The James Beard Awards’ main event doesn’t happen until May 2, but the pomp and circumstance that comes along with hosting the glitzy gala arrives in our fair city next week with James Beard Eats Week.
At Eataly (43 E. Ohio St., River North), executive chef Rob Wing has opted to go above and beyond Eats Week expectations (offering a special dish or three inspired by Beard’s cookery) and dedicate a whole darn restaurant—a 75-seat pop-up in Eataly’s newest event space—to the culinary legend. J.B., as he’s dubbing it, will open for lunch and dinner April 22 to 24 and April 29 to May 1. Should you score a reservation, here’s what to expect, according to Wing.
How did James Beard become such a big deal in the culinary world?
I think a lot of it is because he was the first to talk about local farms and local ingredients and letting those ingredients shine through without doing too much to them. He loved good, honest cooking and straightforward flavors. He was the inspiration for my generation of chefs. (Ed note: This guy is in his early 30s.)
What is your story? How did you end up at Eataly?
After attending college in Detroit, I went to Las Vegas and worked for Joël Robuchon for two years. After that, I lived and cooked in Asia and Europe for seven years. In 2013, I went to an open recruiting process for Eataly. I was hired as sous chef for Baffo and moved here two-and-a-half years ago. Now as executive chef, I put the standards in place for each of Eataly’s Chicago restaurants.
Creating the J.B. menu was kind of an awesome responsibility. How did you go about it?
That was the fun part. I went through a bunch of his books and recipes to find ideas that both were true to JB and would be in line with what we do at Eataly—since we are bound to get people who stumble in and have never heard of James Beard.
What will be the format of the meal?
There will be around 20 items, all à la carte. We’ll offer four courses: starters ($8 to $12), fish ($15 to $19), meat ($15 to $23), and desserts ($8 to $11).
Which dishes would you recommend for the ideal four-courser?
A warm seafood and rice salad (poached seafood, dill, and tomato vinaigrette) to start. Then I would probably say the grilled stuffed sea bass, which is something that we do [at Eataly] as well. We are stuffing it with onions, mushrooms, tomatoes, and parsley. The vegetables are put in raw so they cook along with the fish. Next, the pork chop stuffed with mushrooms and bacon and pan-fried. For dessert, a slice of pecan pie.
Whoa. And what if one wanted a lighter meal?
Then I’d go grilled asparagus salad with fried eggs and grated parmesan; spaghetti with clams; and chicken thighs with saffron rice and roasted tomatoes. A lot of the desserts are stick-to-your-ribs, so probably the chocolate mousse to finish. It all sounds really ambitious.
What inspired you to take this on?
We are trying to reach a wider audience to get the message of James Beard across. A lot of people don’t realize the reason we have farmers’ markets and a lot of passionate food people around is because we had James Beard.