Co-founder and CEO, Tamale Spaceship
Starting out in 1991 as a dishwasher at Ed Debevic’s, Manny Hernandez now operates one of the oldest running food trucks in Chicago. His Tamale Spaceship is a sci-fi-inspired traveling chow zone that doles out innovative tamales served by chefs in (somewhat frightening) Mexican wrestling masks. This eye-catching food truck broke the ice in Chicago for similar trucks back when the trend was just beginning. And after four years building up funds, Hernandez was able to launch the first Tamale Spaceship storefront in Wicker Park. While the Mexico City native is quick to shrug off any American Dream label, he will say this: “I think my role is to say, ‘Yes, it can be done.’ You can play with the big boys without having a big budget.”
Founder and CEO, Protein Bar
Matt Matros’ health-conscious, fast-casual restaurant Protein Bar has grown from one store in 2009 to what are now thirteen Chicago-area locations and seven more across the country. “We are setting the standard for Chicagoans seeking the food they need to live their lives,” he says of Protein Bar’s success. Currently Matros explores wellness trends across the globe to expand upon Chicago’s healthy dining options. He also looks to bring something new to the table: “Chicago has room for a social enterprise restaurant. A restaurant that plows 100 percent of profits back into the community it serves.” Should be interesting.
Chef and Owner, Belly Shack, bellyQ, Urbanbelly
“Accessible, flavorful and affordable food.” That’s how Bill Kim describes his restaurants, and the fine-dining-turned-casual chef couldn’t have put it better. Chicagoans and visitors line up for his dumplings and fish cakes, and Kim works to be as accessible as his restaurants. His new blog, for example, takes readers behind the scenes of his kitchen. “It’s about letting people into our environment,” Kim says. He also wants to highlight his lesser-known staff, like the woman who has been making his dumplings every day, forty hours a week, for four years. Tack on Ramenfest 2015 and the relaunch of Belly sauces designed to “enable the home cook to replicate restaurant dishes,” and Kim seems a chef of the people.
Robert and Sonat Birnecker
Founders and Owners, Koval Distillery
Koval was Chicago’s first distillery in over 100 years, making founders Robert and Sonat Birnecker the leading lights of Chicago’s craft spirits scene. It took a while to get Koval off the ground: aside from the legal impediments, the Birneckers were committed to keeping the distillery fully organic, kosher and, to whatever extent possible, local. Now Koval produces a wider variety of spirits than any other distillery in Chicago. Unlike some, they actually mash and distill on-site. “From the beginning, we’ve been grain to bottle,” says Sonat proudly. The Birneckers have had a huge impact on distilling nationwide: through their consulting efforts, they’ve helped set up more than one-third of new generation craft distilleries in America.
Co-founder and Co-owner, North Shore Distillery
North Shore Distillery leads Chicago’s new wave of distilleries. In 2004, along with husband Derek, Sonja Kassebaum was one of the first craft distillers in Illinois; her efforts to reform the state’s production and labeling laws are one of the reasons we find such amazing local spirits on local liquor store shelves. North Shore Distillery produces award-winning vodka, gin, absinthe and aquavit, stocked by every great bar in Chicago, and they annually release a limited-edition spirit that’s always met with roars of praise from booze geeks. Kassebaum’s talents extend to mixology: the distillery boasts a tiny boutique cocktail lounge, a must-visit on any trip to the northern suburbs.
Founder and Director, Cicerone Certification Program
Ray Daniels has been suds-ing up Chicago’s beer scene for decades, but it wasn’t until recently that the beer scene finally caught up with the visionary. In the mid-nineties, Daniels wrote a book about beer; a year or so later, he was preparing to open a brewery, but the timing wasn’t right, so he created the first mead and cider festival, way before cider took off. In 2008, just as the economy tanked, Daniels launched a beer sommelier certification program. He held on, and his Cicerone Certification Program has become the industry gold standard, certifying 50,000 people all over the country. The veteran home brewer’s behind-the-scenes prowess—creating two twenty-year-old beer festivals, educating brewers at Siebel Institute of Technology, and drumming up a vibrant brewing community—has helped establish Chicago as a craft beer center.
Founding Executive Director and Head Spear, Purple Asparagus
Some say that kids these days are too demanding and, up to a point, that’s exactly the kind of kid Melissa Graham would like to cultivate. Through her Purple Asparagus, a nonprofit organization that educates everyone about eating food that’s good for the body and the planet, Graham puts into action her belief that the more children “experience how joyful good food is, the more they will demand it from their parents, from their schools, and from food sellers.” Graham and Purple Asparagus have touched the lives of tens of thousands of Chicago children, helping make them all more demanding…in the best way.
Owner, Revolution Brewing
Revolution’s Josh Deth built his resume working at respected breweries like Goose Island and Golden Prairie Brewing. His own dream brewery had several false starts, but since Revolution opened the doors to its Milwaukee Avenue brewpub in 2010, it’s been all onward and upward. Josh now also helms a brewery and tap room on Kedzie Avenue with more than a dozen beers. Plans are underway to expand this facility to meet growing demand. With a strong distribution system and an eye always on the quality of his operation, Deth remains in the vanguard of Chicago’s craft beer revolution.
Mickey Hornick and Jo Kaucher
Chef and Owners, The Chicago Diner
Ahhh…the smell of onions and grilled meat that fills the air at a diner. Well, you won’t detect those scents at The Chicago Diner, “meat free since ’83.” A radical departure from traditional diners, The Chicago Diner has all the traditional diner trappings …with a twist: fresh, local produce and an all veggie menu. Owners Hornick and Kaucher wanted to do something to benefit the greater good of the city in the most delectable way, so they merged diner food with vegetarian ingredients. Ding ding! The concept caught on and has been successful beyond anyone’s wildest imaginings.
Carmen Rossi, Chris Bader and Kevin Killerman
Co-owners, Barn & Company, Heating and Cooling and Hubbard Inn
If you’ve lived in Chicago—and eat and drink out regularly—the likelihood is high that you’ve been to one of the places owned by power troika of Rossi/Bader/Killerman. It’s possible, however, that you’ve never heard their names before. They’re the ultimate behind-the-scenes guys. Rossi is a Frankfort attorney with a taste for restaurants; he and his partners are all over the North Side. They’re getting ready to dig in deeper with Pomp & Circumstance, a sixties throwback resto on Wells, with a farm-to-table approach—a concept very popular in the Eisenhower/Kennedy years, mostly on farms. Rossi and Killerman also own Kelsey’s and Casey Moran’s… and, unsurprisingly, they’re planning a new place, this time on Randolph.