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Hungry Magazine - All Things Tasty
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11.06.08

The Itinerants

Bites: News and Miscellany


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paskewitz

Geno Bahena (pictured above at right), Eric Aubriot, Daniel Kelly, and Jason Paskewitz (pictured above at left). They’re some of Chicago’s most talented chefs, so why do they move around so much?

When I was a kid, I would drift off into fantasies of the future. Impatiently, I imagined myself married, living in a far-off arbitrary city, picking names for my twin children, and lapping up the joys of my day-to-day job as a marine biologist. The security and the routine of this desirously long-term life made me eager to grow up fast. Who wouldn’t want stability? To settle down and nest with the spouse and the bundle of joy? To rake in steady streams of dough from graduation day until retirement? Awakened from my blissfully youthful dream by the bitter slap of reality, it didn’t take much genius to figure out that life isn’t all money trees and dreamland jobs. And perhaps no one knows this lesson better than the prominent group of the Chicago chef elite.

It seems like every new Chicago dawn brings a shuffling within the city’s restaurant domain. With new eating establishments sprouting up faster than adopted children in the Jolie-Pitt clan, the kitchen hierarchy has to be filled by someone. We’ve all familiarized ourselves over the years with Charlie Trotter, Grant Achatz, Gale Gand, and Rick Bayless, renown for their marriage-like devotion to their destination restaurants. But, for every long-standing dining institution capped off by the famed head toque, there’s a handful of new spots that always seemed to be helmed by a small but talented roster of familiar chefs.

Some of these chefs, restless to quench their thirst for knowledge and new challenges, have built themselves a reputation for bouncing around from kitchen to kitchen, playing a game of culinary musical chairs. These are the folks with resumes as lengthy as literature, with an urge for movement, and with a tempting hunger to test themselves at someplace new. While this may not be every chef’s cup of tea, for a select group here in the city, the buoyant act of kitchen-hopping really puts the sugar in their cup.

I wondered what is it that makes their inner oven timers tick? As someone intent on familiarity and knowing what’s next, I was fascinated to unsheathe the driving force behind this subculture of mobile chefs.

The first gent I spoke with goes by the name Daniel Kelly. In name and in voice, this is a guy who oozes the suavity of James Bond. His shimmering resume depicts a chef aiming for the top and for years-long stability, while his travel log of a kitchen itinerary exhibits his yearn for control over the whole restaurant package. These days he’s looking to cook what he wants, cater to what his customers crave, and manage the financial behind-the-scenes of the business.

He started out on the line in the Hyatt kitchens and finagled his way, through learning and labor, up to the top tier of the ladder. His spent 11 years at the Hyatt before the pangs for his own endeavor sent him packing.

He moved to do his own thing, opening D. Kelly on Randolph St. a few years ago, landing in the gut of what is now restaurant row. He devoted all of himself to this project, and would have stayed for the long haul had it worked out, but the competition got too steep (thanks a lot, Avec) and there wasn’t enough money to float on.

From here, Mr. Kelly was off to Avenue M, where he crafted New American dishes like lobster-stuffed chicken breast and house-made pastas topped with veal ragout. This time again, money was the dam in his creek. “I would have liked for it to work out,” he says, “but they just couldn’t pay me.” Chef Kelly admits to the notion that the ravaged economy is affecting the restaurant industry as a whole and played a large part in his past job departures. He sees a ray of hope for a place with room for growth however. “The restaurant industry was the first to get hit by the crisis and it’ll be the first to bounce back.”

Next on my list of culinary movers and shakers was Eric Aubriot. He’s opened restaurants of his own, including Aubriot and Fuse, headed the kitchen as executive chef at Alhambra Palace and Il Fiasco, and most recently, served as co-owner of Taste Food & Wine in Rogers Park. Mr. Aubriot knows a thing or two about the industry and the forces at work shuffling him from place to place: “When you’re young, you want to move around to learn the fullest and the fastest,” he says, crediting his early kitchen-hopping years to his eager mind for knowledge. But as chefs get older, he says, it’s important to find a place that’ll keep you employed for the long-term. It’s now crucial for him to find a place not only where the money is at, the undeniable bottom line, but to find one where everything matches and he really fits.

Chef Aubriot understands the dire truth of the sore market, confessing that “the executive chef at a business is usually the highest paid employee. Because of this, we’re usually the first to be let go. Because you’re not gonna let go of people who do the everyday work.” As a reflection of the national dining scene, the grim Chicago market is the catalyst for Chef Aubriot’s travels.

Speaking of his latest venture, Taste Food & Wine, he explains that “I sold my share in Taste because I needed the money. None of us were actually taking a salary. I’m not thrilled about it, but when push came to shove, it had to be done.” So what’s he doing now as he faces the reality of the economy’s crimson tide? And are there any burgeoning restaurant prospects on the horizon? “Right now, I’m just hanging out and taking a step back,” he says. “You’d have to either be crazy or stupid to open a restaurant right now. I’m just waiting.”

