CHICAGO— I have been coming to this city almost every May for the past 35 years. This time of year is a perfect time to be in Chicago because the weather is brisk, the throng of summer vacationers have yet to arrive, and the restaurants and bars are jamming. The reason they’re so busy is because the National Restaurant Association’s annual trade show and conference is in town. The show brings around 65,000 restaurateurs to the city each year to peruse through the 700,000 square feet of convention center space dedicated to everything that has anything to do with the restaurant business.
For a guy like me, it’s Disneyland. I eat, sleep, and breathe, restaurants. It’s been that way ever since I got my first job in a restaurant at 19. I fell in love with this industry, instantly. I knew sometime within the first week of working that first restaurant job, what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. Actually, what I was “supposed” to do with the rest of my life. I couldn’t get enough. I went back to college and majored in Hospitality Management. Between classes I spent hours in the periodical section of the library reading the restaurant trade magazines cover to cover. I wanted to gather as much information about restaurants as I could. I worked two jobs. One managing a delicatessen during the day and the other waiting tables at night at another restaurant. After my shifts I stayed up late designing kitchens and floorplans and coming up with concepts and menus for future restaurants. I still have all those notebooks.
The first time I came to the restaurant show in Chicago it was as if I had found my utopian wonderland. Everything I was interested in that had to do with restaurants, food, equipment, supplies, design elements, was in one building. In the days before the Internet, it was the only way to see all the things I dreamed about or saw in magazines. I believe it kept me ahead of the game in my hometown restaurants by staying on the cutting edge of what was going on in the country.
Chicago is my favorite American big city. It’s also a great restaurant city. I have always preferred Chicago over New York. It’s much more accessible. Granted, there aren’t as many restaurants in Chicago as in New York, and there aren’t as many Michelin stars, but how many restaurants can I go to at once? In the early days, I used to stay in hotels along Michigan Ave. About 15 or 20 years ago I started spending more time in the surrounding neighborhoods. These days I mostly stick around the West Loop.
Most of the national figures I have idolized in the restaurant business over the years have come from Chicago. In the 1980s and 1990s Richard Melman was the man. I followed everything he did and every restaurant he opened. If he would have had a fan club, I would have been the president. These days there are several operators I admire. Donnie Madea and Paul Khan of One Off Hospitality do an amazing job. Their concepts are creative and some of the city’s best. Brendan Sodikoff has created several concepts of which I am a fan. But Kevin Boehm and Rob Katz of the Boka Restaurant Group leave me humbled.
This trip is a 100% Boka restaurant trip. My son and I are staying at the Hoxton Hotel in the West Loop which has three Boka properties in it. Momotaro, their Japanese concept, is directly across the street. Stephanie Izard’s Girl and the Goat and Duck Duck Goat are within two blocks, Swift & Sons, one of the city’s great steak houses— in a city full of great steakhouses— is just a few blocks away. During this visit we will also hit Le Select a French Bistro and Alla Vita, Boka’s Italian concept that opened a little more than a year ago.
Five years ago today I was in Chicago with my son. He had just finished his final year of 11th grade. He had been telling me for a few years that he wanted to go into the restaurant business. It’s something that I didn’t pay attention to at first because this business is too brutal to get in on a whim. But he kept persisting so I thought I would take him to the restaurant show in Chicago to see what he thought. He came in lieu of going to the beach with some friends. At the time I think he would have rather been with his friends and the show didn’t speak to him as it does to me. I was a little disappointed— internally— that it didn’t connect with him as deeply as it did (and does) with me. I wondered if the industry decision was a impulse for him. But I told myself that I couldn’t expect him to be as enthusiastic and passionate about this business as I was early in the process.
Fast forward five years. He and I are in Chicago for the restaurant show, again. This time is different, a lot different. He is in culinary school in New York and is “all in” on the restaurant business. He gets it now. As we were having dinner last night the conversation was much different than it was five years ago with me cautiously trying to tell him about aspects of the ins and outs of the trade. This time it was full give and take. He had opinions, he had knowledge, the excitement was there. He’s becoming a restaurateur and a chef.
He’ll spend another 18 months in school and then he’ll come to this city two work for a couple of years before heading back home and hopping into the family business. There is something special about having professional conversations with your grown up children that is unique and singular to all other discussions with all other people. Our conversations used to be over superheroes and if we were granted a superpower what would that be and how would we use it. Then we moved into the fatherly advice stage. These days— at least when it comes to discussions about our industry— we are contemporaries.
We’re not too far from the days where he’ll be teaching me what he knows about this industry to which I’ve dedicated 40+ years of my life. I welcome that day and look forward to it. I look forward to visiting him often during his two-year restaurant stint up here. I look forward to watching him grow in this profession. I have always said, “I have a lot of job titles, but of all of them, ‘dad’ is the most important.” It’s also the most fun.
This week’s recipe: Pesto Pasta with Roasted Portobello Mushroom Strips and Asparagus