The man who broke the mold at Intro, becoming the first permanent chef at Rich Melman’s ode to up-and-coming culinary talent, is bringing his talents to Pilsen. In August, Stephen Gillanders (who is also a Jean-Georges alum) will open the 80-seat S.K.Y. (1239 W. 18th St.), offering dinner, weekend brunch, and (in the future) weekday lunch. He’ll also finish his tenure as a Lettuce Entertain You partner to focus on S.K.Y.
Earlier this week, Chicago chatted up Gillanders. Here’s what the Los Angeles native has cooking.
When you took the job at Intro, you mentioned you were putting plans to return to L.A. and open a restaurant on hold. Are those plans permanently held?
I was supposed to open S.K.Y. in L.A. I was using Intro as an opportunity to market and refine the concept. A month and a half in [at Intro], Rich offered me the opportunity to be a Lettuce partner. My wife and I decided it would be foolish not to accept: He is the most prolific restaurateur in the country. We decided we love Chicago, and things started to fall into place. We became Chicagoans very very quickly. The cost of living and operating a business in Illinois is better [than in L.A.].
Tell us about the space.
It’s across from Dusek’s. It was a clinic, and there was some weird stuff in there. Children’s wallpaper on a wall where the kitchen is going to be. Three old organs; my wife refurbished one to be a service station in the restaurant.
S.K.Y. are my wife’s [Seon Kyung Yuk] initials, and she is designing the space. Her brother is a fashion designer in Milan. I really traded up on this [marriage]. She is responsible for all the aesthetics—the servers’ uniforms, the brand of the restaurant. She wants to capture a simplistic, clean, uncluttered aesthetic, and also pay homage to the neighborhood.
We’ve read that your food is inspired by your travels through Europe and Asia, but how exactly do you describe your cooking style?
I’m still looking for those magic two sentences to describe the food. Other chefs have developed reputations. Jean-Georges has his own style. Grant Achatz has a style. Stephen Gillanders–style food? What is that?
There will be Asian influences coming in from my wife’s side and my mother [who is Filipino]. I have traveled Asia extensively. The food is so robust and unique, and I want to make that into a refined style.
OK, so what will be on the menu?
I introduced 103 dishes at Intro. My hamachi sashimi became a huge signature dish, and never left the menu. My Mediterranean sea bass was a showstopper, too. Those will both be on the menu. My mentor, Greg Brainin [Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s right-hand man] said, ‘Take your best 18 dishes for your menu.’
It will be broken into three columns: one for convivial, share-type plates, the other two more geared toward one person. Calamari is obviously a shared plate, but a soup is clearly for one person. But people can share whatever they want. I will cook without rules and provide as many options as possible.
There will be three or four desserts—banana budino, cheesecake brûlée—all made in house. A few things that are great, instead of many that are merely good. As Coco Chanel said, “When you think you are ready to go out, take off one article of clothing." We will probably take off one dish from each category right before we open.