Things the Winchester learned in the fire | Bleader

Things the Winchester learned in the fire

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Owner Chris Pappas and chef Greg Bastien of the Winchester. - MICHAEL GEBERT
  • Michael Gebert
  • Owner Chris Pappas and chef Greg Bastien of the Winchester.

I had planned to do a story about Ukrainian Village's the Winchester for a while—mainly about how, in a city of places that say they're "neighborhood" restaurants (but don't open until dinner), the Winchester really aims to be an all-day neighborhood hangout, available before sunset and doing quality food at night that makes it a competitor to places that have the luxury of focusing on dinner alone. It's a tough thing to pull off—you can get typed as a breakfast/brunch place and then people have a hard time thinking of you as a serious dinner spot (that's been the case with Logan Square's Jam, which has made several attempts to launch dinner).

But then something else happened between the time I started talking with chef Greg Bastien about doing that story one of these days and now: the Winchester had a fire. It's open again, but the experience changed the restaurant for both Bastien and owner Chris Pappas. So the Winchester's story becomes one about a place that set out to be essential to the life of its neighborhood—and then, like any neighbor, faced its own ups and downs.

Pappas has been in the restaurant business for about 20 years, usually as a general manager and consultant, and he bought the building eight years ago with the idea of bringing a modern restaurant to that overlooked stretch of Augusta near Damen in Ukrainian Village. "You may have heard there was a small global financial collapse about seven and a half years ago," he says wryly, and so he put his plans on hold, living in the building and working for part of that time as GM and beverage director for Sepia.

Bastien got his start in his native Grand Rapids, Michigan, under a former Chicago chef named Chris Perkey—"He showed me sustainable and local produce, he showed me Chef's Garden [a chef-oriented farm in Ohio], he showed me how to cook, basically." Burning with fine-dining ambition (and with a desire to get as far away from home as possible), he went to San Francisco to work at Michelin-starred Aqua for two years.

By then wanting to be closer to home, he came to Chicago and staged at a number of fine-dining restaurants here, finally working for Koren Grieveson at Avec. "I wanted some place that was serious and would use the techniques I had learned," he says. Avec both was and wasn't that place for him—"I would come up with a dish and give it to Koren, and she would break it down while she was eating it. Destroy it, basically. She would ask me how I did this, did that, and she would say, 'Too much work. We're not doing that.'"

"I learned that you have to funnel things into a certain amount of workload," he says. "It made me aware of numbers, more than I ever had been. I really try to make sure that things are doable for us without all the guys having to spend fifteen hours or having a giant staff."

Then came his first restaurant fire—Avec's August 2010 fire, which kept it closed for two and a half months. Needing a job, he went to work at Perennial for Ryan Poli, but when Poli left and the restaurant became Perennial Virant, "I would have liked to stay on with Paul [Virant], but he had positions promised to guys who had been loyal to him for years and who lived in the city and had been driving to work in Western Springs every day,” he shrugs.

Instead he wound up on the opening team at Next and worked there on its first, classically French menu—"and then I realized I was done with that. I wanted to go with something more approachable, affordable." He worked under Poli again at Tavernita as chef de cuisine (you can see him grilling eel in Poli's Key Ingredient episode), but eventually he heard from a friend of a friend about Pappas’s search for a chef for the Winchester and did a tasting for him.

From their different perspectives, Pappas and Bastien found they had a similar view of what the restaurant should be. "I've lived in the neighborhood for 15, 20 years and I felt that the neighborhood really needed it," Pappas says. "I felt like we needed a brunch place for sure—and we were right, our brunches are extremely popular. There also weren't a lot of options for someone like myself, looking for some clean, wholesome food. That was a goal, to be a hub for the neighborhood. We have a lot of creative types who use it as an office space during the day."

"I knew I wanted my first restaurant to be an all-day kind of place," Bastien says. "It's my favorite kind of restaurant. I've lived in Logan Square for most of the last seven years, and it's one of my favorite things to do, walk to Lula by myself and read a book—that's just extremely comforting to me."

But running an all-day restaurant isn't easy. "It's kind of exhausting, mostly for the chef and myself," Pappas says. "A lot of it is to make sure is to maintain and do our best at all times. There's a real shortage of good cooks in this city." They were off to the races from the beginning and still in that mode when disaster struck in May.

Key Ingredient: Greg Bastien from October 2014

"It started in the ceiling, it was an electrical problem," Bastien says. "It burned for like eighteen hours, but I smelled it midservice on Saturday night. I thought I smelled something like burning paper. Hindsight, I wanna slap myself for that. We come back for Sunday morning brunch, and there's just a haze in the kitchen."

They flipped on range hoods to clear it, but that just fed the fire, so they called 911 and cleared the restaurant. As is often the case with kitchen fires, the damage from the fire was small, but the damage from the fire department chopping walls and spraying water everywhere shut them down for about eight weeks.

Nobody would would wish for the disaster that happened in May, and Pappas looks pained at the thought of the endless insurance paperwork he's still working on (he wants me to mention that he highly recommends hiring a public adjuster to work on your behalf with the insurance companies). "It's very difficult to watch as you've built something and all your bank accounts go down to zero, but we're still paying all our bills on time," he says. But at the same time, they both recognize that the fire also presented them with their first opportunity to step back and look at the business.

"We really used that time well. It was our time to really tighten things up, see what works for us and redo the menu a little bit," Pappas says. "When you're open all day every day, it's really hard to make a lot of changes, because you're all stretched so thin." The most noticeable change was that they cut back breakfast hours to start at 10 AM. "It gave us time to reevaluate the wine list, the cocktail list, the beer list, and really hone in on the direction we wanted to go. It was nice to have that time, although I don't recommend a fire every year as a way to do that," he observes.

Meanwhile, Bastien met with his two sous chefs, Jordan Smith and Antonio Moreno, every day to work on a revamped menu, often cooking together at Pappas's apartment—"He put up with us being there every day because he lives close and has the nicest kitchen," Bastien says.

He says he felt that his staff was up to bigger challenges after more than a year, so this was his chance to approach dinner more seriously. "I wanted to utilize a lot of the things I learned in San Francisco. Most of it's technique based, it doesn't come through [in plating], it's not 18 components, there's not microgreens everywhere. It's just things I learned about pickling, purees, textures, fattyness versus acidity," he says. "Just utilizing all those things that I learned doing technical, fancy food."



"I think we've gotten to a point where we know what we're doing," he says. "My sous chefs were opening cooks and we're better at it, I guess. We're able to load them up with more work, they're able to handle it—I'm able to do more work." After living through the fire and the cleanup afterwards, "they have more ownership. They have more to offer, they've had time to just sit and talk with me—they're not just on the line every day. They have more connection, so instead of having the weight of everything on me, I can bounce ideas off them." Pappas and Bastien are trying to keep this new way of looking at the restaurant going by occasionally breaking away—a couple of weeks ago the Winchester crew met up at a camp near Lake Geneva with the staff from La Sirena Clandestina to cook together outdoors.

I ask Bastien what this new way of approaching work means in terms of the menu. "We're trying do more with seasonality now—it matters more to us now. We can do more fresh pasta. More three-day preparations where it brines for this long, then you hang it, then you smoke it and it has to cool down, and then you cut it. Just a bit more technique—it's not something you're going to see on the plate necessarily. But it will be there on the fork. Just a bit more love."

He says, "All we ever wanted to be was a neighborhood place where you could go and have, not just pasta, but something that had some real thought behind it. And still pay 12 or 15 bucks."

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