In the Kitchen | Restaurant Review | Chicago Reader

Food & Drink » Restaurant Review

In the Kitchen

John Coletta's Haute Hotel Food


Sign up for our newsletters Subscribe


John Coletta's Haute Hotel Food

The big reason hotel food has such a bad reputation--except for a few places like the Ritz-Carlton or the Four Seasons--is that the chef doesn't have a chance to put his thumbprint on the food," says John Coletta, who's spent most of the past 27 years cooking at hotels from Singapore to Vegas.

That reputation may be changing in Chicago: "hotel food" doesn't conjure up the dreary image it once did, thanks to luxury restaurants like NoMi in the Park Hyatt and the preponderance of street-level spots such as Mossant in the Hotel Monaco. But dining rooms inside most hotels still tend to serve captive audiences, and they're usually not where we seek distinctive dining experiences.

Coletta, however, has pulled off the trick of turning the two-year-old Caliterra, the second-floor dining room in Streeterville's Wyndham hotel, into a virtual neighborhood restaurant--and a destination spot for many more Chicagoans. He estimates that 85 percent of the restaurant's 73,000 customers last year were not hotel guests.

He began with an interesting idea, a fusion of California and Italian cuisine, and positioned the restaurant as upscale-casual rather than dressy-expensive. It was heavily promoted as simply a new dining spot, not a hotel restaurant. "The Caliterra concept was inspired by Cal-Ital wines--these great Italian wine varieties now being made in California," Coletta says. "We thought it would be a great idea: what the wine makers have done for wine, we could do for the food....We've got imported oils and special products like organically grown carnaroli rice for risotto, but it's really a blend, the California ingredients and style mixed with Italian approaches."

To generate and sustain interest, Coletta offers a constantly changing menu and runs monthly promotions. This also enables him to buy seasonal produce such as truffles and exotic mushrooms at the best prices. He uses many regionally grown and organic ingredients, and he delights in extracting the juices from vegetables to create the intense broths and purees that flavor and moisten his dishes.

Fava beans are the stars of his April promotional menu, including a fava pesto that joins an onion and orange bread salad as a base for nicely crisped slices of juicy roasted monkfish. With a bit of mint added, favas lend their earthy tones to a lush osso buco of lamb. Among other spring delights are firm, briny scallops strewn with morels, all resting on a satiny asparagus puree. Coletta creates a near-perfect mate for foie gras: grenadine-pickled rhubarb, just sweet-tart enough to play off the richness of the liver without combating it. There's also a classic Genovese salad of shredded raw artichokes.

This is his third stint here, having opened both Fairmont Hotel dining rooms in 1987 and the Sheraton Chicago's in 1991. Before that he worked Hilton dining rooms in Rye, New York, Tampa, and Atlanta. He won an individual gold medal in the 1984 international Culinary Olympics.

In 1992 he left the Sheraton Chicago gig for Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas, where he copped another Culinary Olympics gold medal as part of the U.S. team. In 1996 he went to Singapore's five-star Shangri-La, winning international acclaim for his Asian cuisine before returning to Chicago in 1998.

Coletta never wanted to be anything but a chef; he followed in the footsteps of his father, an Italian immigrant who ran a small red-sauce joint in Greenwich Village. Coletta studied hotel and restaurant management at New York City Technical College, getting a job at the Waldorf-Astoria in 1974, while still in school. He didn't plan to make his career in hotels, but that's where the big job offers came from. "Once they find out you're dependable and willing to move around, they start calling," he says.

He's a stickler for service, spending six or more hours a week drilling his waitstaff. His model? That little red-sauce restaurant in Greenwich Village.

"You can study about food, you can learn about wine, about decor, but what do you do about service? There's no school," he says. "Now think about all those little immigrant restaurants. No matter how humble the decor, they made you feel welcome; they made you feel good, and you'd want to come back. Not many places make you feel that way."

He clearly delivers on the food, but emphasizes, "It's not just about being a cook. A chef needs to have management skills--especially for hotels.

"You have to know portioning and buying. You have to know hygiene--look at all the food problems here and around the world. You learn how to put together a market list, how to write a menu, how to design a kitchen, something about decor, the entire mechanics of running a restaurant so the restaurant can be profitable. There are a lot of good cooks out there who don't have the other skills to go forward."

Caliterra is at 533 N. Saint Clair, 312-274-4444.

--Don Rose

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

Support Independent Chicago Journalism: Join the Reader Revolution

We speak Chicago to Chicagoans, but we couldn’t do it without your help. Every dollar you give helps us continue to explore and report on the diverse happenings of our city. Our reporters scour Chicago in search of what’s new, what’s now, and what’s next. Stay connected to our city’s pulse by joining the Reader Revolution.

Are you in?

  Reader Revolutionary $35/month →  
  Rabble Rouser $25/month →  
  Reader Radical $15/month →  
  Reader Rebel  $5/month  → 

Not ready to commit? Send us what you can!

 One-time donation  → 

Add a comment