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Sneaking into Schwa

How I managed to nab a VIP spot at one of the most exclusive dining rooms in town



"What are you up to tonight?" I texted my brother.

The only plan I had was to drink the bottle of wine sitting next to me in the passenger's seat. I had just finished shooting engagement photos for a coworker and my fingers were freezing. I set my phone in my lap and rubbed my fingers together while my brother texted me back.

THE FOOD ISSUE: Where Chicago Eats

"…" turned into "Do you want to go to Schwa tonight, for free?"

The reason I got to eat at Schwa—where it's close to impossible to get a reservation—is that the drummer for Anthrax wanted to eat at Schwa. Chef Michael Carlson was happy to open the restaurant on a Sunday, though they are usually closed, to cook for the drummer and his friends. In order to make the night feel like normal service, Carlson gave away several reservations to regulars, friends, and industry people. The seat fillers got a free meal, and chef had the pleasure of cooking for a room full of people he knew and liked—except for my brother and me.

I was not on chef Michael's guest list for a private meal at his 26-seat restaurant. But he wanted to fill the restaurant with people who had no food allergies or dietary restrictions, and one of his guests—mixologist Paul McGee, who was vegan at the time—offered his spot to my sister; they had been working together to open RPM Italian. Exhausted from the long hours after having just launched a new concept, my sister declined. But she said she knew two people who would eat virtually anything and be on time for a reservation—my brother and me.

We showed up at 7 PM with two bottles of wine and a case of beer for the staff. I was so intimidated that opening the door to the restaurant felt like trying to sneak into a VIP corral at a concert. I made my brother go first. Chef Michael greeted us warmly and asked who we were.

"Uh, we're Paul McGee's friends," I blurted.

"This beer is for you, thanks for having us," my brother more eloquently responded.

Once we sat down, I couldn't stop smiling. We had gotten into the corral. My brother and I looked at each other with eyes wide open as the first and second courses came. I was stunned to silence until I managed a "Holy shit" upon tasting a soup dedicated to a Wendy's baked potato. It was creamy, rich, cheesy, comforting—the most beautiful soup I had ever experienced.

Every time we were brought another course, we were sure it was going to be the last. Each dish could have stood on its own as an experience—foie gras with curry and cocoa, salmon roe with passion fruit inspired by Froot Loops cereal, a raviolo filled with a runny quail egg. The wine we brought disappeared to the back when we arrived; we were served throughout the meal with champagne, course-appropriate wine, and beer brought by a fellow diner—a brewer at Three Floyds.

The booze came faster than the food and my memories of dessert begin to get fuzzy. What I do remember is stopping on the way out of the bathroom to beg the chefs to pose for a group picture. I'm a photographer, after all, and I approach my most amazing experiences with the mantra "Pictures or it didn't happen." I was not going to attempt to photograph all the food we devoured in a dimly lit room, but I wasn't going to leave without a picture of the chefs—the reason the experience was so incredible.

Chef brought all of his kitchen staff into the dining room and gathered everyone together. I had the honor of photographing everyone, drunk on endless wine and the privilege of celebrating such remarkable food.

Pinto is a Chicago-based food photographer who regularly shoots for the Reader.

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