15 Smokin' Chicago Chefs
If you're a gourmet living in Chicago, you already know how lucky you are, with so many culinary traditions to choose from. You can find casual or fine dining, from succulent street food to elegant table service, with fresh produce straight from local farms. To guide you through this sizzling hotbed of culinary talent, we've listed 15 well-known faces on the Chicago food scene (in alphabetical order). Some of these chefs have won or been nominated for awards from the James Beard Foundation, Michelin and more. We also explore their backgrounds and provide directions on how to find the cuisine that put them on the map:
- Andrew Zimmerman of Sepia on Jefferson Street turns out New American cuisine in the vintage atmosphere of an 1890 print shop. Zimmerman, a former musician, took over Sepia in 2009 and ever since has orchestrated inventive American cuisine with Italian accents, using fresh and often locally sourced ingredients. You can indulge in seasonal specialties such as apple cider consommé with pork and chestnut dumplings.
- Anthony Martin, executive chef of TRU on St. Clair Street, creates progressive French cuisine. Stunningly designed dishes reflect Martin's art studies as well as his training at the Pennsylvania Culinary School. Martin offers carefully selected caviars, exquisite desserts and prix-fixe or tasting-tour menus. Try an appetizer menu including Atlantic skate or river salmon, before moving on to Wagyu beef braised with aromatics.
- Art Smith's Table Fifty-Two is located on Elm Street, a few blocks west of Lake Michigan, but the food comes straight from his roots on the Florida-Georgia border. Smith's jazzed-up comfort food uses ingredients sourced from regional organic farms. You can enjoy good eats under the high ceiling of the elegant upstairs room or in the welcoming, home-and-hearth atmosphere on the ground floor. For brunch, you can choose from heart-healthy foods or richer fare like fried chicken and waffles.
- Carlos Gaytan of Mexique integrates his French culinary training and his Mexican heritage. With recipes inspired by the French occupation of Mexico in the mid-19th century, Gaytan takes classic south-of-the-border dishes like tacos and huaraches to new heights. Gaytan's diverse path has included artistic ice carving as well as assisting in his mother's restaurant in Taxco, Mexico. He introduces patrons to themes such as moles and their many regional variations. Just imagine -- chocolate enchiladas.
- Carol Wallack of sola serves up contemporary American fare prepared with deep respect for the culinary traditions and cultural diversity of Hawaii. She delivers a taste of the Pacific Rim to North Lincoln Avenue with her creative fish, meat and fowl preparations paired with sides such as adzuki beans, red rice stir fry, or kim chee and pork belly. Wallack has created an ambience that blends Midwestern hospitality with her "Surfer Girl" love of the islands.
- Carrie Nahabedian of NAHA offers seasonal New American recipes with Mediterranean influences. A Chicago native, Nahabedian builds on her California experience as executive chef of the Four Seasons Hotel as well as her Armenian culinary heritage. NAHA's online menu introduces you to the farms that supply the fresh ingredients, such as the lunch salad featuring beets and sweet Michigan cherries.
- Grant Achatz is a partner at Alinea, which is well-known for progressive American cuisine. Alinea on North Halsted holds the coveted three stars in the Michelin Guide, so you'll need to book in advance. Just the restaurant website is mouth-watering, with art gallery-style closeups of menu items like squab inspired by Miró. Achatz's experience includes his own family's restaurant, The Culinary Institute of America, Thomas Keller's The French Laundry and a stint as a wine-maker.
- Jason Paskewitz of Rustic House in Lincoln Park serves Midwestern-style American cuisine. The Chicago Tribune awarded the restaurant three stars, and the three-course prix-fixe menu is affordable, currently under $40. The décor at Rustic House lives up to its name, providing a warm and intimate environment for Paskewitz's seasonal farm-to-table fare. Check out the nightly rotisserie specials like organic chicken or entrées such as swordfish chop.
- Lee Wolen joined The Lobby at The Peninsula in 2012, ready to work his magic on the hotel's upscale American cuisine. A graduate of the Pennsylvania Culinary Institute, Wolen worked in Chicago before his experience at famous establishments such as New York's Eleven Madison Park and Spain's El Bulli. The Lobby features 20-foot windows, a chocolate bar, live music, and a menu updated with vegan and gluten-free options.
- Matthias Merges of Yusho, located on Kedzie Avenue in Logan Square, serves up yakitori-style skewers and hearty noodle dishes paired with cocktails, wines and spirits. A graduate of The Culinary Institute of America, Merges is former executive chef of Charlie Trotter's, a Chicago culinary legend since 1987. Merges and his restaurant Yusho offer an experienced yet fresh take on Japanese street food.
- Michael Kornick's mk The Restaurant approaches New American cuisine with a no-frills earnestness that keeps the focus on the food and flavors. The atmosphere invites diners to enjoy playful preparations that let the ingredients speak for themselves. A fall tasting menu spotlights seasonal treats such as cumin-scented parsnip soup. Beyond his management and culinary work, Kornick is dedicated to supporting community organizations.
- Paul Kahan of avec offers Mediterranean-style comfort food in a friendly wine bar. Kahan took the initiative to introduce Chicago residents to communal-table dining on the Near West Side, serving charcuterie, salumi plates and dishes that can be a snack or a meal. Kahan grew up around delis and smokehouses, then detoured into computer science before returning to his calling. Kahan integrates products from Midwestern farms into his cuisine.
- Ryan Poli of Tavernita proposes a European-driven menu of small plates with Latin-American flair, served up in a lively environment that gleams like gold. A veteran of Thomas Keller's The French Laundry and trained in classic French and American cuisine, Poli draws on his experience in Spain for inspiration in crafting tastes at Tavernita. With other area chefs, Chicago native Poli works on the Pilot Light Project to expose young people to healthy eating.
- Stephanie Izard of Girl & the Goat serves New American cuisine along with fun foods and craft beers in the West Loop. Izard took her formal training from Le Cordon Bleu at the Scottsdale Culinary Institute and gained fame as the winner of "Top Chef: Season Four." She uses close partnerships with area farmers to create casually elegant, seasonally appropriate dishes. Try the grilled baby octopus or the chickpea fritters.
- Tony Mantuano designed the modern Italian cuisine at Terzo Piano in the Art Institute of Chicago. Mantuano gained national visibility competing on TV during the 2010 season of "Top Chef Masters." Mantuano uses local, organic ingredients to produce dishes and desserts with a new perspective on classic Italian style.
Chicago is home to dozens of exciting chefs and restaurants, and these 15 examples are just a taste. Next time you're wondering where to go for a night out in the Windy City, close your eyes and point at a spot on this list.