When Dan Bocik lost his job as sous chef at a San Francisco luxury hotel in 1994—it went union, he didn't—it wasn't a new experience. He'd had six different cooking jobs in as many years: California cuisine, vegetarian, nouvelle French. And when he decided to move to Italy in search of his next job, that wasn't out of character either; he'd already moved from California to Paris to Chicago, and then back again to the west coast.
But this time, apparently, he made the right career move. Bocik returned to Chicago in 1995, so inspired by what he had learned in Italy that he decided it was time to head up his own kitchen. Last November, A Tavola, his elegant 36-seat restaurant in the heart of Ukrainian Village, quietly celebrated its fifth anniversary.
Bocik had first glimpsed Italy during his navy days, when his ship docked in a Sicilian port. He'd joined the service right out of high school, in the early 80s. In 1988, when he decided it was time for a change, he'd enrolled at the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco. He'd apprenticed at Wolfgang Puck's restaurant Postrio, then at a vegetarian restaurant owned by Zen Buddhists. After school he took off for Paris for six months. After Paris he came to Chicago to work for Coco Pazzo. Six months later, it was back to the Bay Area and the ill-fated luxury hotel job.
Bocik's Paris stint had soured him on French preparation. "Take the zucchini: the French would grind and puree it, then put it into some sort of butter sauce so the flavor is totally transformed," he explains. "Whereas the Italians would cut it with a sharp knife, soak it in extra virgin olive oil, then grill it to bring out the taste."
In Milan, Bocik found work at a vegetarian restaurant run by a Swiss who taught tai chi. He says Italians were "very hospitable." After mastering conversational Italian in seven months, he became chef at a small Ligurian restaurant. "They hired me because I was cheap labor," he admits. "Liguria is the province bordering France and the Mediterranean—it's where mountains meet the sea," he says. "The food is rich in pine nuts, basil, fish, and, in my opinion, the best of olive oils—more Greek than northern Italian, really." One tip he picked up was how to prepare shellfish. "You control the taste of garlic by browning it in olive oil and not mincing it in the sauce, like the French do," he reveals. "At A Tavola, we steam fresh mussels in a hot pan coated with garlic oil, add a splash of white wine and dashes of herbs and parsley."
His recipe for gnocchi, maybe the silkiest and tastiest in town, emerged from his Milan stay. "I experimented with various styles," he says. "The heavy, dense, southern Italian gnocchi are made without eggs. But I mix my batter with just enough [egg] so the gnocchi could melt in your mouth. Although ultimately it's how you ladle the batter, how light a touch you use." Depending on the season, he might cook them with pesto or San Marzano tomato sauce. Bocik's risotto is another dish he perfected in Italy: "The essence is in the creamy texture, which depends on how you stir the rice in water." He sometimes puts bits of tangerine and grapefruit in his risotto, or mixes in chunks of roast chicken and vegetables.
Bocik came back to Chicago in the spring of '95 knowing what he wanted to do. "Well, I realized that I'd always gotten into problems with my bosses," he says. "And what made me mad about most restaurants is that the owners and chefs believed the mediocrity they served was really great. It was time to put my money where my mouth was. And, oh, I wanted a restaurant of my own before turning 30." He barely beat that deadline, raising money doing freelance catering and from friends. A Tavola's original location, next door to his present quarters on Chicago Avenue, had been vacated by Soul Kitchen. Bocik kept his start-up costs down by buying tables and some kitchenware at auctions.
He's plowed profits back into the restaurant. He was able to purchase and renovate the two-flat he currently occupies, turning the second floor into a banquet room and the backyard into a garden for warm-weather dining. Still hard to find for lack of clear signage, A Tavola nonetheless has attracted a cult following that swears by the eight core dishes on the menu. Bocik has kept his menu to three appetizers, two pastas, and three entrees because, he says, "I prefer to keep things manageable and small—do a few items very well." He also offers nightly specials, and the dessert list includes a panna cotta and a chocolate-and-hazelnut torte that set new standards for delicacy.
Bocik is about to open a modest cooking school above the restaurant, expanding on classes he's offered at Francis Parker School, the Latin School, and Williams-Sonoma. He plans to include pastry making and fish filleting in the curriculum, and "one of the teachers will be Kasia, the pierogi queen of Chicago" (who runs Kasia's Polish Delicatessen).
He'd also like to start a society of chef-owned restaurants in the midwest. "Look at Erwin, Cyrano's, and Atlantique—all run by chefs who truly care about food," he says. "Their restaurants should be graded and promoted, just like superior French wine." Besides, he adds, "you can taste their passion and creativity....Take my case as an example. After all those years on the road, I've finally managed to roll together the best from the places I worked and put them on a menu that reflects my journey."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.