Recently I had the chance to sit with Chef Jimmy Papadopoulos in the beautifully eclectic dining room of Bohemian House, and ask him a few questions about his background and culinary philosophy; here is what he had to say.
Describe your cooking style in 3 words.
Simple, eclectic, and complex.
How did you get started cooking, and when did you decide to make a career out of it? Were there any particular influences?
My first job was as a dishwasher in a pizza place at age 15 but ultimately I wanted to become a cook. I fell in love with the work and all the different characters in the kitchen. It was a lot of fun and my introduction to working in a professional kitchen. After that I moved on to the fish counter at Whole Foods and it was there that I met a Chef. I asked him “Hey, how do you become a Chef?” He told me he went to Le Cordon Bleu here in Chicago (CHIC). So I decided to go there and I met Chef Adam Schop of De La Costa and he had me come out and help open the restaurant as one of his cooks. That was my first professional cooking position. It was so exciting for me to work in a real kitchen, with real Chefs, to see their intensity and drive and the constant push to improve so it was pretty awesome.
I decided to make a career out of it while I was living in the suburbs and working in the city. I was in and out and decided I needed to work closer to home so I thought, ‘Hey, Marriott seems like a great company’. That was a different dynamic because it’s not a restaurant that’s cuisine focused; it’s more of an amenity to the hotel, and servicing the guests. I had a really good time there and later moved to the Renaissance Hotel in Schaumburg. Working at the Renaissance was a huge transition because that’s where I learned to be a manager and how to lead people. I was there for six years; the first two I was a sous chef and ran Sam and Harry’s Steakhouse and then finished out as their Chef de cuisine. What was so great about that job was it enabled me to have the luxury of buying whatever ingredients I wanted. I honed my cooking skills and really got to define who I was as a Chef, as a manager, as a leader. So it was really a great experience for me.
Working here at Bohemian House is a passion project; for the love of food, I’m working for the guest who comes in to experience a culinary theme, a food culture.
Who are your biggest culinary influences?
First, Thomas Keller. When I was working at De La Costa Carol Shelton (most recently the Chef De Cuisine of Boka) said I had to read The French Laundry. I didn’t know what he was talking about. Okay, it’s a laundry and it’s French… so what does that mean? I picked it up and I was instantly enamored with the book and fell in love with it. The story, the philosophy, and I think what really drove me was that it wasn’t even a bit crazy. It’s simple cooking with a real philosophy behind it, driven by technique and quality ingredients. How to braise properly or using one round of vegetables for the first batch and then using the same vegetables as a fresh garnish when the dish is finished. This was a turning point for me, there was so much technique and philosophy in that book that I fell in love with it.
Sean Brock of McCrady’s and Husk. I had been following his blog “Ping Island Strike” (seanbrock.wordpress.com) since way back – I have never met or at at any of his restaurants, but I love his style and approach to food, heritage, and preservation of culture – his cooking not only represent a place in time, but is also redefining it, and he is no doubt one of the most important chefs in our country.
As for a local influence, obviously everyone says Paul Kahan. He first started Blackbird and later opened Avec and then Publican; he is a Chicago icon. But he is also a very humble and down to earth person. I remembered when I went to Blackbird to work there for eight days, and while I was there I met him one day and I addressed him as Chef and said it was nice to meet him. He said “Hi, how are you?” and walked by. One of the cooks heard me and said “Don’t call him Chef. He likes to be called Paul.” I was shocked.
Is there a particular process you like to follow while creating new recipes?
A lot of times I will base a new recipe on tradition. This project in particular was 100% concept so I had to research the food and craft off of that. Really design it and for the most part when I concept new recipes I will start with an inspiration, like I’m out somewhere and be struck by the change of seasons; I’ll think about fall colors and then I start to think about fall ingredients. It’s an organic process, and it’s hard to say exactly how it happens. Sometimes I’ll build a dish off of a protein and look at it like, this is a rich and fatty dish, so how am I going to build it? It’s hard to pinpoint where it comes from but I’ve literally woken up in the middle of the night and scribbled down ideas. Now I like to pick up my phone and use the notebook app to write ideas down. I’m thinking about fall and I love to pick my own mushrooms, so that’s another inspiration for me too. I enjoy being in the woods during those time of the year so. Before we opened Bohemian House we were doing a R & D menu tasting and I went out mushroom hunting and I picked out 5lbs of morels and I used them for my spätzle dish for this menu for the owners and they loved it and it was such a cool experience. Inspiration comes from all over. A lot of time was spent researching and then building upon it. For instance; taking the Czech potato pancake and thinking, how can I make this beautiful, new, and fresh?
