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The Grub Game

Empire Building: Emilio Gervilla's Talent for Tapas



At many restaurants, speaking Spanish is a sure sign of a limited future. Dishwashers and prep cooks from Mexico, Puerto Rico, and Central and South America often don't get a shot at the higher paying, higher prestige jobs of sous chef, chef de cuisine, or executive chef. Not so in Emilio Gervilla's family of tapas restaurants. "All of my chefs originally worked with me at Ba-Ba-Reeba!," says Gervilla, "and they're all Spanish-speaking Mexican guys." It's easier to communicate in Spanish, he says, and he makes a point of giving his staff opportunities they rarely get in other kitchens. "I tell them that if they work hard, they'll succeed," he says. "I worked my way up on my own and I tell them they can do it, too."

Gervilla has opened ten restaurants in 18 years, closed two, and sold off three, but he didn't start out to be a restaurant mogul. Born in Granada, in southeast Spain, he started cooking at age 14 in his grandfather's tapas bar and bakery. He began studying for the priesthood but, a few years later, he abandoned this plan and toured Spain, cooking along the way at restaurants in Barcelona, Majorca, Madrid, and Pamplona. In 1970 a friend convinced him to take a position with the Commodore Line, aboard one of the first luxury Caribbean cruise ships. He stayed at sea for three years, then settled in Florida in 1973. He spent the next six years working as executive chef in various hotels and restaurants in Tampa, Sarasota, and Clearwater, where he met his wife, Ann Marie.

In 1979 the couple decided to move to Chicago and, through acquaintances, Gervilla secured a job at the Ritz-Carlton. However, when they arrived one month later, the job had been taken by someone else. For two frustrating months Gervilla pounded the pavement, until one day he heard that Lettuce Entertain You was looking to staff a new fine-dining restaurant called Ambria. Along with executive chef Gabino Sotelino, he ended up launching what soon became one of Chicago's most celebrated French restaurants, and just two years later Lettuce CEO Rich Melman tapped him to open Un Grand Cafe (now Mon Ami Gabi). During these first years in his own kitchen Gervilla says he and Melman frequently talked about opening a Spanish restaurant, but "it wasn't until we went to the Ballroom in New York, the only tapas place at the time, that he decided he had to open one."

In December 1985 Gervilla and Melman opened Cafe Ba-Ba-Reeba!, Chicago's first tapas place. The casual, colorful bar and restaurant with its extensive menu of "little plates," paellas, and traditional Spanish entrees caught on quickly, and three years later Gervilla was ready to set out on his own. In fall of 1988, with several partners (he declines to name them) and several Ba-Ba-Reeba! staff members, he opened the quaint, homey Emilio's Tapas Bar and Restaurant on Roosevelt Road in Hillside. In 1989 he opened his own French restaurant, Bistro Banlieue, in Lombard but returned to Spanish cooking in 1991 with Emilio's Meson Sabika in Naperville. In 1992 came Emilio's La Perla, also in Hillside, which recently closed after heavy road construction in the area put a dent in business. In 1993 Emilio's Granada made its debut in Geneva; in 1994 he moved into the city with Emilio's Tapas on Fullerton; in 1996 he opened a branch in Wisconsin (also recently closed); and finally, in 1999, he opened Emilio's Tapas Sol y Nieve in Streeterville.

Gervilla strictly channeled the revenue from each restaurant into the next, never depending on investors. "Once you get investors," he says, "you have to report to them for every move you make. I wanted to do it all on my own." He also opened only in former restaurant spaces to minimize his overhead costs. In 1998 he and his partners split up, and he sold them Bistro Banlieue, Meson Sabika, and Emilio's Granada. "I'm not greedy; I'd rather be happy," he says. "It's not so much about money to me....Chicago is now the tapas capital of the country." Of the tapas places in the area--nine in all--only two are independent of his influence: Arco de Cuchilleros on Halsted and Tapas Barcelona in Evanston. Even River North's popular Cafe Iberico is a member of the extended family--the chef, Dario Lagoa, is a protege of his from the Hillside Emilio's.

Gervilla's convinced that his success hinges on his good relationship with his staff. He makes weekly tasting rounds to each place, and while he's ultimately responsible for major menu overhauls, he encourages individual chefs to be creative. To expand their culinary horizons, every two years he takes a dozen or so employees on a two-week eating and drinking tour of a different region of Spain. "I like to get everyone together to enjoy themselves but I also want them to bring back new ideas," he says. Perhaps as a result, turnover is almost nonexistent--unheard of in a business where chefs come and go with reckless impunity.

The current chef at Sol y Nieve, Crispi Plata, has cooked with Gervilla for 17 years. His menu is full of hot and cold tapas that combine vibrant, intriguing flavors. The ternera asada a la sevillana (cold roasted veal), for example, pairs the meat with briny black olives, rich sun-dried tomatoes, and a sweet, tangy raspberry vinaigrette. Other combinations include pato con couscous y pimientos (grilled duck breast served on a bed of couscous with marinated roasted peppers, drizzled with a sherry vinaigrette); empanada de ternera (puff pastry filled with veal and spicy chorizo served on a bed of tossed greens); and vieiras rias de vigo (grilled sea scallops offset by a mango-tarragon relish). A hearty specialty worth special attention is the jamoncito de conejo, a fork-tender roasted leg of rabbit stuffed with garlic and savory sage on a mound of whipped potatoes.

The two rooms at Sol y Nieve reflect Gervilla's expansive personality. They are rich with detail: a wall in the main dining room is painted with a mural of a Spanish village at sunset while the adjoining private party room features a larger-than-life mural of Gervilla's face surrounded by grapes, pigs' feet, fish, tomatoes, olives, and bread. "I like to surround myself with things I love from my home," he says.

To that end, he'll be expanding again soon, with a fourth restaurant, in Lombard, scheduled for a December opening.

Emilio's Tapas Sol y Nieve is at 215 E. Ohio, 312-467-7177.

The Dish

The Miami-based Joe's Seafood, Prime Steak, and Stone Crab chain made its Chicago debut on October 19 at 60 E. Grand. oFrancesca's on Bryn Mawr, the eighth in the Mia Francesca group, opened October 4 at 1039 W. Bryn Mawr. oFranco Gianni (Sushi Wabi), Rodney Alex (Bin 36), and chef Michael Dean Hazen (Blackbird) plan to open Rushmore, a contemporary American eatery at 1023 W. Lake, in early November. oDion Antic (Fahrenheit) and Hubie Greenwald (Mas) are hoping to open Dolce, an Italian restaurant, at 2005 W. Division in December.

--Laura Levy Shatkin

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.

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