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Schwa, now with fewer drugs and more adult responsibility

Once infamous for its excesses, the influential restaurant from mercurial chef Michael Carlson has transformed into a fertile proving ground for Chicago’s next generation of young culinary talent. Now that it’s all grown up, has Schwa lost its edge?

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Schwa chef-owner Michael Carlson - LUCY HEWETT
  • Lucy Hewett
  • Schwa chef-owner Michael Carlson

Chicago's restaurant landscape is packed with spots that serve up painstakingly refined food with a particular punk-rock insouciance. The origins of that now familiar mix can be traced, in part, to a shabby-looking storefront wedged into an unremarkable stretch of Ashland Avenue in Wicker Park. Inside, the walls of the small, stark dining room are spray-painted black from the ground up to about the seven-foot mark—a look that suggests a pose of youthful rebellion somewhere between underground nightclub and shallow grave. At least that's how the place appears until one morning this past spring when Schwa chef-owner Michael Carlson points out that the bare-bulb lights hanging above the 26 seats of his restaurant have blackened bottoms at precisely the same level as where the black paint on the walls stops. The light bounces off the ceiling, which is covered with a foil-like reflective material, producing a warm glow that seems to hover in the room over diners' heads. With that revelation, the space suddenly gives off a sense of being meticulously designed that runs counter to the fuck-fine-dining approach Carlson pioneered a dozen years ago when he turned down an offer from Grant Achatz, his mentor at Trio, to be a sous chef at the soon-to-debut Alinea. On a whim Carlson decided to forge his own way with a determinedly personal tasting-menu venture. It would be hailed by critics and top chefs alike, decorated with the highest industry awards, and give rise to a new wave of decidedly unstuffy restaurants putting out innovative cooking.

Looking back, Carlson downplays his initial ambitions in characteristic fashion. "I'd be lying if I said there was a whole lot of thought behind it," he says. "To be honest the opportunity fell into my lap."

From the beginning, part of Schwa's appeal has been Carlson's willingness to dispense with tradition in the dining room while doubling down on formal precision in the kitchen. There's no waitstaff; dishes are brought to the table by cooks as they finish them. Getting reservations has in the past been notoriously hampered by the staff's reluctance to answer the phone. (Chef de cuisine Wilson Bauer insists that nowadays they will pick up.) And the music, typically a chef's-choice mishmash of hip-hop bangers and thrash metal, is forever a few notches past reasonable. That style of doing business, in which the culture of the kitchen bled unrestrained into the dining room, was refreshing to some customers—and could be exasperating to those used to a traditional standard of service.

As outstanding as Carlson's food at Schwa has been through the years—the restaurant has held a Michelin star since 2011—the place has also become nearly as famous for peripheral parts of the dining experience. Schwa has always been BYOB, which in practice has meant not only bottles being shared with the staff and other diners, but customers drinking and indulging in other substances with chefs after hours, sometimes into the early morning. Carlson has spoken frankly about his drug use, especially after a high-pressure private meal in October 2008 during which Achatz arranged for a crew of renowned international chefs to toast Charlie Trotter on the occasion of his restaurant's 20th anniversary. Schwa wowed them with 14 courses over four hours. But the stress of pulling it off had left him exhausted physically and mentally. Overworked and anxious, he went on a three-day binge of alcohol and drugs—then shut down Schwa and dropped out of public view.

Some wondered if Carlson, having impressed the most formidable of his peers, would ever cook for ordinary diners again, or just vanish into legend. What followed after a four-month hiatus instead was a period during which Schwa had a tendency to develop last-minute "plumbing problems" that would close the place down on the night of your hard-won reservation, as food journalist Steve Dolinsky experienced in 2012. That embellished Schwa's bad-boy image; it also made the restaurant easy to give up on in favor of newer, hotter spots with similar levels of refinement and informality—and reservations readily available on Open Table.

As a result, not so many people noticed as Schwa tightened up its act over the last few years, first under chef de cuisine Brian Fisher, who left for the 90s-sitcom-themed pop-up Saved by the Max at the end of 2015 and to develop Entente, which opened last fall, and then under his successor, Bauer, who'd put in time at Longman & Eagle, Elizabeth, and Grace.

