By Lisa Shames
If Charlie Trotter is the Chicago fine-dining scene’s Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, then Michael Carlson, chef and owner of Wicker Park’s Schwa, is probably its Johnny Rotten. Like the Sex Pistols lead singer, Carlson is unconventional, a culinary contrarian.
Call up Schwa during the day and Carlson might just be taking your reservation. That is, if you’re lucky enough to snag a res for the twenty-six-seat spot, which is currently booked two months out. If you are, Carlson will probably also play waiter and deliver a course or two to your table, and at the end of the night, you’ll find him cleaning up with the rest of his small staff.
Is this any way for an award-winning chef—Carlson was one of Food & Wine magazine’s Best New Chefs 2006 and Schwa was named best new restaurant by Newcity in 2006—to act? Well, if you’re Carlson it is, and that laid-back attitude coupled with a total hands-on approach is just as much a part of the draw of this Wicker Park eatery as is its quail-egg ravioli with Parmigiano Reggiano (more on that later).
Oh, did we mention the hip-hop music, the closed-on-Saturday policy (Carlson closed Schwa on lucrative Saturday nights from January to March to spend more time with family), the bathroom accessible only through the kitchen and the lack of wine glasses? “We’re a bring-your-own [alcohol establishment] which can help or hinder your cause depending on your attitude towards it,” Carlson says.
Year-and-a-half–old Schwa is way more than just a quirky dining option. Carlson’s serious about his food. His unique approach is less about sticking it to the man and more about running a restaurant on an indie-rock budget. He says, “We have a lot of little quirks that people are bothered by, but we don’t do it intentionally. That’s just the way we have to do it. Like we’re bad about answering the phones. We get about a hundred phone calls a day and we do cook and run the kitchen every day and we’re trying to keep up on it.”
Carlson is a big fan of the progressive restaurant movement of chefs such as Grant Achatz of Alinea and Homaru Cantu of Moto. He considers himself part of that breed, saying “We’re on the ground floor of it and who knows where it’s going to go from there.” This style shows up prominently in dishes like Carlson’s cardamon-dusted marshmallow skewered by a dehydrated carrot chip.
Carlson has the experience to run with the culinary alchemists, having worked with England’s Heston Blumenthal at the Fat Duck and Achatz at Trio. Yet he also has his feet firmly planted in the traditional style of straightforward Italian cuisine, influenced by his time spent at Chicago’s Spiaggia with chef Paul Bartolotta, and in restaurants in Italy. It’s this combination of culinary techniques from two opposite sides of the spectrum that’s getting Schwa’s food noticed.
While Schwa’s three-course and nine-course menus change—look for an oysters and oatmeal dish to make an appearance soon (“It sounds weird, but they really go together well,” Carlson says)—one ingredient is a given: fat. “Fat carries flavor really well,” he says. Which brings us back to those popular ravioli that have been on the menu since day one. “What isn’t there to like about it?” he says. “It’s butter, eggs and great cheese. It’s basically fat on fat on fat.”
With all the attention it’s received, some have predicted that Schwa might trade in some of its funky charm for the big bucks in the not-so-distant future. And while Carlson does admit that they have had some offers, he has no plans to sell out. “Ideally, we would like it if we could find a bigger space. But to be able to do it ourselves, so we would be able to stay with what we have here because we are happy doing it.” He adds, “We are working like a hundred hours [a week] and it doesn’t feel like anything.”
Indeed, while working hundred-hour weeks, Carlson doesn’t have a lot of time to get out, but when he does, he says his essential Chicago restaurants include Argyle Street’s Ba Le French Bakery, the late-night Korean bbq joint San Soo Gap San and Alinea, “My favorite restaurant for sure.”
Schwa, 1466 North Ashland, (773)252-1466