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Big restaurant openings have to have PR that starts working from a mile away. That's fine, but it would be a much duller scene to cover if things didn't also pop up out of the blue, unannounced, and take the city by charm alone. I first heard of Mfk on Facebook about a week before it opened, and it seemed like only a couple of weeks later it was everyone's favorite new find—a tiny, sunny place tucked into a half-downstairs space on an otherwise pretty forgettable Diversey strip by the lakefront, serving up mostly Spanish-style simple dishes. In a world where it seems like every dish comes with tomato jam and pork belly foam and is compressed into a sphere, the most revolutionary thing you can do is just use butter, lemon, and a green herb on a plate of razor clams, like it's freakin' 1912 or something.
Named for everyone's favorite classic food writer M.F.K. Fisher, MFK is the brainchild of Scott Worsham, a 25-year restaurant veteran, and his wife, Sari Zernich Worsham, an executive with Art Smith's Table Fifty-Two and other enterprises. The chef is Nick Lacasse, who Reader readers probably last saw in 2011 when he was at the Drawing Room and was the chef for Key Ingredient (unless you caught him as a contestant on Bravo's Around the World in 80 Plates). I talked and hung out with Scott Worsham and Lacasse just before lunch service recently.
Michael Gebert: How did the idea for MFK come about?
Scott Worsham: Well, my wife, Sari Zernich, and I had been talking about doing a restaurant for about four or five years, ever since she got me to move back to Chicago. And we'd been going back and forth on a couple of different concepts. And last year we were in Spain for about three weeks. I think as most people do when they go to Spain, we love food and conviviality and a relaxed lifestyle. You fall in love with Spain, and I looked around and there were all these regular neighborhood places that just had really great food.
And in America we kind of have this weird thing where we put food up on a pedestal. It's like it's not attainable for everyday mortals. So I started having this idea of something that was a little more European feeling. It could be a neighborhood place that just had really solid, good food, and strip away the pretension and some of the more highfalutin things we seem to attach to food and restaurants in America.
But speaking of highfalutin, you came from Charlie Trotter's, didn't you?
No, that's my wife. And Nick did too; a member of the Trotter mafia.
Nick Lacasse: It's a lifestyle.
Worsham: I do come from some fine-dining background, but I've worked in all kinds of places. But I felt like there was a bit of . . . these are only things I'm coming to realize as we've been open a few months. In the beginning I just knew that I wanted a neighborhood place that felt breezy and light, kind of that seaside feel. Part of that was in reaction to our last winter being so brutal.
We do some great things in Chicago in the food world. One of them is that we do dark rooms and pork and bourbon very, very well here. That's pretty much covered in this town, so as much as I like dark rooms that are heavy on pork and bourbon, I thought it would be nice to have something that's the antithesis of that. So that was kind of the general idea for it.
So Nick, what got you here?
Lacasse: I think it was a few words in the Craigslist ad: "No egos on the plate." That was the thing that was the big turn-on. And then I saw "MFK" on a page, and I knew what it was about—not the concept, but M.F.K. Fisher, and I'm a huge fan of her writing.
My history's all over the place, I've worked east coast, west coast, and then 11 years in Chicago. I feel like this is a little bit of a culmination of all of it, but like a grown-up version of it. Stripped-down.
Worsham: I feel like any chef who's been around a while will tell you that removing your ego is the hardest thing to do. Doing a simple thing well is the hardest thing to do. It's like, make a perfect omelet, OK, now make 40 of them in a row. It's the hardest thing because, who knows how to roast a chicken any more? Or make a perfect omelet? The most basic things, building blocks, have kind of been pushed to the side in favor of "Let me show you who I am." Every cooking show talks about finding your voice. I feel like the pendulum has swung too far that way in America, and the sign of a mature chef is removing your ego from the whole thing.
I think there's also a thing of, we've made dining into such an event. You don't always want to go to an event.