If your idea of Mexican food is a screaming platter of fajita meat or the deep-fried artery-destroyer known as the chimichanga, then you must not be familiar with Chef Geno Bahena, the prince of regional Mexican and killer mole sauce. If Chef Geno’s cuisine seems similar to the divinely authentic fare from Topolobombo, it’s because Bahena apprenticed under Rick Bayless for 12 ½ years, a life-changing experience to which he credits his formation as a chef.

Unlike Bayless, however, he wasn’t content with nesting in River North, and by the time he had positioned himself as Bayless’ right hand man, Geno yearned for more. “I wanted to work as a corporate chef,” he says. He also describes his restaurant kitchen-hopping as city-wide missionary work. “I want Mexican food to succeed like fine Italian and French. It should be able to stand up (on its own) as really good dishes.”

He had his first restaurant, Ixcapuzalco, for five years before ceding ownership to his brother so that he could venture further into Chicago’s culinary pantheon. Chilpancingo opened downtown followed by Generoso’s, before job hunters wooed him and whisked him away to California. He says that “by this point, I was exposed to magazines and press. I became a chef partner in a state-of-the-art restaurant in California.”

Now, he adds, “Mr. (Rich) Melman (Lettuce Entertain You) hired me to consult for his restaurants. I also helped to open Tepatulco, and now I’ve opened Real Tenochtitlan.” In addition to his patronage across the city, Geno has been able to migrate around from place to place, even state to state and country to country, contributing to restaurants in Europe and Texas. He sees his travels and his new challenges, such as his latest hurdles of jarring and selling his mole sauces for worldwide wholesale and publishing his 18-years-in-the-making cookbook of Mexican specialties, as gifts for the dining community borne from his willingness to try new things. Each new restaurant, publication, and contribution is a success to him if it means one less person, when hungering for Mexican, thinks Chili’s.

Jason Paskewitz, a man with a plan on the hunt for success, was the cherry on my shortlist sundae of Chicago’s famed kitchen-hoppers. He’s also the chef with perhaps the lengthiest of resumes, with durable stays working in the kitchens of such places as Wave, SushiSamba Rio, and the Pump Room. In addition, he’s consulted on menus for Five Star Bar, Plan B Bar & Kitchen, and the 621 Diner in Lombard. Not to mention his dabbling in ownership both past, at JP Chicago, and future, at long-awaited Jackson Park Bar & Grill.

It was a curiosity to learn that drove him to bop around in his youth. He says “the biggest drive when you’re young is to learn as much as you can. Moving to different places really helps this and it’s the best way to go about it.” He also praises his personality as a motivating factor in his movement. “Some people can do it,” he says, describing chefs with the patience to stick out a lifelong career in one kitchen. “But I need change. I can’t stay in lockdown.”

Now that he’s older and has gotten the youthful learning under his belt, he gets his informational kicks in other places. Consulting and developing menus is the best way for him to learn today, paving the way and providing the resources for him to open his own restaurant. This raises the topic of his anticipated and much-discussed Jackson Park Bar & Grill, currently on the verge of exiting restaurant limbo and diving into the hysteria of the foodie media. “With Jackson Park, as with any ownership, you feel tied to it as a fixed and permanent part. So much more is at stake and I hope for the best.”

As I often wondered as a child and through my teenage years of wisdom, who wouldn’t want the stability of a week’s routine, the safety and love of family, and the comforting notion of a reliable pay check? Apparently, not everyone wafts off to Never Never Land like me, because, as proven by the likes of the aforementioned chefs, some people are just hungry for more. The economy, that big purple elephant in everyone’s room, certainly plays a part in the act of kitchen-hopping, but it’s the quest for knowledge, the want for teaching, and the desire for total-package control that drives these guys.

2 Comments on "The Itinerants"

David

I HAVE NEVER LOVED HIS FOOD….ITS LIKE POOR QUALITY FAST MEXICAN FOOD. I THINK HE IS RUNNING FROM SOMETHING.



anonymous

unfortunately, this is the fate for many chefs. weird circumstances, economy, tempramental owners can also be the cause with chefs moving. with the chefs aforementioned though, i also think that the name preceeds the actual talent or business knowhow. aubriot is talented and different from these. but lack of business smarts or a chef who, just admit it, just isn’t that different or talented keeps getting jobs and exposure because they have been constantly pressed or there is some name familiarity. so it turns into a vicious cycle. the press can help by not focusing on the same names, hoping that one of these places will stick with these chefs. instead the press should be hungry for the up and coming talent. the lesser names. the ones who aren’t in every publication we pick up. we just need to look harder. jp, yawn. aubriot, yawn. geno, yawn. bring us someone else please!!



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