• Entertainment

    And The Jean Banchet Goes To…

    • Apr 19, 2017

    • By:Elaine Doremus and Peter Wren

    Every January, chefs from across the Chicago area join together with the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation to celebrate the Oscars of the Chicago dining scene, the prestigious Jean Banchet Awards for Culinary Excellence.

    Named in honor of the late, great Jean Banchet, whose exquisite French feasts at Le Francais in Wheeling helped transform the Chicago area into a must-visit dining destination, the Banchet Awards honor the very best restaurateurs, chefs, sommeliers and service teams the city has to offer.

    In the wake of the star-studded festivities, we caught up with some of the night’s biggest winners to discuss their culinary inspirations, the growing significance of the Chicago dining scene and the delicious surprises they have in store for us in the year ahead.


    Blackbird’s beautifully austere dining room.



    Best Restaurant


    Almost 20 years ago, Blackbird revolutionized the Chicago dining scene thanks to its stark-white dining room, an inventive farm-to-table menu by Paul Kahan and a friendly, yet impeccable approach to service. Today, General Manager David Barriball explains why winning the Jean Banchet Award for Best Restaurant ranks among Blackbird’s greatest achievements. –PW


    What’s the secret? How does a restaurant survive for 20 years?
    David: We still pride ourselves on being an approachable restaurant. We have our Michelin star, but we still serve our $25 three-course prix-fixe lunch. I think it matters that the original owners are still here every day. Even after all this time, everyone is still in it to win it.


    Spiced donuts made with miso ice cream.


    Tell us about Chef de Cuisine Ryan Pfeiffer’s cooking philosophy.
    David: People have described our food as modern Midwestern. Over the years, Paul and Ryan have developed a similar approach to food. It’s not about using a million different ingredients or creating really busy food, but a simple focus on special ingredients and classic techniques.


    What are some of those special ingredients?
    David: Ryan is incredible about sourcing new and different products. For example, there’s a new farm he found that’s [producing] a particular type of pig that can suckle for 12 months instead of three months. So it’s incredibly delicious and tender pork. For the first time, we have cheeses made just for us by a creamery called The Farm at Doe Run in Pennsylvania. The plan is to offer a different exclusive Blackbird washed-rind cheese every season.


    Roasted venison loin topped with venison sausage, walnuts and licorice cream.


    What’s new at Blackbird that has the team excited?
    David: Our tasting menu used to draw from our regular menu, but now Ryan’s are separate. They’re 10-course dinners focused on a single concept. Recently, he did a winter and game birds menu. It was filled with squab, quail and duck, which were combined with root vegetables in unique ways, like a squab and squash pot pie.


    Blackbird’s signature exterior.


    What does winning the Jean Banchet Award mean to you?
    David: It was so exciting for the restaurant itself to win because everyone could share in the excitement. The flagship of One Off Hospitality, our restaurant group, is always going to be Blackbird. That’s a motivating factor for all of us in that we’re part of this incredible restaurant family but feel a responsibility to make sure its crown jewel stays shiny and new.




    Best New Restaurant


    In March 2016, Noah Sandoval, former executive chef at Senza, and Genie Kwon, former pastry chef at BOKA, defied convention and opened a 28-seat tasting-menu-only concept named Oriole in the West Loop. A year later, they’ve earned two Michelin stars as well as the Jean Banchet Award for Best New Restaurant. –PW




    How did the two of you meet?

    Genie: A coworker of mine who worked at Senza said I should check it out, so
    I did. It turned out to be one of the best dining experiences I’d ever had. My boyfriend [Tim Flores], who is our sous chef at Oriole, was the one who introduced me to Noah and his wife Cara. So essentially, the idea for Oriole evolved from that single meal.


    Why did you hire mostly friends and family to staff the restaurant?
    Genie: It’s a question of who’s going to honestly provide the best service and work the hardest to create the best food and experience. Often the hardest thing about work, especially in restaurants, is finding people who care. We don’t have that problem at Oriole. If anything, we have people who care too much.


    Oriole’s Dining Room


    What does winning the Jean Banchet Award mean to you?
    Noah: The restaurant scene in this city is so intimidating to me. It always will be. But the more things that we’ve gotten involved with and the more people we’ve met, the more I feel a part of this city. It’s amazing how receptive people have been. The award is kind of like the icing on the cake.


    Beausoleil oyster with jamón Mangalica.

    Cardinal prawn spring roll.


    Where do you draw inspiration for your dishes?
    Noah: Sometimes it’s about knowing what goes well together and making those combinations more interesting. Take oysters and ham. We start with a raw oyster and make a consommé out of Mangalitsa ham. We add it to an oyster shell with some finger limes. So it’s like a little oyster shooter with ham broth, and served next to it is a crisp wrapped with ham and garnished with blue cheese. It’s good to be playful.


    Genie: I try to think in terms of number of bites. I have maybe 10 to 12 bites at the end of a meal. So how can I satisfy a range of flavors with those bites? Sometimes it’s taking something really simple and refining it. I’ve made a tiny miniature croissant and aerated it with raclette cheese and apple butter. It’s warm, you can pick it up with your hands, and it’s fun to eat.



    Andrew Brochu

    Best Chef

    One of the central attractions of chef Grant Achatz’s newest concept, Roister, is its physical layout, which fans tables around a giant open kitchen boasting a five-foot-tall open-hearth oven. Manning that oven is Andrew Brochu, winner of the Jean Banchet Award for Best Chef, who’s also responsible for the restaurant’s name, perfectly capturing its rowdy, rustic and joyous vibes. –PW




    Did you have any concerns about working in an open kitchen?
    Andrew: I think the dining public has a natural affinity and curiosity to know what’s going on with their food. Our open kitchen allows for more personal engagement with diners, who can watch what we’re doing and take small tips home with them. They’re kind of seeing a show, even though it’s not a show for us. It’s work.


