The Chicago Tribune has the backstory on the biggest mystery in the Chicago restaurant scene last year: Why did Michael Carlson, the hot young chef behind the ludicrously small—24 seats, no liquor license, two cooks, and a dishwasher—avant-garde storefront Schwa, close the restaurant suddenly last October? Carlson had picked up a Best New Chef award from Food & Wine in Schwa’s first year, and the restaurant was the talk of Chicago: For a beautiful appreciation, see this Schwa review and photo essay.
Last October, Schwa hosted a restaurant full of chefs in town for Charlie Trotter’s 20th anniversary dinner. It was something of a summit: Ferran Adrià, Trotter, Heston Blumenthal, Thomas Keller, Pierre Herme, Wylie Dufresne—and on and on. They took up every seat in the restaurant; Trotter even lent staff to Schwa to accommodate the group. And the food?
The meal started with a hollowed-out beet, filled with chocolate-bacon ganache and rolled in cocoa, to be washed down with a shot of beet juice and white chocolate foam. Later came jellyfish pad Thai, ravioli with liquid quail egg filling and white truffles, sauteed sweetbreads with cardamom marshmallow, lamb with curry and a mini-glass of root beer, and soft pretzels paired with caramel and mustard seed-filled dates.
The next day, with the restaurant booked solid for months, Carlson, whose only investor was his father, shuttered the place. He now says, “We were fried, burned out. This industry, great as it is, can wear on you in every facet. And not all of us are super chefs who can deal with everything that gets thrown at you.” He adds, “I kind of cut off all contact. I left town for a while. I was just taking some time for perspective.”
But the news here is that Schwa has just reopened, although who knows how long it’ll stick around. Carlson has added staff and he’s trying to take things easier: According to the Chicago Tribune, the restaurant’s “very name is a phonetic symbol that indicates an unstressed vowel; the word was part of [Carlson’s] teenage slang. Instead of ‘Chill out,’ he would say, ‘Be schwa.’”