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Chefs in Chicago work tirelessly to feed hungry locals and ravenous tourists. Their dishes are beautifully plated, well thought out, and downright delicious. But chefs deserve a day off too and boy do they need it. Although they may spend their working hours in menu development and mise en place, on their days off they prefer comfort food and off-the-beaten-path restaurants. When chefs leave their own restaurant kitchens, here is where you’ll find them across the city and beyond.
Bernard Bennet spends most of his time manning the kitchen as executive chef of the bustling Hyde Park restaurant The Promontory, but when he has a free minute, he steps away from excitement and finds something a little more hidden."On my day off I like to go to Ghareeb Nawaz. It’s this Middle Eastern joint up on Devon and Ridge. It’s cash only and open until 5 a.m. The place looks like a hole in the wall, but the food is quite incredible! I usually get chili chicken biryani and a side of paratha bread. Biryani origins come from South Asia and India. Spices include clove, cardamom, nutmeg and more. The chili chicken variety makes me sweat behind my ears... it’s soooooo good. Their samosas are really great as well. Just an overall great spot.” said Bennet.
Mark Hellyar, who composes incredible Japanese dishes at Momotaro and the Izakaya at Momotaro (located below the restaurant) is also a fan of Middle Eastern cuisine on his days off. He shops for groceries at the Middle Eastern Bakery and Grocery in Andersonville.
“I love making soups of lentils and stews of chicken or meatballs with rice pilafs. I also love to make a yogurt with zhatar and olive oil for the laffa bread, along with hummus and marinated gigante beans around. Then, throughout the week we have easy dishes that we can both take to work or snack on after work and they tend to be healthier with all-natural ingredients, no butter, but tons of flavor. I also like to make zhatar-toasted chicken at home to accompany the rice dishes and lentil soup.”
Like Hellyar, many chefs prefer to cook at home. Patrick Russ, executive chef at Seven Lions is a big fan of the Crock-Pot, and most recently the Instant Pot, as it saves him time while he’s trying to clean, do laundry, and the other things he needs to get done on his limited day off.
Ryan Pfeiffer, who creates gorgeous plates of food at the long-time West Loop restaurant mainstay Blackbird, owes one of his co-workers for his home cooking.He loves to cook chicken mole and, as luck would have it, he has a very authentic source. “The mother of my coworkers, Juan Palomino, lives in Mexico and makes one large batch of mole a year,” he says. “Juan is kind enough to break off some when he gets some. It is a heavily reduced batch, so all I need to do is add stock and bingo!”
He does go out, too. “Another place I would eat at everyday is called En Hakkore Bibimbap & Taco on Damen Avenue. The beef paratha tacos are the best I’ve ever had in my life. Seriously insane."
It’s no surprise that ramen is a favorite amongst chefs, and they will travel to great lengths to get it. Chef de cuisine at Saint Lou’s Assembly and MONEYGUN, David Wang, will travel 45 minutes to Arlington Heights for his ramen fix.
“My favorite spot for ramen is a spot called Santouka Ramen in Arlington Heights. It is downright the best ramen spot in Chicago. I've been to Strings, Furious Spoon, Slurping Turtle, Ramen Takuya, but it is still my favorite spot. I usually order the Spicy Miso Ramen with Pork Jowls and it is always consistently great. The flavor of the broth is always spot-on and the noodles are always just the right texture. Also, after you finish eating you can go and walk around the Japanese supermarket that it is in and load up on snacks, specialty groceries, and my favorite prepared foods.”
Greg Wade, the head baker at Publican Quality Bread sticks a little closer to home. He goes to Wicker Park’s Oiistar whenever he can. “It’s the best ramen in Chicago. The portions are huge; they give you an equally large spoon to gulp it all down with. I take it as a challenge each time to drain the bowl. The broths are super deep in flavor and halfway through the bowl, you get the pork-sweats. No matter the type of bowl, I always get a side of spicy paste, because, duh!"
Samantha Lande is a freelance writer and content creator based in Chicago, IL. She explores the city and beyond for delicious restaurants, fun events and interesting people to tell stories about. She also helps brands develop their voice through original content. Her work has appeared in local, national and international publications including The Food Network, Eater, Chicago SPLASH, GOOD magazine and more.