I have been interviewing chefs on The Dinner Party for over two years, so it is about time that I interview a French one. Executive Chef Jean Joho of Michelin Star Everest Restaurant is interesting, a complex character who serves refined French food in a style he likes to call personalized French.
In preparation for his participation in the January 20th Dinner Party as guest chef, I spoke with him in his Everest Kitchen, one of the larger and certainly one of the most pristine kitchens I have been in. On the day of my visit, he made escargot risotto and roasted ham and sauerkraut-wrapped sturgeon with braised red radishes, tuber crones and cabbages, both of which he will be serving on The Dinner Party at the 20th of this month. Uncharacteristic of French food, neither dish was burdened with heavy or overly rich sauces. The food was very contemporary, yet subtle and elegant. Spoiler alert for anyone who might attend on January 20th, the sauerkraut wasn't sour and the braised radishes were refined, adding a little zing to the crones and cabbages. The sturgeon was light and flavorful, slightly crusty on the outside from the ham and enhanced, not drowned, by the mild sauerkraut. In addition, Chef Joho let me know that he uses only American ingredients, solidifying my understanding that he is not your typical French chef.
Chef Joho's story is quite remarkable. He may have reached the pinnacle of recognition in the culinary world for his exquisite cuisine, however, his entry into the industry came from humble beginnings. At the age of 6, he was peeling vegetables in his aunt's restaurant kitchen. He made stops along the way as a 13-year-old apprentice for Paul Haeberlin of the acclaimed L'Auberge de L'Ill in Alsace, France, and continued in kitchens in France, Italy and Switzerland. By the age of 23, Joho was the sous chef at a Michelin three-star restaurant where he commanded a 35-person staff. He furthered his trajectory by studying at the Hotel Restaurant School in Strasbourg where he immersed himself in the hotel and restaurant business, as well as the arts of pastry, cheese and wine. From there he soared to international success all the way to the 40th floor of the Chicago Stock Exchange, where sits one of Chicago most exquisite dining rooms, Everest.
Usually restaurants come and go within a few years, but Chef Joho has been the Executive Chef of Everest for an astonishing 29 years. I have to believe that part of this is due to his whimsical character, as shown in the video below, which allows him to ride the daily ups and downs of kitchen life and the yearly pressures of owning a high end restaurant. Chef Joho runs his kitchen with humor, warmth and an eye towards maintaining a family community among the staff. In fact, every night before the restaurant opens, Chef serves the entire staff a proper sit down meal, which is lovingly referred to as the Family Dinner. Furthering that sense of family, many Chicago chefs have apprenticed under Joho, such as Tim Graham of acclaimed Travelle, leaving a long list of accomplished chefs as his legacy. Coincidentally, Chef Graham will be the guest chef on the February 17th Dinner Party.
A large of part of Everest's personality and charm also comes from Chef's interest in art, a passion he shares with his Lettuce Us Entertain You Enterprises partner, Rich Melman:
"I love art and being surrounded by art. If I wasn't a chef, I believe I would have been an artist or a sculptor. I have many artist friends whose works are in the restaurant, including Tim Anderson, who is one of my favorite painters, and John Westmark, from whom I recently purchased two paintings for the restaurant. I have a very long friendship with Ivo Soldini, the Swiss sculptor whose bronze statues adorn each of the tables at Everest. Art is very personal to me, and suits the cuisine at Everest."
I asked Chef if he considers food preparation and a finished plate art. "Yes, cuisine provides [an] emotional response to your senses of sight, smell and taste and can be very reflective of the time in which the dish was created and the person who created it, much like a painting."
The artwork might serve to be more than just aesthetically pleasing to the Chef. Along with serving excellent and sophisticated courses, Everest is amazingly able to accomplish two seemingly opposing feats at once: It is both wildly romantic and oddly perfect for upper-end business meetings. The artwork, along with the spectacular view of almost all of Chicago, helps to make Everest appealing to both markets.
Enjoy watching the video below (and his Alsatian accent!) of Chef Joho making roasted ham and sauerkraut-wapped sturgeon with braised red Radishes, tuber crones and cabbages. Chef will join female rapper sensation DESSA, Tributosaurus lead singer Chris Neville, and famed film critic Richard Roeper, at The January 20th Dinner Party. The Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestra will be the opening act.