Briefly describe what a typical day is like for you at Bohemian House.
I walk in around 10am, unlock everything, turn on the lights and equipment. Check the coolers, do a walk through to see how they were left the night before. I’m stickler for how things are kept and everything needs to be organized and set up for success. The cooks begin to arrive around 11am, when we touch base and see how they are doing and start going through prep. We looks at the orders that arrived and get ready for service. We have our staff meal an hour before we open like you witnessed today. The guys will normally cook whatever they want using bits and pieces of the scraps from today to make a meal for all of us. Today was mise en place ramen. We took ramen noodles, threw them in a pot with scraps of pork belly and all types of ingredients for our staff meal. It’s usually some kind of hearty potato and pork stew or whatever we can piece together on the fly before service. Then we kick off and go into service. The quality of the workplace is defined by the people who run it. it’s the people who are in it everyday pushing for excellence and I think we’ve really done an amazing job with our kitchen staff. I’m very proud of my team; they’re the reason why we are where we are today, because they have taken my vision and helped to execute it. That’s the really fun part about it. It’s a very fun work environment. Everybody has fun here and it feels like a very tightly-knit family.
Who creates the pastries here at Bohemian House?
When we first started I did not have a pastry chef in the kitchen. I was handling both the pastry and the savory side of the kitchen. So, I decided to hire Katie Kennedy. She attended the same culinary school as I did, studying pastry. She was working out in Naperville at Paris Bistro doing small pastries. She comes in early and makes our bacon buns, and the Kolacky are her grandmother’s recipe.
Name three dishes at Bohemian House a new diner shouldn’t miss.
I would say the potato pancakes are perfectly balanced. The beet salad because so many people have had it everywhere and it’s really over done but I think we do a very unique take on it. It’s a beautiful presentation a great amount of flavor and textures. Lastly, our Czech roast duck is delicious. I would add the Spätzle and the Kolacky are also not to be missed.
What are your most and least favorite ingredients to work with?
Most favorite – too hard to say. I love working with fish. Like LOVE working with fish, but I also am enamored with beautiful fruits and vegetables, and high quality meat, and butchering pigs. Least favorite is equally hard to say – There’s something about the texture of chestnuts! I love the flavor of them, but I really dislike the texture. I would say my least favorite ingredient is an improperly utilized chestnut. Other than that there really isn’t any other ingredient I dislike. Everything has it’s own character and profile, and it all can play a role into creating something beautiful when placed in the right hands!
What tips would you offer young chefs just getting started?
Go work in a restaurant before you go to culinary school to decide you want to become a chef. If you think you want to become a chef, own a restaurant, or open a restaurant; first go work in a restaurant. If you do it because you love food and you want to take it into food writing or something else then that’s totally cool, but I think the best you can do is to fall in love with it. Fall in love with food, fall in love with everything about it, fall in love with the satisfaction it brings others. If you don’t feel that, if that’s just not there, you’ll never really and truly be successful at it. If you want an enriching career that makes you feel great you need to love what you do.
What are your favorite cookbooks?
