By David Hammond
For Chef Jon Keeley of Gemini Bistro (2075 North Lincoln), comfort food “warms the heart. When you take that first bite, you’re instantly transported back to a time of good memories. When you’re done eating, you have that feeling of ‘Wow, that’s good for the soul (and now it’s time for a nap).’ Comfort food for me takes you home. It transports you to a different time and place. You close your eyes and just fall back.”
Comfort food is often high in carbohydrates, so it’s not surprising that Keeley’s favorite comfort food is “Pasta, pasta, pasta—any way you can put it in front of me.”
Keeley’s Gemini Bistro, which for the past three years has received Michelin Bib Gourmand recognition, serves from a big menu that includes several pasta-based dishes.
Perhaps predictably, this penchant for pasta began when Keeley was a child. As is the case with so many chefs, grandmother was a huge influence. “Growing up with Carmela, my Italian grandmother, the first foods I learned to cook were spaghetti and meatballs. I can remember standing on a step stool in my grandmother’s kitchen stirring a big pot of Bolognese. She was very much a home cook and a huge inspiration. For a long time, we lived above my grandparents. We’d smell the food coming from downstairs, and we’d just run to get the food. She would do a lot of lasagna and braises.”
Grandmothers have been undeniably important to the culinary education of many chefs. Perhaps that’s because mothers now so frequently go outside the home to find employment, leaving grandmother home to cook. Or maybe it’s because grandmothers generally have more time for cooking and kids. Or maybe grandmothers are just the best cooks in the house because they’ve been doing it longer.
“Bless my mother’s heart,” confesses Keeley, “but my mother is a horrible cook. She couldn’t cook for a lick. When I was young, she made tuna noodle casserole. It made the house smell like canned tuna and everyone ran. To this day, every time I open a can of tuna, it transports me back to tuna noodle casserole.”
As we’ve seen before in this series, just as there are comfort foods, there are discomfort foods—strangely, for Keeley, his most comforting food, pasta, becomes (with the addition of canned tuna), his most discomforting food. “You will never see tuna casserole on our menu at Gemini Bistro,” he assures, and I believe I actually detected a nervous quiver in his voice as he made that vow.
“I love pasta, though,” says Keeley, “because it brought me and my grandmother together. It’s so quick and easy, yet so delicate and delicious. To make it, you need just two things: water and pasta.
“My grandmother also impressed upon me the importance of fresh ingredients,” says Keeley. “She used to grow tomatoes. We never used canned tomatoes, and we’d never buy canned parmesan; it was always fresh grated. It’s from my grandmother that I learned the importance of fresh ingredients. Now, at my restaurant, I work a lot with local farmers. I want to give my customers the same freshness that my Nana gave me.”
Spending time cooking with his grandmother left a lifelong impression on Keeley, and building on the knowledge he acquired while cooking with her, he started cooking on his own. And when he made his own food, it was often simply pasta. “Brown butter, cheese and noodles,” remembers Keeley, “to this day, that’s still my favorite way to eat pasta. Coming home from school as a kid I would make this pasta as an afternoon snack. These days, after I get off of a long shift, I make this simple dish at home and I’m instantly relaxed.” As a result of this early imprinting with pasta, Keeley tells us that “pasta has always been a part of my repertoire.”
At Gemini Bistro, he’s currently serving Chitarra Vongole, saying “This hand-cut semolina pasta is a labor of love, and I enjoy teaching my team how to make it using old-world techniques that they may otherwise not be able to do at home without the correct equipment.”
Jon Keely’s Recipe for Chitarra Vongole
Serves six to eight
3 c. “00” flour
1 c. semolina flour
6 whole eggs
4 egg yolks
2 tsp. salt
1½ tsp. extra virgin olive oil
Mix all wet ingredients and add into the dry ingredients. Knead until you get a solid dough ball, and let it rest for three hours. Then roll out dough and cut it into thin strips. Just before adding to sauce, put pasta into boiling water and cook until al dente.
2 tbsp. chopped garlic
3 tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
4 oz. diced guanciale
1 c. diced leeks
30 Manila clams
2 c. white wine
4 c. clam juice
2 c. chopped clams
1 tbsp. lemon juice
3 oz. butter
Sauté garlic and guanciale in oil until the guanciale is crispy. Add leeks and cook until soft. Add Manila clams, deglaze with white wine and cover. Steam clams until they open and release their natural juices. After the alcohol is cooked off, add clam juice, chopped clams and pasta. Finish with whole butter and lemon juice, add crispy garlic chips. Toss with pasta.