Carlson is now 43, and his restaurant is not unlike a veteran rock band: The party days aren't exactly gone, they're just more infrequent and less crazed. Schwa now is more of a functional business than the "pirate ship" that Carlson once described it as. "We still have fun. We're still the same people," Bauer says. "But we have kids now." He's speaking not just of the maturity brought about by his and other staff member's caring for biological children, but also the unlikely evolution of Schwa into a fertile proving ground for his and Carlson's kitchen kids—the city's next generation of young culinary talent.

In Schwa’s spartan dining room the bare-bulb lights hanging above the 26 seats have blackened bottoms at the same level as where the black paint on the walls stops. The light bounces off the ceiling, which is covered with a foil-like reflective material, giving the room a warm glow. - LUCY HEWETT
  • Lucy Hewett
  • In Schwa’s spartan dining room the bare-bulb lights hanging above the 26 seats have blackened bottoms at the same level as where the black paint on the walls stops. The light bounces off the ceiling, which is covered with a foil-like reflective material, giving the room a warm glow.

Morning light streaming into Schwa's 825-square-foot hole has a way of making you instantly feel hungover. On a weekday in March, Carlson is seated in the dining room. With long hair slicked back into a ponytail, a black beard spotted with gray, and an apron hiding a few extra pounds around the waistline, he looks like an unkempt samurai. He can occasionally shoot a fierce-looking gaze with his icy blue eyes, yet he's warm and friendly and speaks with a skater dude's intonation. His lack of pretense about fine dining can leave a journalist feeling like the square interviewer asking Bob Dylan to please explain his lyrics.

He recounts how he wound up in this spot 11 years earlier. "I'd just come back from Europe at the time, planned on working with Grant at Alinea, and, uh, I just happened to stumble across the people who owned [the building] prior. A friend I had cooked with the first time I was ever in a restaurant—I hadn't seen him for almost a decade, and I stumbled across him walking down the street. And I was just like, 'Hey, what's up? What are you doing?' And he's like, 'I got this little place. You should check it out.' And man, when I walked in the door I was like, 'Yeah,' " he says, laughing at the impulsiveness of his younger self, " 'I'll take this over.' "

Instead of joining Alinea, he opened a neighborhood spot, the kind of place that reviewers called "romantic" because it was compact and you had to cut through the kitchen to go to the bathroom. And he started doing Achatz-like avant-garde molecular gastronomy on a shoestring in a transitional area, taking Alinea's involvement of cooks in running plates to tables a step further—by not having waitstaff at all.

"I came across this style often in Europe, in all of the smaller little towns and cities—maybe not to the extent of all the chefs bringing [the food] out, but it was definitely more intimate. It was the chef and his wife and his brother or whatever, out of necessity, because of the financial aspect of it," he says. "You can pay your wife cheaper, I guess."

Alinea may be the one that got the global acclaim, but it's tiny Schwa that's changed the restaurant experiences we've become accustomed to in Chicago—whether it's cooks carrying the food to the table, the dissolution of the barriers between dining room and kitchen, or the wider acceptance of the idea that accomplished, highly conceptual food can be gotten in neighborhoods like Avondale (Parachute) or Douglas Park (El Ideas) or Humboldt Park (Kai Zan) or Uptown (42 Grams, which closed in June). Carlson declared a vast, community-wide "who needs that shit" on many of the tenets of fine dining.

Schwa chef de cuisine Wilson Bauer - LUCY HEWETT
  • Lucy Hewett
  • Schwa chef de cuisine Wilson Bauer

The danger of being among the avant-garde, of course, is that eventually you aren't anymore. Dining at Schwa, as I did in February before I finally managed to get media-shy Carlson to sit for an interview, was a very different experience than my first meals there in its early years, mostly because the world has changed more than Schwa. The black dining room and the informal servers seemed raw and a bit transgressive, but the place settings were still set up formally on white tablecloths, which borders on uncommon these days, and the kitchen is actually more removed from the dining room than at places like Elizabeth or Parachute—or, for that matter, at Grant Achatz's latest restaurant, Roister, where guests at the bar practically sit on top of the kitchen.

Carlson not long ago had glass installed in the window between the kitchen and the dining room, restoring some of the distance he was responsible for removing. "We had people who would just park there with a glass of wine while I was cooking, half the time dumping it over the station onto my mise en place," Carlson explains. "They'd just barge in, with the best intentions, but it's easy to get pulled aside and sidetracked. You try to remain respectful of what people are saying and you're listening while at the same time trying to cook."

