In this second half we get down to specifics about parts of his restaurant's program, especially the parts that are necessitated by being located in a hotel—breakfast, brunch, and pastries—and how the restaurant's Italian focus translates for his pastry-chef collaborator, Amanda Rockman.
Then we talk about how to run a seafood restaurant in the middle of the country, and how and why he procures much of Nico's seafood from Japan. It's an eye-opening look at how the global fish industry really works today.
So we're here for breakfast. What's Italian seafood breakfast?
Ha. Italian seafood breakfast is tough. We do some crab, a crab sabayon with poached eggs. We do a seafood brunch, for sure, we do seafood towers, we do fish collars. But the breakfast is a little more land based—it's based on cold cuts, eggs, cotechino sausage. Because everyone should have the option of having tripe for breakfast, we do tripa romana with a fried egg on it.
What the Italians will eat for breakfast is pastry and coffee. So we'll do a prosciutto plate, a cold-cut plate, and an egg, pepper, and prosciutto plate. Breakfast is actually my favorite meal here.
Speaking of pastries, that brings us to pastry chef Amanda Rockman. The last place people saw her was Balena, where she was doing kind of Americana sundaes with Italian food. What's her approach here?
Well, first of all, I want to highlight how amazing she is. She's a pleasure to work with, and I want to highlight what a massive undertaking her being pastry chef at this hotel is. I mean, we both have jobs that far outreach Nico.
How do we approach dessert here? I think we approach dessert kind of with the same regional focus that we approach the food. We want her to do pretty traditional Italian stuff. We give her the same books that we read, she hits them the same way we hit them. She researches and tries to find dishes that are traditional to a certain region, to a certain culture in Italy, and then she does her own take on them.
It's not as kitschy as it was at Balena. Which is something that I really dislike, kitsch in food. It's not that I’m overserious about food, I just don't need to get cute. And pastry is by definition a cuter atmosphere than savory food.
But she also pushes the limits, like we do. There's offal all over the menu, there's lots of offal at brunch, and she has some very esoteric desserts. The grapefruit meringata is a very esoteric dessert not seen very often, and [it's] very delicious. Her ice cream program here has an affogato program, different liquids paired with different ice creams. She does four or five at a time.
Let's talk about brunch. The Publican is obviously one of Chicago's hottest brunch reservations, so there have to be some expectations for that here, too.
Brunch. The brunch is awesome. Let's be honest about what brunch is for: it's for hungover people. I love the spirit of brunch; it's one of the few meals that Americans haven't turned into their own and they still kind of eat in the European way.
Anyway, it's for hungover people. So what we've done is, we've kind of taken the great hangover stews of the world, because every culture has its hangover stew. The Mexicans have menudo, the Vietnamese have pho, the Italians have bollito misto and Roman-style tripe. So we put them all on the brunch menu. We have a bollito misto that kinda references pho with mint and pickles and beef tongue, squid, and two poached eggs. It rivals the cotechino as my favorite dish here, and neither are on the dinner menu.
And then we do Roman-style tripe, and we do a pink squid terrine, and we do carbonara with bottarga. It's awesome. Come check out brunch sometime.
So you talked earlier about the magic of pristine, beautiful ingredients in Italian cuisine, the fish in particular. What are some of the dishes that sum that up? That excite you to make?
The crudo would be the perfect example. The whole crudo side of the menu. We literally bring in the best fish in the world, I'm not exaggerating. The Japanese get the very, very best stuff. But if you look at menus from all over the world, we're using the same fish as the very best sushi restaurants around the world. We have what's essentially a direct link to the Tsukiji market in Tokyo, and we use the best domestic seafood as well.
And we essentially just cut it and put it on the plate. We highlight it. And that's largely what I do here—I bring in the best ingredients. I spend the money on them because good things end up costing money. And I don't get in their way. That's what we were just talking about—why spoil a beautiful piece of mackerel? There's nothing you can do to make that fish better. There might be some ego that gets in the way, but why? Why do you need that?
So how does sourcing fish work now?
