Amid a revision of its menu and philosophy, and a light face-lift, Balsan (Waldorf Astoria, 11 E. Walton St., 312-646-1400) named Michael Vaughn, a Chicago-area native and five-year Waldorf veteran, as its executive chef. Here’s what our introductions were like (condensed and edited):
Welcome back to Chicago. When did you get into cooking?
At the end of my sophomore year, my best friend’s parents opened a restaurant, kind of a ’50s-style diner. They gave all of us high-school kids summer jobs. We wore paper hats and bow ties and made shakes and root beer floats. I never thought of cooking as a career, but I was always around it. We might have stuffed chicken on a weeknight. Homemade biscuits, pies, cakes, croissants. Butterhorn rolls from scratch. On New Year’s Eve, Dad made pancakes at midnight.
What will change at Balsan under the new regime?
It was kind of a French influence, French bistro-esque. It’s going to be more of an American brasserie. Local ingredients, getting back to the roots of Chicago and the states surrounding: Amish chicken, wild rice, the real deal.
What’s an example dish?
We will have a Waldorf burger, a combo of chuck, short rib, brisket, and prime rib—a special blend that we will house-grind and form—with a Gruyère cheese and chives bun. We want to be known for the burger trend. We’re coming on at the back end of it, but we want to be known for that Waldorf burger.
We will have a beautiful raw bar—we brought it back. We will have high-end caviars and things. A secret menu, if you are in the know. You can sit at the raw bar and ask for that special caviar.
What else will distinguish Balsan?
Of course we will have a Waldorf salad, but instead of grapes, here in Chicago, we will have fresh cherries. Chicagoans love cherries. Also instead of a mayonnaise-based dressing, we’ll use a yogurt base. We’re making it healthier and making it Chicago.