TASTE
06/12/2014 09:18 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

To Find Chicago's Next Culinary Superstar, Head Underground

Chicago is a city with a reputation for seriously delicious food -- and we're not just talking about hot dogs, Italian beef and deep-dish here.

The city has, particularly in recent years, also become known as a melting pot of culinary prowess, with some of the world's -- most innovative restaurants opening their doors in the Windy City. In recognition of this trend, it was announced last month that the James Beard Awards -- the food world's Oscars -- are relocating to Chicago from New York City.

Of course, everyone has to start somewhere, and chefs at many of the city's hottest restaurants of the moment got their start in the city's burgeoning underground dining scene -- at restaurants that often lacked a specific home base, instead popping up at parties in secretive locations. Among them: Michelin star-rated Elizabeth, acclaimed Uptown upscale eatery 42 Grams and Logan Square favorite Fat Rice. The long-awaited Honey Butter Fried Chicken was also an outgrowth from Christine Cikowski and Josh Kulp's popular Sunday Dinner Club.

With an eye toward the future in one of the nation's foremost food cities, we rounded up some of Chicago's finest up-and-coming "underground" chefs and asked them about their craft.

D'Andre Carter, Feast and Imbibe:

feast imbibe

When did you first realize you wanted to pursue cooking as a career?
There came a time when I knew I needed a career and to get a degree. Out of all the odd jobs I had, I always went back to working on the line. I had always loved the rush of service. It never felt like work, the hours always went by so quickly. When it was time to go to college, culinary school just made sense to me. When you spend your life enjoying what you do, it isn't work.

What is your favorite dish to prepare for someone else? And for yourself?
My favorite dish to cook for someone is my study of quail (pictured). It's a playful dish; pan seared quail, celeriac quail nest, soft poached quail egg, quail food. I like making myself simple food -- scrambled eggs, bacon, or I love to grill myself a steak but I always keep it simple at home.

How would you sum up your philosophy on food in one word?
Intimate.

Greg Combs, Goose and Fox:

greg

When did you first realize you wanted to pursue cooking as a career?
I think cooking was never intimidating for me. Both my mother and grandmother were amazing cooks and had great gardens. As a child I would cook on camping trips with the Boy Scouts and would even forage. My family was from the suburbs but we had a deep appreciation for nature. Later in life I just had everything fall into place for me to pursue my career. I was lucky enough to work all sorts of positions in the industry that gave me a great broad perspective on hospitality. The Goose and Fox supper club was really my combination of all these ideas and when it became successful it was really a great moment for me to realize I could do this as a career.

What is your favorite dish to prepare for someone else? And for yourself?
I think most chefs would agree that since we spend a lot hours making fancy things for other people, most of what we crave at the end of the day is simple, tastes good and keeps you satisfied. Most of us enjoy playing host to our friends, so in my mind nothing brings these two worlds together better than grilling outside on a warm summer night. Living in a city that is cold nine months out of the year also really makes you relish the good weather while you still can. Something about eating outside and the combination of fire just makes you feel at home. A nice juicy burger or brat suits me just fine, plus the kid in me will always be kind of a pyro! Who doesn’t like fire? I also really enjoy making fresh pasta; something about it reminds me of home and feels comfortable.

How would you sum up your philosophy on food in one word?
Approachable. The biggest thing that matters for me is flavor. Simple and non-pretentious things in my mind are the best. Food, like people, should be approachable.

Mikey Corona and Brian Riggenbach, Yo Soy Underground Suppers + Events:

yo soy

When did you two first realize you wanted to pursue cooking as a career?
It was a series of moments that happened organically for us. We have both worked in the restaurant industry for over 20 years in the front of the house. After many years of being mediums to other chefs' creations, we became enamored with the art of dining and the orchestrated behind-the-scenes planning that each night took to create magical moments. Our apartment was considered a social hub for all of our restaurant industry comrades for after-shift gatherings; something was bound to be ignited. We started a blog after one of those chatty nights about our ideas on food and art and how those two worlds are parallel in our eyes (and palates). With the blog we initiated in 2009, we began Yo Soy Underground Suppers + Events and the beacon for people who craved to dine on a personal and artistic level was lit. At that first dinner we knew something special was happening. Seeing people enjoy the food we conceptualized and brought to life is quite a drug. We have been hooked from that moment on!