I love Charcuterie by Michael Ruhlman because it’s on the techniques of sausage making and I think he is a fun read and I enjoy the way he writes. Another one would be 11 Madison Park by Daniel Humm. His food is stunning. Daniel Humm’s style is beautiful, graceful, and complex but at the same time very natural. Fäviken by Magnus Nilsson, who worked for Pascal Barbot’s L’Astrance and L’Arpège in France, then he was a sommelier for a short time before opening up Fäviken in Sweden in 2008, which was ranked the 19th best restaurant in the world in 2014. It’s a small restaurant and he does 12 covers per night. It’s intensely focused, laser-precise cooking, but it’s nothing fancy and it’s a very old world way of cooking. I like his book, it has a lot of great stories in it along with recipes. The River Cottage Meat Book by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall is another one of my favorites, there’s a story in there about how people/Americans don’t really care about the emotions of animals, or how they are treated or raised. We are too sensitive about seeing an animal being slaughtered but then we think nothing of going to Jewel and picking up a shrink-wrapped steak, with no thought to how it arrives there and no appreciation that the animal lived its life and was slaughtered to be consumed entirely, not just the filet mignon. I think most people think that the cattle goes in alive and comes out as just ribeyes, filet mignons, etc but we owe it to that animal to utilized the whole thing. That’s a great philosophy. I’m extremely excited for Sean Brock’s new book Heritage to come out.
What cities besides Chicago, do you like for culinary travel?
Portland, Oregon no doubt. It’s such a liberal, “hip” kind of city but it has such a great culture with food and people. My wife Ashly took me there two years ago as a surprise trip, we would wake up every morning and go to this little cafe called Barista for espresso and coffee, then we would walk to 5th Street food carts and get a cup of Laos Style chicken noodle soup. Chef Gabriel Rucker’s Le Pigeon was one of my favorite dinners in Portland, it was so quaint and just perfect. The kitchen is practically in the dining room with about 10-12 seats around it, there’s a beautiful copper hood hovering over the cooks, and the food was stellar. We also went to Ox which at the time was a brand new Argentinian restaurant with this beautiful wood fired grill that was practically in the dining room. We visited Chef Chef Andy Ricker’s Pok Pok which is one of my favorites; his fish offerings are incredible, and I still miss their rum punch! We went to Portland City Grill which is on the top floor of a high-rise and the views of the city were just stunning. We then headed to Cascade Brewery and had wild sour ales and then before heading to The Hair of the Dog Brewery. Portland is such a fun city, great for people watching, great food, and I would love to go back!
Besides Bohemian House, what restaurants do you like to eat at in Chicago?
Tête Charcuterie in West Loop. Chef Tom & Chef Kurt are doing some amazing work over there. The meal I had there two weeks ago was one of the best experiences I’ve had in recent memory. On one side of the restaurant they are doing their own housemade charcuterie and then on the other side of the restaurant they are doing Michelinstar. I’m also dying to check out 42 Grams and Elizabeth.
What excites you most about the Chicago food scene?
The constant competition that there is always something new popping up. There is always that drive to push to be better. Chicago is the second-city and I think it has such a great diverse food scene, and it has that broad shoulders feel; not a cocky attitude but they are all very humbly doing it. It’s really an amazing city.
What do you cook for dinner for your family at home?
Vietnamese Pho is something I love to cook for my family. I’ll throw down, it’s an all day event, I’ll make the broth with oxtails, marrow bones, charred ginger, onions and spices. It’s just such a fun dish to make and eat at home. I like firing up the charcoals in my Weber and charring a double thick rib-eye. I really enjoy cooking for my family. My 2 year old son will eat avocados, tomatoes, steak tartare and drop a “Mmmm, that’s good!” I think when you serve chicken nuggets and noodles, then that’s all they’ll ever want. I want my son to grow up to appreciate good food and remember eating tartare with his Dad.
Do you have a guilty pleasure; something you eat when nobody is looking?
Oh my gosh! Lucky Charms at 1am; sometimes 3-4 bowls! I’m also a White Castle fanatic. I’m here cooking this food all day and on my way home I pass a white White Castle, and I’m like YES! Jalapeno cheese burgers, mozzarella sticks. I also enjoy a fried egg on two slices of white toast spread with Hellman’s mayo.
There are many home cooks out there like myself who are not beginners but haven’t yet reached the professional level; so I’m wondering what advice you would give us to take our cooking to the next level?
If you’re cooking and you want to take it to the next level it takes all of you. It’s all or nothing, you can’t give it 25% or 50% and expect to get anywhere or even be satisfied. You have to immerse yourself in it and fall in love with it! I think if you’re really serious about it, just do it because there is no better time when you have that feeling in your stomach, and that’s the time you should do it. Jump in and go with it. It’s such a fun industry and there’s so many different styles of cooking to get into, so many great people, and you never stop learning.