Worsham: Sometimes you just want to eat dinner! It sounds like such a basic concept. The reaction that I'm getting that people are having at this restaurant is that it's mind-blowing, it's some kind of weird thing that we're doing here. We're just cookin' some food here, man! And giving you a nice place to hang out and some wine to drink with it.
Lacasse: I've been so surprised by the huge number of my local chef heroes who have been in and been blown away by the simplicity of our approach. Talk about roasting a chicken—I feel like a lot of young chefs today would be like, well, why would you when you can sous vide it?
Worsham: And stuff it with truffles. And make it not look like a chicken.
Lacasse: Right. And that has its place, but roasting a chicken also has its place.
Worsham: It's a big world, and everybody can fit under the umbrella, but it's a weird thing that we've come to the point in this country that this feels like a weird thing.
I was writing an essay the other day that I'm thinking of putting out there and the gist of it was, why are we so afraid of food? Raising your own animals and slaughtering them for your own meat should be a constitutional right. But it's wildly illegal. Why does it scare us so much? Because you go to any other country in the world, the poorest country in the world, their food is like a thousand percent better. Food you find in the street—it may or may not kill you, but it's damned tasty.
Well, speaking of other countries, let's talk about Spain in particular. Do you think that's a country that lends itself to that sort of simplicity? Because the setup here reminded me, in a totally different cultural way, of a place like the famous Cal Pep in Barcelona, where your lunch is what a guy walked up the pier with a net of half an hour before, and they just fry it up for you.
Worsham: Actually, this place is a direct result of me having eaten lunch at Cal Pep last summer. That's my last meal on earth, a four-hour lunch with chef Joe Pep serving me like he did last summer.
But that simplicity—see, we go over there and we freak out about food, but people in Spain say, we don't know what the big deal is. We eat like this every day. It's just normal.
Yeah, Cal Pep is like the Billy Goat of Barcelona. No more ambitious or pretentious than that.
Worsham: Except instead of cheeseburgers, it's squid.
So here we are in Chicago, how do you get the things that are the equivalent of what walks up the pier to restaurants in Spain?
Lacasse: Well, we use the best suppliers. I love the seafood purveyors we have and often, sort of unintentionally, I'll be looking at our invoice and it will say boquerones [fresh anchovies] from Spain. Octopus from Spain. It may not necessarily be all from that area, but the important thing is getting the best that you can get and create the environment to fill out the whole experience.
I've heard people say, "Oh, this was really good, but it wasn't the same as when I was sitting next to the sea in Spain." Well, you were in Spain. That octopus might have been three days old—but you were sitting next to the surf. We try to use the best, freshest ingredients well, in this little, breezy, bright colored room.
Worsham: And we're not trying to be slavish to Spanish cuisine—there's no patatas bravas, paella, anything like that. We're just trying to take that feel, and apply it to this city. He's got a dish that we put on because we sell so many prawn heads that we had to do something with the extra tails. So we came up with this pickled green papaya salad that is definitely Asian, Thai, but delicious, people like it. So we like to be anywhere that mountains meet the sea. If we want to pull a dish from Baja, we'll pull a dish from Baja.
But then what does Spanish mean for you?
Lacasse: To me, it's definitely less about "Spanish" but more the feeling that somebody gets when they eat. It's more fresh, simple feeling . . .
Worsham: It's like in the early days, when we were trying to come up with a name. And I've had MFK for M.F.K. Fisher in my back pocket for 20 years, I tried to open one in New York in about 2001, a simple little cafe. And everybody says, well, that means French food to me.
And I kept having to tell people, that's not what M.F.K. Fisher stands for to me. It's not that she went to France when she was 19 or whatever. She talked about the simplicity of things, simple foods with friends and loved ones.
Lacasse: The ceremony of it.
Worsham: The ceremony of it . . .
And I think that goes with the Spanish concept, or Asian dishes or Baja sur or Baja norte dishes that we might put on the menu. Just trying to keep it as simple as we can. Pare it down to the skeleton of the dish that makes it work, and maybe add one thing to it. Or not. Or just leave it alone.