Pitmaster, Smoque BBQ
Much of the best barbecue in Chicago is found on the South Side, but Smoque BBQ in Old Irving Park is an exception. Since it opened in 2006, there have been lines out the door for pitmaster Barry Sorkin’s smoked meats and house-made sauces. Sorkin hasn’t got a secret or a shortcut: “It just takes patience. The secret is that there’s no secret. There’s nothing like babysitting a brisket for fourteen hours and then cutting that first slice and discovering that you’ve nailed it!” Not only has Smoque received a Bib Gourmand each year since 2011, but it opened an outpost in Revival Food Hall in the Loop for ‘cue fans who don’t make it to the North Side.
Christine Cikowski and Joshua Kulp
Chefs, Honey Butter Fried Chicken
Christine Cikowski and Joshua Kulp have served some of the finest fried birds in Chicago at Avondale’s Honey Butter Fried Chicken. Aside from poultry, Cikowski and Kulp defined their place “as a safe, welcoming and inclusive space for all our customers, vendors and employees, regardless of their personal story.” Vocal supporters of sustainable food and sustainable employment, Cikowski and Kulp say they are “committed to the core tenets of hospitality, of making people feel welcomed and taken care of. This includes customers, employees, farmers and vendors. For us, that extends to the entire restaurant industry and the world. It’s important for us to stand up for what we believe in and to do what is right and good.” Also, there’s that knockout fried chicken.
Pitmaster, Honey 1 BBQ
It took pitmaster Robert Adams Sr. a couple of tries to find the right neighborhood for his slow-smoked barbecue, but since moving from Bucktown to Bronzeville, Honey 1 has thrived. Adams, who grew up in Arkansas, gets smoky, savory crust the old-fashioned way, cooking it slow over a wood fire––never gas––using an aquarium smoker, one of the hallmarks of Chicago-style barbecue. Honey 1 is a casual spot with counter service but without dedicated seating, which only adds to the charm for the host of regulars that can’t get enough of Adams’ rib tips, pulled pork and the house specialty, hot links. For anyone looking for incredible food on the South Side, a stop at Honey 1 is at the top of the list.
B.K. Park’s omakase restaurant Mako, which received a Michelin star just six months after opening, was a dream a decade in the making. Park began serving omakase at Juno, and he waited until he felt Chicago diners were ready for a full omakase menu before opening Mako. “Sushi is so simple,” he says, “but it’s how we’re cooking, what kind of garnish we use, how we cut the fish, our own interpretations that make things different.” At Mako, Park focuses on technique and isn’t too fussy about tradition, mixing in American or French ingredients here and there. As for that Michelin star, he says he wasn’t expecting it but “it was amazing.” For now, he’s focused on changing up the menu for spring, “hanging in there,” and hoping to work soon in collaboration with other chefs.
Chef, Saigon Sisters
Mary Aregoni of Saigon Sisters took a leap of faith ten years ago when she left the corporate world to pursue her culinary passions and open her own restaurant. Today, Aregoni regularly shares the ups and downs of starting from scratch, and she advises other female chefs through collaborative pop-ups which support and promote their own culinary dreams. “It’s a lot of fun getting to know these women by showcasing their cuisines. I started out not knowing anything about owning a restaurant, so I opened my place up and now I give advice, especially to those who never ran their own restaurant before.”
Executive Chef, B. Hospitality
With restaurants like Formento’s, Balena and The Bristol under its umbrella, B. Hospitality is one of the strongest players in Chicago dining, and executive chef Todd Stein is a big part of it. Stein oversees the kitchens at Formento’s, the Bristol and Nonna’s, where his nose-to-tail seasonal dishes have earned accolades from GQ and the Chicago Tribune. Stein searches for ways to push his menus forward, and he often looks to fellow Chicago chefs for inspiration. “I’m excited to see a more diverse selection of food outside of the contemporary American designation,” Stein says. “I think what chefs like Erick Williams of Virtue and Marcos Campos of Porto are doing is exciting. Whether it’s cooking from America’s South or regions of Spain we aren’t familiar with, it’s fun as a fellow chef to watch this happen.”
Pastry Chef, Floriole Café & Bakery
Floriole Café & Bakery has come a long way since its beginnings in 2006 as a table at Chicago Green City Market—and that’s thanks to Sandra Holl, its pastry chef and owner. What started out with a few French-inspired pastries has grown into a decade of success at Holl’s brick-and-mortar spot that she opened with her husband in Lincoln Park in 2010. In those ten years, the accolades have stacked up for the Midwest native, including being named Pastry Chef of the Year at the 2015 Jean Banchet Awards as well as the thriving café gaining recognition as one of the top bakeries in the country by national publications.
Chef, The Duck Inn
Kevin Hickey has been on a campaign to bring more and better dining options to Bridgeport. His first major initiative in this neighborhood, where he grew up, was the much-praised The Duck Inn. Now he’s working with others to revive the Ramova Theater and the adjoining Ramova Grill. When he was a kid, “the Ramova Grill was next door to the Ramova Theater, so a favorite thing was to go there after a movie and eat cheeseburgers and chili and talk about the movie we’d just seen, especially if it was R-rated, as they let us in when we were ten years old to see R-rated movies.”
Split-Rail, Zoe Schor’s house of comfort food, has a menu that features familiar chow with universal appeal, including mac ‘n’ cheese, fried chicken and mashed potatoes. “I am, by nature, a nostalgic person,” says Schor, “and I reach into my past when I’m creating, always trying to represent and recreate the flavors and textures that I remember loving as a kid.” The joy Schor had as a child continues to fill her as chef: “I’m lucky to be constantly surrounded by other people’s joy; working in a restaurant means that people are always celebrating something, even if it’s just getting to sit down at the end of a long day and enjoy something delicious in good company.”
Chef, mfk and Bar Biscay
Executive chef at mfk and, more recently, Bar Biscay, Alisha Elenz was named Jean Banchet Rising Chef of the Year in 2018. At Bar Biscay, she prepares food influenced by Spanish traditions. “Spanish food is what I’m most comfortable with,” Elenz says. “I love the simplicity of the plate: what you see is what you’re tasting. Simple and delicate flavors, not overly complicated. You can put just three things on a plate and prepare them beautifully and let the proteins and the other things on the plate do the work. Don’t overcomplicate it.” Her background, however, is Italian, and her Italian grandmother, who is 103 years old, taught her about making everything from scratch and honoring the integrity of the ingredients.
Dining and Drinking Editor for Newcity, David also writes a weekly food column for Wednesday Journal in Oak Park and is a frequent contributor of food/drink and travel pieces to the Chicago Tribune, Plate Magazine and other publications. David has also contributed chapters to several books, including Street Food Around the World, Street Food, and The Chicago Food Encyclopedia. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org