To many restaurant-goers, the ubiquitous term "contemporary American cuisine" conjures images of elaborate ingredient combinations tortured into show-offy contrivances--the purple potato-pomegranate-ponzu syndrome. Joel Findlay, chef-owner of 302 West in Geneva, calls those creations "silly fusion experiments"--and he abhors them. "I'm haunted by Julia Child's remark, that you know four people spent five minutes with their fingers all over everything on that plate," he says.
"It's hard to avoid getting caught up in the cliche combining of ingredients," Findlay acknowledges. "Or some new ingredient comes into fashion, and everyone scrambles for something to make them different, and it winds up making us all the same. Then if everybody's using quince, your quinces have to be handpicked by a lady in the Andes whose left leg was blown off by a land mine."
A passionate chef and confirmed individualist, Findlay blazed his contemporary American trail circa 1987, out in a little movie-set town "where the train turns around." His influences range far and wide, from New Orleans to Thailand. A fondness for seafood and shellfish reflects his time cooking in Florida and the Caribbean; a Mediterranean sensibility shines through in his dishes' simplicity of preparation, brightness of flavor, and balance of acidity through use of citric acid and wine. "It's all about play and pleasure, about letting ingredients speak for themselves," he says. That playfulness sneaks in when he uses comfort food to engage our sense memories--by offering, say, chocolate chip cookie dough served on a beater.
But Findlay pushes the envelope of culinary convention with restraint. "A dish must have a thread that gives it legitimacy," he says. "Cantaloupe gazpacho is on tonight; the similarity between cantaloupe and cucumber makes it work. If you did it with strawberries, that would be silly."
His passion for food was kindled by an aunt he describes as "a foodie in 50s-era New York. She was just a geek; she had a real sense of classical, European-based cuisine. She moved in with us when I was 18, and we spent two years trying to outdo each other in cooking competitions, driving all over for ingredients. She left me her amazing cookbook collection." His technique was honed at a Florida resort through "an old-fashioned European-style apprenticeship with an old Czech cook. It took almost three years to get Florida's chef certification back then: six months in the butcher shop, six months in the bakery, a year in the prep kitchen, six months doing appetizers and hors d'oeuvres, six months as a line cook."
Unlike the frenzied model documented in Anthony Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential, there's no screaming or pot throwing in Findlay's kitchen. Instead it's permeated by his placid demeanor--and a range of music from Badly Drawn Boy and G. Love & Special Sauce to Van Morrison and Elvis Costello. "The food here is cooked with love by people who are calm, and that energy comes across on the plate," he says. "I'm like an orchestra leader. We always have a lot of cool stuff around to cook with; we're taking food out, discussing how we're going to prepare it. We just got our first really pretty California figs today, and tonight we'll hollow them, stuff them with goat cheese, wrap them in Wisconsin applewood bacon, roast them, and splash them with balsamic vinegar."
In choosing to open up shop in Geneva, Findlay and his wife, Catherine (who operates the front of the house), took an "if we build it, they will come" stand. They targeted this easygoing town because it represented the westernmost point of the Chicago distribution net, where they'd still have access to daily product deliveries. Then they settled on a massive 1924 brick and limestone bank building with a shotgun post over the front door, building out and decorating the 70-seat restaurant in a manner that let the grand old architecture speak for itself.
"When we opened, we were laughed at by the locals," Joel Findlay recalls. "We broke conventions, we drew lines we wouldn't cross. We've never had white zinfandel or fat-free anything. We've never had a dress code or preset place settings, those lines of silverware and rings of glassware; we got a lot of upset feedback about that. And then there was our all-American wine list; all the people who were looking for the silverware had just spent two years in front of the mirror memorizing how to pronounce Pouilly-Fuisse, and we didn't have it."
Today Findlay's inspirational wine list is a major draw. "We've worked for 14 years on allocations from wineries, some of whom we've supported from their first vintage, so we have access to wines that are extremely hard to get. Our cabernet list would make someone downtown explode, and there are probably ten wines on our list right now that you can't get in another restaurant in the midwest.
"We're a mom-and-pop operation," he continues. "Unlike many downtown restaurants, we don't have partners, teams of lawyers, layers of managers--there's no one to answer to. We have several staff members who've been here 10 or 12 years, and they're deeply infused with our philosophy. If a guest orders a bottle of cabernet even though his wife is having the Dover sole, the server will bring her the glass of wine he recommends with her dish--at no charge."
Another break with convention is 302 West's unabashedly decadent dessert list, 15-plus selections that range from simple to sinful. One group of female patrons who refer to themselves as the "PMS Club" visits regularly for a three-course meal of desserts. Choices might include Michigan cherries stewed with amaretto, ginger cheesecake with orange cream, and miniature tuille fortune cookies. "Our pantry girl writes the fortunes," says Findlay. "You're liable to get one that says 'You may want to rethink that tie.'"
The sum of 302 West's parts is a kinder, gentler restaurant experience--one that has earned the patient Findlays a loyal, ever-increasing following both urban and suburban, as well as the esteem of a coterie of food critics, foodies, and wine geeks. On his balletic balance of sophistication and whimsy, Findlay says, "It's this gossamer thing you just can't define. It's instinct, but it's more than that--it's some sort of weird magic that's a product of the process. Ultimately, we're like a chameleon on plaid; having something for a lot of different tastes is really important. It's not contrived; it's the only thing we can do."
302 West is at 302 W. State in Geneva, 630-232-9302.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dorothy Perry.