The day before mfk was supposed to open back in July 2014, the entire restaurant flooded.
“Chicago got a huge rainstorm and they shut off the sewers, so water was coming up from the drains, rolling in from the street,” remembers mfk co-owner Sari Zernich Worsham. “It was insane.”
Miraculously, the Spanish-inspired restaurant opened just a few days late, and to massive critical acclaim (though the Worshams had to buy new shoes for their slightly damp staff). As mfk approaches its fifth anniversary, Scott and Sari Worsham are bringing back some original dishes to mark the occasion and reflect on the journey so far.
The Worshams have plenty of restaurant experience between them, but mfk was the first time the couple struck out on their own — or, more accurately, Scott decided to strike out and convinced Sari to come along.
“Scott was always saying we have to do a restaurant, and I was too afraid to take the leap; we had one of our biggest fights of our marriage over it,” says Sari. “Then we did it, and when we opened I had the biggest ‘he told you so’ moment.”
The initial idea was inspired by travel to Spain, where the Worshams sampled fresh, ingredient-driven food from the Iberian peninsula — food that no one in Chicago seemed to get quite right.
“Seeing the more simple, basic approach to cooking, it was kind of eye opening,” Scott says.
The restaurant’s name, drawn from the initials of food writer M.F.K. Fisher, also fit right with their marriage. After moving in together, the couple set to work discarding duplicate cookbooks; Fisher’s titles were the only ones that overlapped.
“Scott asked, ‘Do you mind if we name our first restaurant after another woman?’” Sari says.
The tiny space (the restaurant is only 720 square feet) was a challenge from day one, but also a bit of a blessing in disguise. Other restaurants the Worshams previously worked in had storage space, walk-in coolers, freezers and more. mfk has none of those, relying on daily deliveries of fresh product because there’s simply no space for anything else.
“The only thing frozen at mfk is the ice,” Sari says.
Their gamble has more than paid off. They won the Jean Banchet Award for best neighborhood restaurant right out of the gate and just won the best rising chef award for their current chef, Alisha Elenz. And they’ve opened a lauded second restaurant, Bar Biscay, which serves similar cuisine in a livelier atmosphere.
Scott laughingly describes sections of the mfk menu as “curmudgeonly” – in other words, funky stuff he’s trying to get diners to love. Into this category falls its notorious (and delicious) crispy prawn heads, which he crows about getting Guy Fieri to eat on national television. Sari also gleefully recounts stories of getting people to love anchovies, often by way of some of the simpler dishes on the menu — croquettes and albondigas (meatballs) — which she calls “gateway drugs.”
For mfk’s fifth anniversary, some classic dishes from its past are coming back on the menu. Tempura-fried avocado (according to the Worshams, the trick is to use unripe avocados) is a returning favorite, as well as whole prawns with chili oil. The most labor intensive is the chicken ballotine, a sort of chicken-wrapped chicken: The whole bird is deboned, the dark meat is seasoned and pureed, then it’s wrapped in white meat before the entire thing is roasted.
The retrospective is a fitting way to celebrate a restaurant that’s long been ahead of the curve. “Five years ago, not that many people were doing octopus or whole prawns with heads,” Scott says. “Now, it seems like octopus is the kale of proteins.”
What’s next for mfk? It’s already looking ahead to its next big anniversary — and then some. “We’ve got a 20-year lease, so we plan to keep going,” Scott says.