    Glazed eggplant and carrots on the Roister hearth.


    Part of that show is the ever-changing playlist of music, right?
    Andrew: We play every genre of music because music can create a feeling of nostalgia. We could play Fleetwood Mac and look over and see a mom just loving it. Then the next song is hip-hop and her teenagers are going crazy. Sometimes we want to create a rollercoaster of emotions for our guests.


    Any tips on how to recreate your giant open-hearth oven at home?
    Andrew: I’m not being a smartass but building a giant thousand-degree fire in your home is never going to be a good option. It’s hot. But what it’s allowed us to do is be naïve again. It’s shown us how much we didn’t know about open-fire cooking.


    Roister whole chicken.


    What unique delicious items have you been able to create in that oven?
    Andrew: We can literally put things like steak into the char and cook them. We’ve hung citrus slices on a wire for daysuntil they became chips. We can smoke vinaigrettes, hang whole ducks. We’ve been surprised how nuanced the flavors can be: hints of char, of fire and ash and wood. The great thing is that it’s not like you’re in the middle of a smoky BBQ joint.


    Asparagus salad with puffed rice.


    Having been raised in the South, what does winning the local Jean Banchet Award mean to you?
    Andrew: It’s cool because the votes came from your local peers and media, who believed you deserve it. It can take a little while to be in that Chicago group because it’s a protective city—protective of its assets and people and arts and crafts. But once you’re inside that group, it feels great.



    Bill Montagne & Jennifer Kim

    Rising Chef(s) of the Year


    Just shy of one year after opening Snaggletooth, their cozy counter-service ode-to-a-New-York-fish-deli in Lakeview, Bill Montagne and Jennifer Kim reflect on their bold leap and the significance of winning Jean Banchet’s Rising Chef(s) of the Year. –ED


    Jennifer and Bill


    You both boast some impressive fine-dining restaurant pedigrees (C Chicago, La Bernadin in New York City, Blackbird and Nico Osteria, to name a few). Why leave all of that to invest your savings in a small neighborhood fish shop?

    Bill: We wanted to do something that we had control over. When you own your own business, you can make decisions you think are right.


    Jennifer: It’s a really big jump going from big restaurant groups where the farther up the rank you get in a kitchen, the farther away you get from the people who are eating your food, to doing something this small. We were craving the connection and wanted to develop relationships and be community-based.


    Everything bagel with scallion schmear and house-cured gravlox.


    Snaggletooth has been called an untraditional fish deli. What makes your fish curing technique stand out?
    Bill: None of our fish is smoked, which people find surprising. We’ve brought back the oldest form of food preservation used before people started smoking fish. The technique we use is a much slower process where we wrap the fish in cheesecloth and then apply a mixture of salt, assorted spices and citrus.


    Whole leaf tea from Chicago-based Rare Tea Cellar.


    Jennifer: Our curing takes at least five days instead of two days. When we remove the cheesecloth, we don’t need to rinse the fish, which retains all of the flavor.


    You use mostly farm-raised fish, including an ocean trout farmed in Scotland instead of the more common salmon. Why?
    Bill: While farm-raised is kind of a dirty word, we use it for its quality and sustainability. The farms we work with do a very good job, and when people do things right, it’s important to support them from an ethical perspective.
    We use trout instead of salmon. It is extremely fresh when it arrives and has the added benefit of having a
    firmer texture and retaining much more moisture during the curing process.


    What does winning the Jean Banchet Award mean to you?
    Jennifer: It was a surprise! Jean Banchet is very prestigious, and it is such an honor because it is industry based. Our peers are saying that they appreciate what we do.

    Bill: The Cystic Fibrosis Foundation charity component of the awards is also important. It’s very cool, and it gives us enormous satisfaction that we are a part of an industry that takes care of people through food.



    Rachel Driver Speckan

    Best Sommelier

    In the past year, Rachel Driver Speckan has taken on the role of national wine director at City Winery, welcomed a new baby to her family, won the Jean Banchet Award for Best Sommelier and passed her last exam as an advanced sommelier in the Court of Master Sommeliers. We sat down with the dynamic lady on the go to talk about her whirlwind year. –ED



    How did you choose a career as sommelier?
    Rachel: I grew up on a rural farm in Arkansas. My whole childhood was very sensory: smelling, touching and tasting. My parents were teachers and focused on learning. Then after college, on a Monday at midnight, I stumbled upon a Craigslist posting for a wine shop looking for someone to help them take a different approach to the business. I applied for the job at 1:45 a.m., got a phone call immediately and started on day two of the Lush Wine & Spirits new business. It was a crash course in the wine industry for me.


    How has the transition been from your local role in Chicago at City Winery to being the National Wine Director?
    : I’ve done so much work on the floor over the years mentoring people for exams and teaching that I wanted to stay connected as much as possible. Soon, City Winery will have a thousand employees nationally, so I’ve had to rework the balance of life and work. My work is focused on educating our staff and being present at each location, unifying our programs while keeping local character, and working with each beverage director to ensure they are successful.


    What does it take to become an advanced sommelier with the Court of Master Sommeliers and what is the significance?
    Rachel: It took six years of study, including flying around the country to work with other sommeliers and one failed attempt to pass the three-tiered exam. The pool of advanced sommeliers is very small, with only about 250 in the world, so this is very impactful for me.


    City Winery Chicago


    What does winning the Jean Banchet Award mean to you?
    Rachel: I’m honored! Just to be nominated is very important and significant because your peers and colleagues are recognizing you for being exceptional. It is an affirmation for me as a woman that the industry is maturing and women are being supported. I also work with the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation as a volunteer, so being on the stage with them for the award felt like coming full circle.