What is your favorite dish to prepare for someone else? And for yourselves?
There is a dish that we thoroughly enjoying sharing with our diners for nostalgic, as well as delicious, memories of a trip we took to Texas. We were visiting Mikey's hometown of Corpus Christi and his stepmother (from Mexico) gave us a hands-on lesson in her kitchen on the true art of making Pozole Rojo. That is an afternoon that highlighted and brought truth to the proverb of "great memories are created over the sharing of food." It was a lesson in not only are those bonding moments had while sitting at the table, but also in the moments where you are shown a technique and given the "soul" to a recipe. The Pozole dish we learned that day has become one of our favorite dishes to share with our diners.

For ourselves, after a long night of cooking multi-coursed meals for diners, we keep it simple when we get home. You will find five nights out of the week we are whipping up some spicy vegetable or chicken tacos for us to enjoy while going over ideas for further fanciful/delectable recipes we can bring to life.

How would you sum up your philosophy on food in one word?
Delicious. At the end of the day, no mater how avant garde, beautiful, complex or simple a dish is it has to taste amazing.

Gabriel Moya, Sobremesa Supper Club:

sobremesa

When did you first realize you wanted to pursue cooking as a career?
I think the first time I realized that I wanted to pursue a career in cooking was in my fourth year of college. I'd always liked to cook, since I was a kid, but I never thought about it as a career. I didn't like college and I didn't really know what I was doing or what the hell I was going to do once I was done. So I quit school and got a job. I was hooked. I found what I was really good at.

What is your favorite dish to prepare for someone else? And for yourself?
We do vegetable-forward dinners sourced from local and sustainable sources, so most or the majority of the produce we use comes from the Green City Market here in Chicago. I'd say that having to develop and cook a menu based on this criteria is one of my favorites things to cook for other people right now. As for myself, that whole process is very fulfilling for me but I probably prefer to make myself sunny side eggs and toast.

How would you sum up your philosophy on food in one word?
(My) craft.

Julia Pham, Relish Underground Dining:

relish

When did you first realize you wanted to pursue cooking as a career?
I realized I wanted to pursue cooking when I started spending all of my spare time reading about food and experimenting in the kitchen. There is nothing I love more than spending an entire day off, just cooking whatever I want. When I was in school studying art education, I would skip class just to stay at home so I could fit in some more time to cook. I would daydream about what I was going to make for dinner during class. Between classes, I would spend hours in the computer lab blogging about sustainable agriculture. It just took over my life, and became higher priority than school. That's when I knew I had to go for it.

What is your favorite dish to prepare for someone else? And for yourself?
When I cook for others, I like to prepare dishes I love and remember from my childhood. Wonton noodle soup is my absolute favorite dish to make for people. It takes time, care, and love, and it's not easy to master. When it's done right, it is the most comforting and soothing dish.

When I cook for myself, I like to keep it simple, but continue to play with flavors and colors. I use a lot of seasonal vegetables, with a side of meat. The last thing I made for myself (pictured) was baked chicken thigh with my favorite cherry grape BBQ sauce, thyme and green garlic sweet potato puree, chipotle dusted broccoli, and spring mix salad with roasted beets, blueberries, and lemon vinaigrette.

How would you sum up your philosophy on food in one word?
Autonomy. I believe food can give us space to live consciously. Food empowers me; it forces me to take a deeper look at culture (and how it's impacted me), self-sufficiency, sustainability, and the reclamation of manual labor. Food is not only a visceral experience, but also an intellectual journey.

Willie Wagner, Clandestino:

clandestino

When did you first realize you wanted to pursue cooking as a career?
When I was 11 years old, Chef Efrain Cuevas from Clandestino, Chef Willie Sr. from Honky Tonk BBQ (my father), and I realized that we were finalists in the 2008 Memphis in May International BBQ Championship. Each of us had so much adrenaline coursing through our veins, all because we knew we would be standing on the Memphis in May stage with only two other winners. At this moment, I knew I wanted to become a chef.

What is your favorite dish to prepare for someone else? And for yourself?
I love making pasta from scratch. Once a week I meet with friends and we all create a new pasta dish. I can't say I have a favorite yet because each week they get better and better.

How would you sum up your philosophy on food in one word?
Timing. Cooking for a supper club is all about timing, time is a crucial component for all of my dinners. Time holds everything together.

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Some of the interviews above have been edited for length and clarity.

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