We’ve eaten countless permutations of Rick Bayless tacos, fought for a table at Stephanie Izard’s Girl & the Goat, followed Paul Kahan from Blackbird to Nico Osteria and every one of his hotspots in between, and plunked down half a paycheck to taste Grant Achatz’s theatrical molecular cuisine at Alinea.
Beyond this hallowed quartet, other Chicago chefs—including Curtis Duffy of Grace, Chris Pandel of the Bristol, and Ryan McCaskey of Acadia—have successfully made their marks, racking up James Beard nominations and glossy-mag spreads along the way. But there are a slew of hyper-talented toques who aren’t getting as much national attention as they should. Here are nine hard-working, passionate chefs who are quietly pushing the Windy City’s culinary boundaries.
Paul Virant, Perennial Virant and Vie Restaurant
Farm-reared Paul Virant naturally has a penchant for seasonal ingredients—and preserving them through the age-old ritual of canning—and he puts them at the forefront of both his restaurants: Perennial Virant in Lincoln Park, and Vie in the suburb of Western Springs. At the former, suckling pig porchetta with creamy grits and lemon-pickled turnips is your first port of call; at the latter, deliberate between pan-seared rainbow trout with a mess of bacon-braised collard greens and pickled okra, or burgers tucked between slabs of beer-battered bread.
Beverly Kim and Johnny Clark, Parachute
3500 North Elston Ave, Avondale (773-654-1460, parachuterestaurant.com)
Husband-and-wife team Beverly Kim and Johnny Clark—formerly of Bonsoiree—are the kitchen masterminds behind Parachute, the small Korean-American mash-up in Avondale. Kim appeared on Top Chef, yet her star remains surprisingly understated; pounding the pavement in search of the right space for Parachute kept her out of the spotlight after the show wrapped. But she’ll be back soon, not because of TV cameras, but rather a daily-changing menu that might revolve around kimchee, black garlic, and pineapple-dressed pork belly and mung bean pancakes, or hand-torn noodles with a Sichuan peppercorn-spiked lamb sofrito.
Gaetano Nardulli, NEAR
108 Barrington Commons Court, Barrington (847-382-1919, near-restaurant.com)
The affluent, Victorian home-dotted neighborhood of Barrington is an unlikely setting for Schwa and Spiaggia vet Gaetano Nardulli’s Italian restaurant, which may partially explain why it often flies under the radar. Another reason: People mistaking it for a cookie-cutter red sauce joint. Simple favorites such as garlic- and pine nut-studded ravioli are tempting, but don’t miss the grilled octopus with housemade giardiniera and basil-heirloom tomato-chimichurri fish. Encapsulating Nardulli’s affinity for invigorating family recipes with a playful, contemporary sheen, these dishes add a jolt of intrigue to sleepy suburban dining.
Andrew Zimmerman, Sepia
123 N. Jefferson St, West Loop (312-441-1920, sepiachicago.com)
Many Chicago restaurants are unwittingly demoted from white-hot to flash-in-the-pan in the blink of an eye. Sepia, set in a bygone West Loop print shop, is not one of them. Night after night, amid the throng of much-buzzed newcomers vying for diners’ attentions, it remains packed. That’s because Andrew Zimmerman has been at the helm since 2009. Despite the restaurant’s long winning streak, its kitchen boss rarely gets the national attention of some other Chi-town stars. But he should, especially when he’s making innovative and spot-on dishes like curried carrot bisque with sage, cashew, and parsley root, and Berkshire pork collar accompanied by poppy seed-cabbage slaw, with unwavering precision.
Bo Fowler, Owen & Engine
2700 North Western Ave, Logan Square (773-235-2930, owenandengine.com)
In the shadow of the hulking Kennedy Expressway, Owen & Engine beckons guests with a roaring fireplace that looks like it was plucked straight from Dickens’ London. But don’t mistake this Logan Square lair for a mere pie-and-ale pit stop. Bo Fowler, who runs the restaurant with her husband, Arden, makes a mean Slagel beef burger with caramelized onions—the eggplant version, on an Egyptian sweet roll with pan-fried haloumi, is nothing to shrug at either—but it’s refined dishes like roasted bone marrow with strawberry-bacon jam and Worcestershire nut butter that showcase a knack for fancying up pub grub without losing its essential appeal. As bar food continues to blur the line between low-brow and high-end, Fowler is setting the pace.
Carlos Gaytan, Mexique
1529 West Chicago Ave, Noble Square (312-850-0288, mexiquechicago.com)
Chicago taquerias—especially in the Mexican-heavy Pilsen neighborhood—sate the city’s carne asada cravings, but for something less expected, there’s Mexique in Noble Square. At first, the France-meets-Mexico City eatery—the brainchild of former Top Chef contestant Carlos Gaytan—seemed destined to succumb to the reality show’s notorious restaurant curse. Spiraling into debt, Gaytan was going to close; the very next day, the one-time pantry cook was told he snagged a coveted Michelin star. With seafood mousse tamales cooked in banana leaves, and white wine-doused mussels that get the South-of-the-Border treatment with dried chorizo and pickled jalapeño, it’s easy to see why. After nearly losing it all, Gaytan is one to watch again.
Giuseppe Tentori, GT Fish & Oyster
531 N. Wells St, River North (312-929-3501, gtoyster.com)
River North is cluttered with restaurants, but GT Fish & Oyster, an upbeat, modern seafood destination, stands out. Giuseppe Tentori, a native of Italy, was arguably one of the city’s best chefs before there was even a robust restaurant scene (he won Food & Wine Best New Chef honors in 2008). First making his mark at Gabriel’s, and then Charlie Trotter’s high-pressure kitchen, he exhibits prowess in melding the familiar with the unconventional—a talent he showcases in dishes like roasted Virginia oysters slicked with horseradish butter and dusted with Parmesan, and smoked salmon and cabbage-strewn whole-grain gnocchi.
Lee Wolen, Boka
1729 North Halsted St, Lincoln Park (312-337-6070, bokachicago.com)
He might be young, but Lee Wolen is certainly accomplished. He’s done time at such acclaimed restaurants as Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons and El Bulli, served as sous chef at Eleven Madison Park, and made waves in Chicago with the Lobby at the Peninsula. Perhaps his biggest challenge yet is Boka, where he’s injecting new life into a venerable establishment with dishes like roasted venison loin with grilled sausage, huckleberries, turnip, and kale, and a crispy skate wing with an earthy-sweet mix of matsutake mushrooms, pears, and brown butter. It may also prove to be his biggest reward, and a chance to make a name for himself on the national stage.