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Cheap Eats: chili chefs get warm reception

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"We've both been to the podiatrist at least three times," says Diane Stocker. Since February, she and Mary Catherine Brady have done 52 in-store demonstrations: standing in front of freezer cases, handing out samples, and answering the question, "Irish chili--what the hell is that?"

When they met, Brady was a vice-president of a bank, and Stocker was the executive director of the Volunteer Center of Oak Park. "We were involved with Taste of Oak Park last year--on the task force for volunteers--which was fairly brain-damaging work," says Stocker. "We both decided, 'Well, we don't want to be doing this next year, do we?'"

They also realized they wanted something more than employee status, however high ranking. "We both had the dream of owning our own business in food," says Brady. They settled on "gourmet chili" because, says Stocker, "I used to make chili every week for a bunch of friends--it was group therapy--and I had the recipe down pat." They added some elements from Brady's chili recipe, and Ma McNamaras's Gourmet Chile, named for Brady's mother, was born.

Organizing the business started in September 1987. "Dealing with the Department of Agriculture, the contractors, the licenses--it was like a Damon Runyon story," observes Stocker. They decided to market their "midwest-style" chili wholesale first, and by February they were ready. "We took this hokey little basket, like Little Red Riding Hood used to carry, and we put in real silverware, crystal plates and bowls, linen napkins, and a thermos full of hot and wonderful chili," says Stocker. "We went to Treasure Island, to the buyers, and we waited. Finally, they said, 'OK, honey, you're next,' and the buyer, Chris Kamberos, cleaned his crystal bowl and licked his silver spoon, said 'That was really great!' and ordered tons and tons of cases."

When they traded in business suits and briefcases for aprons, the women also surrendered a comfortable 9-to-5 existence, typically finding themselves at work from 7 in the morning until 10 at night cooking, packing, and freezing their chili. Yet on Saint Patrick's Day, they went ahead and opened a little shamrock-studded storefront cafe at 24 Chicago Avenue in Oak Park (848-6800).

All their cooking is done at the restaurant, a woefully undermarked storefront with seats for 20 and a decidedly eclectic decor a few doors west of Austin Boulevard. The huge-green-shamrooks-on-white wallpaper verges on the garish, but all the linens are cloth, and the black china and clear-glass plates and bowls are striking and stylish. The background music ranges from classical to Irish folk to Glenn Miller. The service is genuinely friendly. And the food is very good and very reasonable.

The menu is limited; the centerpiece is the "midwest-style chili, which is sweet, hot, and spicy, with whole tomatoes and a blend of spices. It's not Texas-style hot-hot," says Stocker. It contains unusual ingredients, and it comes by itself in a biggish bowl for $3.50 or over wildly mixed shapes and colors of pasta for $3.95; in either case, it comes with a choice of toppings--mozzarella, cheddar, chopped scallions and onions, and sour cream--from which the diner may select some or all, and sweet, tiny corn muffins.

Also on the menu are tortellini in marinara sauce, salads, and quiches whose exact ingredients vary from day to day. There are some very fine desserts, including cheesecake, Gelato di Roma, brownies, Irish soda bread, and lovely, light English scones served with orange marmalade. All baking is done by Brady's aunt, who comes in on Sundays. A cappuccino-espresso machine is on order, and if you call ahead, they'll come up with a birthday cake. They have superb lemonade, and you can bring your own wine and beer.

Ma McNamara's also has a thriving carryout business--of anything on the menu at no extra charge; this fall Stocker and Brady are pushing "football parties" featuring their chili. Ma McNamara's is open Monday through Saturday (Sunday tea is planned, beginning in October) from 11 AM to 8 PM Monday through Wednesday and 11 to 10 the rest of the week.

Meanwhile the food demonstrations continue in the city's better frozen-food departments. "We are doing a survey on the bathrooms in all these stores, rating them on a scale of one to ten, with ten being the worst," says Diane Stocker. "So far, most of them are a nine and a half."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.

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