Last week, when Erling Wu-Bower was listed as a James Beard Foundation Award semifinalist for Best Chef, Great Lakes for his work at Nico Osteria, some people expressed surprise that they would shortlist the chef of a restaurant (even a Paul Kahan one) that's been open less than three months. But remember, Wu-Bower is the guy who spent ten years becoming an overnight success, as the saying goes, at Kahan's One Off Hospitality group.
He started as a cook under Koren Grieveson at Avec, and was Brian Huston's sous chef at the Publican. The first time I met him was when Mike Sula and I were shooting videos for his mulefoot pig stories, and it was the Publican's second day of operation. He showed me around the meat locker a few days before Publican Quality Meats opened, where he and Cosmo Goss shared responsibility for the meats. When Grieveson left Avec, he was named to replace her as chef de cuisine—and as he said at the time, "How often do you get to be head chef at your favorite restaurant?"
So it was a little surprising that within the year he jumped from Avec to launch One Off's Italian fish spot Nico Osteria, on Rush Street. I spoke with him recently about that move, and where the concept for Nico came from. Tomorrow the conversation will continue on the subject of acquiring and preparing Nico's primary focus, seafood.
When we last spoke you'd just taken over Avec. And now you're here. How did that happen?
Paul and I had been talking about this concept for a long time. Probably four years. The Avec post kind of popped up pretty quick, and it was an absolute joy to be able to work at Avec, probably my favorite restaurant in the city. But this seafood-based concept is really what I consider my home and where I want to be and what I want to do . . . kind of my and Paul's food baby.
So the concept existed before the Thompson Chicago hotel approached One Off Hospitality?
Absolutely. One of the many great things about Paul is that he doesn't just listen to ideas about food. He wants all of his chefs and all of his cooks to contribute creatively to the menu. So it is with restaurant concepts, as well. He will listen to people with good ideas, that have shown him that they're willing to work toward a cause.
I hope that's what Paul saw in me and why he started to listen to me. I mean, it took a lot of persistence, for sure.
What was the concept like when you were first talking to him about it?
I always wanted to bring a seafood Italian restaurant to Chicago. When you say seafood in Chicago, the first reaction always is, "Are people going to eat it?" The second one is, "How do we get it here?" And certainly we fight those battles every day. [The concept] went through a couple of different iterations, but it never went that far from what it is today at Nico.
At first glance it means pasta, it means antipasti. It means traditional Italian dishes. But it also means we hit the books hard in this company; we hit the books really hard at Nico, especially the chefs. We read Italian cookbooks in Italian. Something I consistently push for is to discover Italian techniques that we've never used before and apply them to the way that we cook here in Chicago with fish.
I mean, seafood can go a thousand ways. Seafood's cooked all over the world, sometimes well, sometimes not well. We bring in beautiful product and treat it with respect, we treat it with an Italian aesthetic. Even further than that, an Italian method I would say. Do we use other methods? Of course, but we are overwhelmingly Italian in our approach and our method.
Opening an Italian restaurant is a change from what One Off has usually done, although I guess Avec was in the ballpark, but it also had braised, porky German things. Was there a conscious decision that Italian was something you should get into?
That makes it sound like a business decision, which it wasn't. We make decisions based on what we want to cook and eat. I've always loved Italian food. I've spent a lot of time on the west coast of Italy.
I keep talking about reading. The literature that we read is [about] the food revolution that started with Alice Waters and Paul Bertolli, which is an Italian-American food revolution, especially in the San Francisco area. Of course there are non-Italian restaurants like the French Laundry, we've all heard of them, but if you go to San Francisco you're eating house-made pastas and beautiful, simply prepared meats. It's an Italian tradition out there. And the books that have come out of that, and the exposure of something so influential to cooks all over the country, are Italian. So Paul and I, and kind of the generation of cooks that came up around me, read a lot of Italian cookbooks.
Even though they might not have read like Italian restaurants, we were using very Italian techniques at other restaurants. The Publican reads like a German beer hall, that's the concept. But it's not—it's an American restaurant. We use methods from all over the world, and the overwhelming method that we use is Italian. There's not pasta on the menu, but the style is Italian—a simple protein, a sauce over the top, no reduced sauces.
When I went to Avec I definitely pushed the menu toward Italy and Morocco, and away from Spain. Even toward Turkey, because that's what I wanted to focus on. And there's just not that much French technique in my repertoire. That's where it kind of all started for me. And I've loved pasta forever. I love making pasta, I love stuffing pasta, I love eating pasta, I love the entire process. And I like the Italian speed of life as it pertains to food.
What I think it is is that the Mediterranean is such rich grounds, not only for fish but also for livestock and for vegetables. It's one of the most ideal places in the world to grow anything, right? California's amazing, too; it's the same climate, almost arid, but not quite. Vegetables have to struggle a little bit. That's why that whole region kind of cooks the same. You don't run into places in southern Spain, southern France, that have to force food. Everything's perfect already, so why mess it up?
Being a hotel restaurant, how are people responding to that?
We're not a hotel restaurant.
Why, because it's so busy people in the hotel can't get into the restaurant?
We're attached to a hotel, and we have a great relationship with the hotel, but we're not a hotel restaurant. Right now we're sitting down to breakfast, and this will be a great amenity when the hotel gets busy—in the summer. But no one's coming to Chicago when we just had our first above-20-degree day in two weeks.
Breakfast is amazing, and we're very busy at lunch already. There are hotel duties that we fulfill on a daily basis—room service, banquets, that's one of the draws for the hotel. But the fact that we're attached to a hotel has no bearing on the way I cook. As soon as that happens, I might as well quit.
So you're not getting people staring at the menu and wondering what the hell is going on?
Of course, we get that no matter what! I don't think that's just the hotel guests. I think one of the things we focus on here—not just with the back of the house but with the front of the house—is education. We strive to teach our cooks, and so in the same way we try to teach our diners. And there are some diners who don't want to get taught and some cooks who don't want to get taught, too.
But we have a way that we do things. Again, it's not ego, it's just like, please, if you will let us follow our method, your experience will be better. I know that you're not used to eating crudo, antipasti, then pasta, then an entree, I know that sharing might not be ideally what you do, but if you allow us into your world, I think your experience will be richer. Do people come in here wanting spaghetti and meat sauce? Sure. And if they ask four times, will we do it? But we're going to challenge you to do it our way first.
There are intelligent ways to write menus. I don't write these menus to satisfy .1 percent of the people. I want to write this menu so that my stepmother, and somebody who lives in this neighborhood and usually goes to Chipotle, and the over-the-top bloggiest, foodiest person can all enjoy it. I mean, on our dinner menu there's tripe, there's tongue, there's uni, there's sweetbreads, but there's also what's called rigatoni with northern ragu, that's pasta Bolognese. We can be whoever we want to be for a lot of people.
You know, a lot of the cooks when they cook—we encourage the cooks to come up with their own dishes, of course. And they do two things all the time. One, they try to do way too much. And two, they try to combine things from all over the world.
My argument against doing too much is, just put a couple of things that are delicious on the plate and you're going to succeed. Cook those things right. And the other thing I say is, just focus on diving into real Italian cooking. You're actually going to learn more and become a better cook than grasping everything from around the world that you know and think is good, and putting it on a plate like this painting that you can't see anything on. Just concentrate on one place, research the culture.
So it is with the restaurant concept. In a lifetime I will never successfully undertake every single region in Italy, understand its cuisine. I'll never even get close. I couldn't even get close to understanding one region in my lifetime. Nobody does. We have enough in Italy to focus on for the rest of our lives. So just focus on Italy and do that right.
Tomorrow: hunting for seafood