Bauer chimes in. "People come around and start talking and you're trying to make crispy skin on a fish—'Uh, this is gonna burn, sorry.' "

"At the same time, that is what makes the experience the experience," Carlson says. "It was something I wasn't used to. It took a while to be less introverted. It goes in cycles: you get used to it and then you get a little more shy. It keeps evolving that way. I think there's a point after 11 years of doing it where you become a little reclusive and like, 'I'm gonna hide in the basement for a minute,' " he says with a laugh.

When it comes to how dishes are conceived, Schwa's style is still rooted in its early days. Bauer's most outstanding creation during my visit to the restaurant was something he called "a play on" pork and beans: fried bits of chicharron on a ball of headcheese. It's pretty ingenious, like a mace made of meat. But making a dish that winks at some familiar taste is a throwback to dining a decade ago, when Graham Elliot was impressing patrons by serving up a deconstructed Caesar salad featuring a large brioche "Twinkie" crouton.

Schwa, in 2017, runs the risk of being a calculated nostalgia act—a restaurant not far removed from Saved by the Max.

"I think you wanna get close to that edge, but don't go all the way over to a Caesar-stuffed Twinkie," Bauer says. "There's a bit of a challenge in that it still has to be good food at the end of the day. A dish can't just be a cigar or whatever," he says, referencing a famous Moto plate that incorporated elements of a Cuban sandwich into the form of a stogie. "But I can do playful. I think that's kind of what Schwa was, and when I moved to Chicago, it influenced my career quite a bit. So I'm staying true to that vision of what the food is."

Some of the items on a recent Schwa menu, clockwise from top left: an amuse-bouche with a cocktail called A Snarky Remark and candy cap “twig” with lion’s mane mushroom and Meyer lemon; chocolate mousse tart, umeboshi puree, nori brittle, black sesame; cuttlefish with flavors of glogg; “pork and beans” served with rye pretzel and bacon butter - LUCY HEWETT
  • Lucy Hewett
  • Some of the items on a recent Schwa menu, clockwise from top left: an amuse-bouche with a cocktail called A Snarky Remark and candy cap “twig” with lion’s mane mushroom and Meyer lemon; chocolate mousse tart, umeboshi puree, nori brittle, black sesame; cuttlefish with flavors of glogg; “pork and beans” served with rye pretzel and bacon butter

In Bauer's hands, the dishes remain refined and improbably delicate. Cuttlefish carved into "noodles" has long been a Schwa trademark, and the current iteration has the fish alongside similar curls of fennel, dabbed around the plate with a hint of citrus. Other offerings draw you into miniature bowls, where a few intense bites of flavor reside. A bone marrow creme brulee with caviar has a Japanese-style presentation, though the invasion of Asian flavors at seemingly every upscale restaurant these days has been largely resisted at Schwa. And the line between savory and sweet is pushed, if not ignored outright; I had trouble identifying what I believed to be a slightly meaty vegetable marinated in rosé and tossed with a veal heart tagliatelle until I momentarily had enough light to see that I'd been eating sliced strawberries.

Any restaurant that's around long enough is going to develop dishes that every guest has to have, and Schwa's is the black-truffle-butter ravioli. Descended from Achatz's Black Truffle Explosion at Alinea, it's been on the menu since shortly after the restaurant opened—and customers have long since come to expect it, even demand it.

"Dude," Carlson says, "people become suicidal when you don't do it."

"I would be terrified not to serve that," Bauer concurs.

"Like, people get so angry, like, it's amazing," Carlson continues. "There was a point where we wouldn't do it if you asked for it. If you just kept your mouth shut, we would serve it to you at some point. But if you started talking about it, asked for it, [began] wondering why the table next to you got it—then you're not seeing it, man." He pauses for a beat. "That was an asshole move for sure," he says, letting out a room-filling laugh.

Bottles of liquor, gifted by diners, flow nightly into the kitchen for the cooks to share with each other—and with patrons passing through to get to and from the bathroom. - LUCY HEWETT
  • Lucy Hewett
  • Bottles of liquor, gifted by diners, flow nightly into the kitchen for the cooks to share with each other—and with patrons passing through to get to and from the bathroom.

The trouble with Schwa, as Carlson sees it, is that he keeps getting older but the restaurant's eager-to-party fans stay the same age. The excesses that were part and parcel of Schwa's image in its salad days are still expected, as evidenced by the bottles of liquor, gifted by diners, that flow nightly into the kitchen for the cooks to share.

"I don't think my body could take much more, to be honest," Carlson says. "I'm surprised I've lived this long, to be totally truthful. I'm on my 122nd step, at this point, of all the different step programs."

