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In college, Asbaty studied finance. "I thought I wanted to be an investment banker, but really, I had no interest in it. So I'm reading The French Laundry Cookbook when I should have been studying for finance finals. That was what flipped my head—I never saw food like that before."
Instead, he switched to culinary school with the intention of working in Chicago, and did his best to follow the food scene here. When he heard in 2001 that a Thomas Keller protege named Grant Achatz had taken over as chef of Trio in Evanston, he went to dine there—"It just spun my whole world of food around. I never had a meal remotely close to that, taking food like that and just stretching your brain beyond what you normally perceive it as."
Achatz had gotten his job at the French Laundry by writing Thomas Keller a letter every day for two weeks, and so Asbaty decided to do the same with Trio. After the first letter, a sous chef called him in to stage. A couple of months of unpaid 90- to 100-hour workweeks followed before the fresh-out-of-school Asbaty was hired, one of the many young cooks doing the minutely precise grunt work of Trio's and, later, Alinea's artful food. "I'd never seen a kitchen operate like that. I was all about it. It was intense, but it teaches you to learn fast. You either learn fast or you go away."
Asbaty was part of the test-kitchen team for Alinea ("I was kind of the gofer"), working out of Achatz business partner Nick Kokonas's house. But between Trio and the opening of Alinea, he also traveled in Europe, wanting to try the restaurants that everyone in Achatz's circle looked up to. "I think the turning point for me was going to Spain in 2005. I went there in the mind-set of 'Michelin three stars, I want to go to Arzak, I want to go to Berasategui, I want to experience Mugaritz.' And I did, and I was blown away by those experiences."
But he found himself even more captivated by the simple, rustic meals he experienced in Europe. "My head started to move in that direction, and we weren't doing simple food," he says. He also was married by that point—his wife, Diandra, is a celebrity in her own world, women's professional bowling—and as he contemplated family life, and began to think that he wasn't going to stay in the world of high-end dining, it no longer made sense to put in Alinea's long hours. A year after it opened, he gave his notice.
"Grant looked at me and said, 'What are you going to do?' And I said, 'I don't know.'"
He traveled in Italy this time, and came back even more convinced that his interests lay in making rustic, easy-to-like food—"Food connected to the Italian philosophy of finding great ingredients and not really messing with them too much." Back home, he cooked at home regularly for the first time—"I was never really able to form my own style of food, because I was literally thrown from culinary school into this whirlwind. I went to the farmers' market as much as I could and just cooked."
Meanwhile, Diandra was writing a column for a bowling magazine published by Mike Panozzo, who was thinking of opening an Italian deli and market in his South Loop neighborhood. In 2007, Panozzo's Italian Market opened, with Asbaty making in-house meats for sandwiches, pastas for to-go meals, and most of the rest of what's in the case.
Panozzo's has enjoyed acclaim well beyond the average corner deli and sandwich shop, but whenever Asbaty has wanted to do something more elaborate—like a dinner for La Quercia prosciutto makers Herb and Kathy Eckhouse a couple of years ago—the physical limitations of Panozzo's small retail space with coolers humming in the room and flimsy plastic tables and chairs have tended to make themselves felt. (It didn't even have seating until an appearance on Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives led to a boost in lunchtime traffic.)
So after six years, Panozzo's is reconfiguring the room to stress dining as well as retail, moving most of the coolers out and putting in nicer furniture. Like Publican Quality Meats, it will still be visibly a lunch place with a retail component. But it will be one that encourages you to sit down and is more of a showcase for the chef's handiwork—and for the ingredients he uses, which include bread mostly baked in-house, meats from farmers like Slagel Family Farm and Gunthorp, and as many farmers' market vegetables as the business can afford at sandwich-level prices. The menu will also stretch to incorporate more dressed-to-order salads and small Italian plates—and there are plans to get a liquor license (the special-occasion dinners have always been BYO).
"People come in and they're paying ten, twelve dollars for a sandwich . . . " Asbaty says, then looks down at the plastic folding table we're sitting at. "I want to get these out of here as soon as we possibly can, and make [the space] match up to what we're doing in the back." He looks around at the torn-up room to which his experiences, from Alinea to Spain and Italy and back, have brought him. "I think the whole place is finally going to make sense."
Panozzo's Italian Market, 1303 S. Michigan, 312-356-9966, panozzos.com