boiled farm hen egg on creamy grits with Walla Walla onion-parsley coulis and bacon salad. No one seems to be complaining.
–D. R. W.

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