"People go out to party. We party here—we party at work. And when you spend 60-plus hours a week at work, it's pretty hard to maintain that for a long amount of time," Carlson says. "But we usually have a good, eclectic mix of random people. There's always someone who's younger than us that can handle the guy on table six who wants to do a shot with every course. 'All right, Tim, go jump on this grenade! We got ya, buddy!' "

On the evening I dined at Schwa, in fact, a thirtysomething bro with a date who brought in a bottle of semi-expensive bourbon seemed to want to go through it quickly. Where once Carlson and company might've joined in, these days they deal with the scenario differently.

"That works itself out real fucking quick, when their head's on the table and their wife is kicking them under the table like, 'You asshole!,' " Carlson says. "We're also not dumb, either. We've been through this drill before. We have certain tricks where we can manipulate any situation."

"Or just watch the train wreck," Bauer says.

That the kitchen crew operates with such precision in a space not much bigger than a master bathroom is one of the great wonders of Schwa. - LUCY HEWETT
  • Lucy Hewett
  • That the kitchen crew operates with such precision in a space not much bigger than a master bathroom is one of the great wonders of Schwa.

As a lot of chefs do a decade or more after founding a restaurant, Carlson has pulled back from leading the kitchen each night of service. "I do a few services—I just can't [do any more] with my schedule the way it is," he says. "My body needs a rest from it, honestly." What takes his attention now is more interesting to him than drink or drugs.

"I'm here every morning. I answer phones a lot in the mornings, or I'll go get these guys [in the kitchen] whatever they need, do a lot of shopping. We're also starting to grow our own stuff now. We have a huge space sort of close to here that we're utilizing to grow our own shit."

In that building, which Carlson will only say is "nearby," he plans to grow greens and start a fermentation program. "We've got a lot of space to play with," he says. "Right now, we cruise around on hoverboards and skateboards. But it's just a great evolution of a restaurant in a little space, because what more can we do?"

His evenings are now largely occupied by his ten-year-old daughter, Lily. "She lives with me now, on a full-time basis, which hasn't always happened; it's been split time," he says. "And she's at an age where, you know, you've got to think of psychological development, and how much time are you going to be there, and reliability, and shit like that."

As Carlson has watched his daughter grow up, he's also helped Schwa spawn some outstanding chefs, most notably Fisher of Entente and Noah Sandoval of Oriole, who was named to Food & Wine's prestigious Best New Chefs list in April. "He's a G," Carlson says of Sandoval. "I love that kid. He's going to do well on character alone." He speaks of his proteges who've gone on to their own places with an air of contentment, like a proud papa. "They're all gangsters, man," Carlson says. "They make me look good."

LUCY HEWETT
  • Lucy Hewett

The rock 'n' roll restaurant is now, apparently, the School of Rock. What matters to Carlson is that he's providing a good environment for his "kids" who work there so that they have the opportunity to learn every aspect of the business. 
"Working at a place like this is an education," he says. "If this is the end goal of what you want, and you want to open a small restaurant, you better fucking work in a small restaurant, man, and see what it's like to wake up and not only receive orders, but shit . . . you're your own PR person, writing the bills, paying stuff. It's a lot to do, man. If that's your endgame, it's stupid not to spend some significant time doing it.

"Obviously you're trying to give every diner an experience that they're going to remember, that's your main objective," he continues. "But you have a responsibility to the kids that are working for low pay to learn, and what they do learn is how to be taken out of their element in the middle of service and be able to speak to people, be knowledgeable about all dishes, knowledgeable about wine.

"I mean, the shit that people bring in here [to drink]—the majority of the people always share it. You have the potential of trying eight, ten wines a night. And if you have the capacity to maintain that information or to write that shit down, that's an education in itself, at the cost of the people who come in—their generosity of sharing with you."

With Carlson having assumed the role of patriarch, Schwa is no longer about proving himself or embellishing his own name. It's about giving his kids a way to grow and to shine—and, eventually, to leave the nest ready for whatever lies ahead.

"There's a lot going on back there," Carlson says of overseeing the kitchen and dining room during the chaos of service. "I picture, like, kids storming the beach at Normandy, things going off—kerplow! kerplow!—and it's beautiful. To see the kids, the younger kids who haven't been acclimated to dealing with people, it's fucking amazing. It's amazing people watching. I could just watch that half the time."  v


Michael Gebert is the editor of Fooditor.com.

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