This is the key to my job. I'm sourcing fish, one because it's the key to the menu, and two because it's incredibly expensive and you can't waste it. What we do is we get a report that comes via LA of what will be available this week. And we do a ton of research. I mean, the Internet is an incredible tool. This type of restaurant would not have been possible ten years ago.
We do a ton of research, we watch a lot of YouTube, and we buy fish—and we always push ourselves to buy fish that we've never heard of. We've never worked with sawara, which is a Spanish mackerel, a large mackerel, from Tsukiji. Fish comes in, we cut it open, look at its quality, decide if we're going to return it or not—we return a ton of fish—and then taste it, eat it, and think about what's going to complement it. That's it, that's what we do.
The crazy thing is how little of this stuff is available on a day-to-day basis. There are probably 20, 30 restaurants that serve this stuff countrywide. And getting your hands on it is hard—you have to move fast. You have to be educated about when it's going to come in, how it's going to arrive, and mastering all those channels that make sourcing what it is. I'm a FedEx expert. I'm an airline-schedule expert. I'm not bragging, but people don't realize that's an important part of being a chef, that you have to understand how shipping works in this country, especially with something as perishable as fish.
As you say, the Japanese are always going to hold on to certain things, but can you get pretty much what you want?
Absolutely not. Can I get what I want? No. It was terrible during the bad weather here. We had the very worst record of on-time flights in the country. That affects me, and sometimes our crudo menu is really small. I'm not going to bring in stuff that's just OK, because I can't get the best stuff. What I might do is work with really hard with our domestic producers at that point and say, what do you have, that's really delicious raw, that I haven't thought about before? Well, have you ever tried Loch Duart salmon raw? No, I haven't. Then we'll bring Loch Duart and have a new crudo that day.
Necessity is the mother of invention, and those are great moments because they force you to work as a chef. But also on those days, we may just have six or seven crudos instead of 11. One day I think we were down to five. But that's who we are. We're not going to force it.
Speaking of domestic fish, do you use much local, Great Lakes fish?
No. We use a little bit here and there. We do it in a fish fry. We smoke whitefish for one of our pastas. But I'm an ocean guy. Also, we're an Italian restaurant. Do the Italians use lake fish? Absolutely. The Italians farm an ocean trout, or a steelhead up around Venice, and the Tuscans eat a lot of trout. Up in the northern part, where the cuisine would be more recognizable as German or Swiss, they eat pike and they eat carp and they eat river fish.
But to me the cuisine that I'm trying to go for here is more central to southern, although we do do some northern pastas. That's where I'm at right now. I'm more obsessed with the ocean at this moment.
What makes it worth it for an American restaurant to go all the way to Japan for its fish? Isn't the time factor an issue?
One of the more revolutionary things that I realized here is that time has nothing to do with freshness. It has something to do with it, but very little. So I can get identical species from California and Japan, and the Japanese product could be literally two days older, and it could be in still in rigor mortis and perfect, and the stuff from California could be . . . not good.
It's all about how the fish is killed and how it's treated. The Japanese just kill and treat and ship fish perfectly for the purposes of serving it raw. It's absolutely amazing. One is that when the fish is caught, or taken from the farm, it's treated well. Just think about a fish flopping around on the deck and about what's happening to the flesh.
First of all, a lot of American fishermen catch their fish in huge nets, where they drown in a net that has thousands of pounds of fish in it. Just think about what that's doing to the flesh of the fish. And then a lot of these fishermen just fish on, and the fish are sitting on the deck, just sliming on each other, not being bled, not being treated well.
The Japanese don't do that. First of all, each fish is handled as an individual. It's handled with care, it's immediately bled so that the heart pumps out all the blood, which is the first thing that goes bad. It's put in a padded box, so it doesn't beat itself up. It's wrapped in special paper so it stays moist, not just thrown in a huge crate. If necessary it's immediately gutted, although most Japanese don't gut their fish because their fish are treated so well you can eat the insides of them.
It's just an entirely different world. The American market has yet to realize that there's a lot of money in not just catching a lot of fish, which is the American way, but catching small amounts of fish but selling them for four times the price point. So that's been a very interesting experience.