In the back of Sepia Restaurant, tucked away in the kitchen, has to be one of the most levelheaded chefs in Chicago. There, amidst a bustling 11:30 am pre-lunch-hour crowd, James Beard Nominee for Best Chef: Great Lakes, Andrew Zimmerman, crafts what he dubs "globally-informed, contemporary American cuisine."
The restaurant, like its executive chef, is elegant and understated. The front bar and main dining room, as well as the side rooms for 10, have muted tones, streamlined décor and subtle flare. As you will see below, Chef Zimmerman has a self-deprecating humor that allows him to remain calm while both in the midst of a video shoot and while handling the pressures of a mid-day rush. This handy trait of remaining flatline in chaos will help him as he heads to Grant Park for the Taste of Chicago on July 10 for day-time cooking demonstrations in the "In the Kitchen with Mariano's" tent and then prepares three-course meals for 175 at The Dinner Party in the Pure Leaf Celebrity Chef du Jour tent that evening. This is no easy feat, considering that there really isn't a full kitchen in Grant Park, and everything will be made in a pop-up tent.
Chef Zimmerman's subtle exuberance is a key theme in his dishes in which he combines flavors from around the world with the produce from local farms. Take for example what Chef Zimmerman will be making for The Dinner Party on July 10th at Taste of Chicago: an appetizer of Shrimp and Sweet Corn Salad with Corn Custard, Coconut, Crispy Black Rice and (of course!) home-made croutons, an entrée of Grilled Berkshire Pork Collar with Three Sisters Farm Grits, Local Cherries and Bourbon and for dessert Almond Milk Custard with Macerated Stone Fruits and Black Pepper Short Bread.
I tasted these samplings in his kitchen when we were finished with the videos below and I was struck by the gentle combinations that lead to lovely complementing flavors that didn't overpower, but instead enhanced the already natural flavors. Nothing was forced, destined to impress or shock, or smacked of hubris. It was just exceptional. It was filling, a proper Midwestern meal, and with out the big to-do or the over the top fan-fare. It was just excellent.
You will get a sense for Chef's dry humor and steadfast nature in the kitchen in the two videos below in which he makes the above mentioned dishes in preparation for the sold out event on July 10th. (A live stream is available here starting at 6:30 pm.) And when I asked him if he was excited to be the featured chef on The Dinner Party at Taste of Chicago, he answered just as one would expect. "I am not much for self-promotion. "