Nicole Pederson is the rare chef who compels city dwellers to venture to the suburbs for great food. After helming kitchens at New York’s Gramercy Tavern, Chicago’s Lula Café and C-House, Nicole Pederson opened Evanston’s Found Kitchen and Social House with Amy Morton in 2012. The restaurant focuses on “American new rustic” cuisine, which the chef explains as being light yet flavor-infused (often with exotic spices), and heavy on veggie and grains. Pederson takes pride in Found’s wide-ranging menu—from gluten-free and vegan creations to the thirty-two-ounce steak served on weekends.
Amanda Rockman is a self-described “sugar pusher.” The wildly ambitious and creative pastry chef sees dessert as the unconquered frontier of cuisine. She spawned a basque cake trend in town with her signature dessert at The Bristol and now helms the pastry program at Nico Osteria. Having watched pastry talent depart Chicago during the recession as pastry’s perceived luxury pushed it out of the spotlight, Rockman is more determined than ever to get it the respect it deserves. “There’s something to be said for having over fourteen years of experience and really understanding pastry as an art form,” she says. “Myself, and chefs like me, we really love this stuff and we want to shout it from the rooftops.” We can’t think of a better cheerleader.
After leading an army of 450 chefs at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, helming the kitchen at Quartino Ristorante & Wine Bar seems downright cozy. He is the chieftain of a grand-scale charcuterie program, including a rare sausage cut entirely by hand and salumi artigianali, made from centuries-old family recipes. One sausage in the collection, Spianata Romana al punta del coltello, consists of hand-cut pork shoulder and belly blended with red wine and traditional fragrant spices from Lazio, Italy. Like so many of Coletta’s favorite recipes, these and other menu items are cherished family heirlooms. “Honor humble authentic Italian dishes and present them as they are meant to be experienced,” he says.
Master sommelier Dan Pilkey honed his chops at Addison Restaurant at The Grand Del Mar Resort and now-shuttered RIA before teaming up with chef Thomas Lents at Sixteen, where the two collaborate on everything from menu design to the inspiration behind each seasonal theme. The spring menu offers two completely different but complementary tastings, inspired by day and night. Pilkey’s wine pairings not only enhance the flavor of Lents’ food, but relay the narrative of the lunar and solar motifs. “I see Sixteen as a progression in cuisine,” Pilkey says. “Nobody else is doing what we do with menu presentation and design. Food and flavor is phenomenal but the overall experience and way we go about changing direction is very unique.”
He makes the best canelé in town and is known for his thoughtful dessert progressions. Somehow, at the end of a decadent tasting menu at Acadia, Thomas Raquel can tempt you to eat three more beautifully composed plates of sweets because he understands balance and restraint like few pastry chefs in the city. Raquel helped Acadia reclaim its Michelin star this year and was named rising pastry chef of the year at the Jean Banchet Awards.
Winner of Food & Wine’s Best New Chef of 2008 and Jean Banchet 2011 Chef of the Year, Giuseppe Tentori has cooked in some of the city’s best kitchens, including Gabriel’s of Highwood, Charlie Trotter’s and Perennial. At Boka, he earned a Michelin star and now he is a partner with Boka Restaurant Group at namesake GT Fish & Oyster, where he serves 7,000 to 8,000 oysters a week. The chef says the trick to fish is keeping the preparation simple and light, so as not to overwhelm the seafood’s natural flavor. The next conquest for Tentori is GT Prime, where the focus is on beef.
After working with Chefs Rick Tramonto and Andrew Carmellini at Tru and Café Boulud, Chris Pandel helped pioneer the nose-to-tail eating movement in Chicago at The Bristol, where offal and roast chicken with a claw sticking out were the norm. Both GQ and Esquire named The Bristol one of the best new restaurants in the country and Pandel’s second restaurant, Balena, received similar accolades from Gayot for its modern Italian cuisine. There are two more restaurants on the way for Pandel and his business partners at B. Hospitality, Italian-American Formento’s and a steakhouse, both in the West Loop.
Much of the best charcuterie in restaurants like Spiaggia, Travelle and mk might taste like it’s straight from Italy, but it’s actually made right here in Chicago. West Loop Salumi owner Gregory Laketek uses the most traditional of methods that he learned from “king of ham” Massimo Spigaroli over the course of two years in Italy to truss and cure all of his meats. His attention to detail and perseverance in the face of bureaucracy led him to open Illinois’ only USDA-certified salumeria, bringing meat lovers in Chicago culatello, salama da sugo and more delicacies.
Self-described master tea blender Rodrick Markus has created a sensation in his mad scientist-like Rare Tea Cellar warehouse in Ravenswood with his more than 400 rare blends of teas and other unusual imported products. Where else can you find bourbon-barrel-smoked sugar? Dried peels of lemon grown from ancient heirloom seeds? “Since I was a child, I have always been on the hunt for the rare and unusual,” Markus says. He’s been importing tea for more than twenty years, searching the globe for single estate, biodynamic-organic and vintage varietals rarely found even in the country of origin. A single pot can fetch as much as $400. “I found the need to take tea blending to another level,” he says. He has.
When Paul McGee makes you a bourbon drink, he wants you to taste the bourbon. He won’t force anything on a spirit and says he prefers the less is more approach. At the same time, he’s willing to experiment, riffing on classics by substituting spirits, or using different bitters and sweeteners. Previously the head bartender for the Whistler, McGee is currently invested in many projects, including Bub City and the Tiki bar where he’s a partner and guiding light, Three Dots and a Dash.