Bayless. Elliot. Achatz. Izard. Sound familiar? That’s because in Chicago, we’re more than a little fascinated by our master chefs. But here’s a secret: Those people don’t actually cook most of your food. While the expert chefs may run the show, their kitchens are often populated by legions of talented up-and-comers — executive chefs and rising sous, savory experts and pastry savants — who put in the time to create the dishes we love.
So we’re shining the spotlight on some of our favorite young Chicago chefs on the rise. You might not know their names (yet), but you probably know their food.
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Executive chef, Two
Van Lente, 32, got his start in the business early: His family runs Oakbrook Terrace’s Drury Lane Theatre, a live theater and banquet hall that serves Sunday brunch for more than 1,200 people. “I was peeling onions and carrots at 8 years old,” Van Lente remembers.
Though he always wanted to work in restaurants, Van Lente got a “real college degree” to please his family. But two days after graduation he started culinary school and, in 2006, landed an internship at Landmark Grill & Lounge under chef Ben Browning. “I’ll cherish that forever,” he says. “Working for [owners] Rob [Katz] and Kevin [Boehm] when they were still young troublemakers, being able to sit in management meetings and learn how they got where they are.”
In 2012, Van Lente opened Two, where he cooks fresh, simple food with an emphasis on locally grown ingredients, such as a Swan Creek Farms duck sourced from Michigan and served with purple sticky rice and charred local ramps ($15). He caught the locavore bug from his mentor, Browning. “Chef would say, ‘I’m going to Green City Market,’ ” laughs Van Lente. “On Friday, I’d want to drink beer and sleep in — not go to a market!”
Executive chef, The Boarding House
“It’s always been the joke in my family: I’m obsessed with food and eating. I’m a thin person, but I can eat like a football player,” says Tanya Baker, the 26-year-old, Le Cordon Bleu-educated chef who recently took over the top slot at the Alpana Singh-backed Boarding House.
When Baker first started in 2005, culinary school wasn’t quite as trendy as it is now. “It wasn’t something that people really supported. It was always a career people [said they] thought was ‘interesting,’ but they really thought it was strange.” But that didn’t stop Baker, who, after graduation, went on to work at several different restaurants owned by the LM Group, like the original LM and Troquet.
What sets Baker apart at Boarding House is her love for playing with texture — and her desire to create beautiful plates, even when the dishes aren’t overly complicated. Case in point: a striped bass with oyster mushrooms and fried garlic chips, accompanied by a tiny salad of julienned black radish and celery leaves ($31). “Rustic, but elegant,” she says.
Executive pastry chef, Sixteen
“Most little girls say, ‘I want to be a princess or I want to be an astronaut.’ I always said that I wanted to make cakes,” Aya Fukai laughs. Her dreams have certainly come true: As the executive pastry chef at Sixteen, she not only runs the Michelin-starred restaurant’s ambitious dessert program, but also manages banquets and in-room dining at Trump Tower, plus desserts for Rebar and The Terrace at Trump.
Surprisingly, given her astonishing success, Fukai, 30, never went to culinary school — she studied pre-med at Boston University and ended up working at the State Room in Boston. “As a non-culinary student, it’s hard to find a job where they’ll let you in without any experience at all,” she explains. “But [people in the industry] always cheered me on.”
After college (she has a degree in hospitality management), Fukai worked in a number of acclaimed restaurants before ending up at Ria in 2011, in what was then the Elysian Hotel (now the Waldorf Astoria). She’s been at Sixteen since January, crafting whimsical desserts that complement chef Thomas Lents’ creative, themed menus ($125-$250/person).
On the list now? The Goodnight Moon. “In the children’s book, there’s a line: ‘Goodnight room, goodnight moon, goodnight cow jumping over the moon,’ ” Fukai says. “I wanted to take that line and turn it into a dessert.” The resulting dish combines a croissant chip (the moon) with a cream-cheese filled caramel bavaroise — her take on a classic “cow tale” candy.
Executive chef, 42 Grams
Instead of going to culinary school, Jake Bickelhaupt went straight to work — at the famous Charlie Trotter’s. “I remember seeing Charlie Trotter’s cookbook for the first time, and decided to go to Chicago,” says Bickelhaupt, who landed the gig in 2008 after emailing the famous chef and asking to visit his kitchen. “The level of cooking was insane. It changed my life.”
The fledgling chef did stints at Alinea, Owen & Engine and Schwa before ditching the industry to study physical therapy. But he couldn’t stay away: In 2012, along with his wife, Alexa Welsh, Bickelhaupt started Sous Rising, an underground dinner series held in the couple’s apartment that immediately garnered rave reviews. When the fried chicken place underneath his Uptown apartment went out of business last April, he decided it was fate, bought the space and opened 42 Grams in January of 2014. “I’ve always wanted my own restaurant,” says Bickelhaupt, 30. “We decided to do it on our own — no investors. That’s why the restaurant is what it is.”
By that, he means tiny and intimate: The reservations-only spot seats eight-10 people, has a completely open kitchen and turns out intricate, delicious tasting menus ($155/person) with dishes that rival anything at Alinea, Moto or Sixteen. For example: What looks like a flower arrangement on a moss-covered rock is actually bread accompanied by dehydrated fish chips.
Sous chef, Cicchetti
“I actually was groomed to be a baker, not a chef,” says Phil Rubino, whose father owns a bakery on the Northwest Side. “While all my other friends were working at the mall or at car washes, I was working with my dad in the bakery.” But as a grown-up, Rubino took to the savory side of the kitchen, working at Bin 36, L20, Spiaggia and Moderno in the early aughts. Now, he’s part of a power trio — with partners Michael Sheerin and Sarah Jordan — running one of the best new Italian spots in town.
Rubino, 31, admits it took him some time to realize he loved Italian cuisine. “I’ve always had this internal battle about cooking Italian food. I used to think I needed to do other things.” But after spending two years crafting complex, modern cuisine at L20, he decided he’d rather keep things classic and simple. “I think the whole fine-dining, molecular thing isn’t for me,” he says. “I’m glad I learned it, but it wasn’t what I wanted to do.”
At Cicchetti, Rubino cooks rustic Italian food, including an oft-acclaimed beef carpaccio ($15) and a pickled sardine dish with pumpernickel and horseradish crème fraiche ($15). “I don’t like to overcomplicate things. That’s at the core of Italian food. Simply done, simply presented — there’s no fuss.”