Jonathan Ory doesn't look like he makes pastry. Corned beef sandwiches, more likely, at first glance. But some of the most gorgeous classical pastry in Chicago is coming from the (large) hands of the big, bearded, balding Ory, in tiny quantities that sell out almost every day at his Roscoe Village coffeehouse, Bad Wolf Coffee.
Talk to him—which you should do as part of the coffee transaction, in his opinion—and you'll find that his shop is not only a logical endpoint of a journey through some of America's top kitchens, but also the embodiment of a philosophy about how you should take some time, unplugged, in your day to have a cup of coffee and something beautifully made to eat.
When I spoke to him on Saturday, he was introducing three new pastries to his growing repertoire—a Paris-Brest (a dessert shaped like a bicycle wheel, with hazelnut cream filling), a raspberry Jalousie ("basically a Pop Tart"), and a Basque cake. Ory is glad that he came to pastry by way of savory food—"If you start in a specialty, you miss the big picture. What people consider 'cooking' is the backbone of everything."
He worked at Heat, a highly regarded early-aughts sushi restaurant in Chicago, where "I learned to shoot the shit with customers," and then Schwa, where, he says, "I learned the base skills—how to hustle, how to manage stress, how to do more than I should. And the whole social thing of keeping guests entertained for three hours. Because the room, and the food, and the guest's company can't do it for that long. You have to put yourself out there."
He spent a relatively short time at Restaurant Eugene in Atlanta, but credits it with opening his eyes to farmers and farmers' markets—which also, it seems, moved him away from the manipulation of food that was common at Schwa and other modernist restaurants, "where everything's a puree or a gelee, with a counterpoint of acidity here and something crunchy on top."
Before coming back to Chicago, he worked at Momofuku Ko, David Chang's 14-seat tasting-menu restaurant in New York. "I learned a ton about how to make food that was interesting and minimalist," he says, describing the process by which the chefs would be constantly inventing, tearing down and rebuilding dishes. He was also out front again, directly in front of guests, "talking to one guy, and then you turn away and make something, and then you talk to another guy. And then you say, 'Well, I was just talking about such and such with that guy right there,' and you get them talking to each other, so you can do some more work."
Bad Wolf is, in a way, his Momofuku Ko—that is, beautifully crafted food with a side of social interaction. It's emphatically not the coffeehouse to take your laptop to and get some work done; it has a single, common table in the middle of the room, and Ory says he talks to everybody who comes in, at least a little. "The last thing I want is a place where I'm staring at the backs of peoples' heads with headphones on. People forget how to talk to each other. I'm afraid my generation doesn't know how to talk. I don't know what a lot of people would do if they were ever stranded on a desert island. They'd be like, 'So, you gettin' a signal on your phone?'"
On this visit, unsurprisingly, much of the conversation revolves around the pastries he's introducing. To add to his repertoire, he reads through French baking websites and cookbooks like Larousse; he doesn't only want to do French pastry but, he says, "You read recipes from other countries and it's just, like, a shoemaker version of something they do in France. I fought French technique in savory, but when it comes to pastry, it's on point, very reliable." I suspect the menu will change quickly—the three new pastries increased the offerings by a third—and Ory seems a little restless, even wanting to change the item that's gotten the most acclaim, the flaky, gooey kouign-amann. "I don't want to be known for just one thing," he says, but he seems persuaded that it doesn't hurt to have a hit on the menu, either.
At least, that's what he seems to take away from talking to his customers.
Bad Wolf Coffee, 3422 N. Lincoln, 773-969-2346, badwolfcoffee.com; closed Tuesdays.