HER CAREER AS A PASTRY CHEF WAS DOWNTOWN—Amber Sullivan had come up through kitchens like Aigre Doux (under Malika Ameen) and Zealous to The Gage. Her desserts at the Spanish restaurant Salero, one of Chicago magazine’s best new restaurants in 2015, included much praised queso fresco flan with blood orange gel and warm churros with espresso pudding, as well as more complicated creations, such as chocolate cremeux with fresh raspberries, almond sablé and smoked almond ice cream.

And then last November Sullivan, 34, found herself working out in the suburbs, in a place with a big pink pig on the roof. Chuck’s Southern Comforts Cafe, with two locations in southwest suburban Burbank and Darien, serves family-pleasing American and southern food. That’s not meant to throw shade on it in any way—Chuck Pine came out of Rick Bayless’ world, and is known for doing creative Mexican dishes all through April for Cinco de Mayo; Chuck’s is as good for its genre as it gets. But it’s definitely a different world from downtown Chicago restaurants.

Amber Sullivan, with wise words

The casual restaurants are closer to Sullivan’s home in Blue Island, but that wasn’t the reason she made the change. She says she loved the hour-and-a-half commute to Salero in the Randolph Market District because she could read on the train.

But like so many in the industry, Sullivan had to deal with practical considerations not directly related to her job. She needed health benefits because she’d started having stomach problems, and Salero didn’t offer them. But Chuck’s did, so when she saw an ad on Craigslist, she applied and got the job. She didn’t know Pine, but she had eaten at his restaurants a few times and especially enjoyed the brunch.

Graziano OMG

 

Sullivan says the change has been a mixed blessing. “I’m a ‘cut tape chef,’ “ she says, explaining a restaurant term meaning she wants everything to be precise. “But I’m not working in a cut tape kitchen anymore. By leaving Salero I got away from the stress of 16-hour days that may have been causing my illness, but I had gotten used to that environment and miss it. When the stress is high, so are the rewards.”

While Sullivan adds that she misses fine dining’s striving for perfection and the collaborative team at Salero—particularly having other people to bounce her ideas off—she appreciates the flexibility at Chuck’s. She divides her time between the two locations and averages 9 hours a day or 40-45 hours a week, as opposed to 60 or more. If she needs to take time off for a doctor’s appointment, she can. She says she now has time for her husband, Matt Hess, and friends, too.

Courtesy Chuck's Southern Comforts Cafe

Guinness cheesecake

Sullivan is responsible for developing and preparing the desserts on her own and says  she’s learned to take herself a little less seriously. “I can have a bit more fun, be more casual and serve some sweets in mason jars, for example,” she says. “And every plated dessert doesn’t have to have all the elements.”

On the other hand, unlike at Salero, she doesn’t plate the desserts herself and has had to simplify their composition for the salad-and-dessert plating line that must move quickly when it’s busy. “I take a photo of every dessert and write instructions for the line cooks (one during the week, two on weekends) on how to plate it,” she explains. “Another thing I did when I arrived was work with staff members on standardizing the recipes between the two locations.”

Some of the desserts at Chuck’s are mainstays that have been on the menu since long before Sullivan arrived. They include the signature fruit cobblers in three rotating flavors (peach, mixed berry and apple), banana bread pudding and coconut-cream pie, as well as  favorites also found in the to-go case: the “world’s greatest brownie” and Chuck’s mom’s “incredible cookie” with chocolate chunks, raisins, oatmeal, coconut and raisins.

Courtesy Chuck's Southern Comforts Cafe

German chocolate cake

Sullivan has augmented the to-go case with a cupcake and a couple of other items. She’s also added a number of seasonal dessert specials to the menu. A few for fall are pumpkin donuts with dulce de leche crème anglaise dipping sauce, pumpkin bars swirled with cream cheese and topped with spiced pepitas and an apple-cider float. For Oktoberfest, she served German chocolate cake with caramel sauce, chocolate ice cream and crumbled pecan nougatine. “I’m also making a lot of pies,” she says, “such as chocolate chess pie and Dutch apple cranberry pie with brown butter or brown sugar ice cream.”

 

 

Courtesy Chuck's Southern Comforts Cafe

Raspberry sorbet

BUT HER REAL PASSION IS ICE CREAM. In April, she introduced house-made “freshly spun” ice creams and sorbets at Chuck’s, thanks to a refurbished Taylor batch freezer Pine bought for her. Three daily flavors—recently chocolate, hazelnut crunch and pineapple sorbet—are available individually or as a flight. They change monthly but are just the start of what Sullivan is doing with ice cream. The only flavor she doesn’t make is vanilla, because the restaurants go through so much of it.

One of the most popular flavors this summer was strawberry cheesecake ice cream with cheesecake mousse piped into the strawberry base as it came out of the freezer and bits of graham cracker. For Halloween, she dreamed up peanut butter ice cream with chocolate flakes. The finale for a Goose Island beer dinner, one of Chuck’s regular beer dinners, was chocolate pecan pie paired with stout chocolate sauce, candied bacon and Bourbon County Stout ice cream.

“I love making ice cream because I love eating it,” Sullivan admits. “It’s a joy of childhood you still get to have as an adult. Going to Rainbow Cone, the Purple Cow, the Plush Horse and other South Side ice-cream parlors was always a special treat when I was growing up.”

Sullivan says she learned how to make ice cream in 2009 as assistant to Malika Ameen at Aigre Doux. “Malika taught me about all different kinds of flavor possibilities,” she points out. She jokes that her best birthday present ever was the ice-cream maker Salero executive chef Ashlee Aubin got her in November 2014. “After that, almost all the desserts had an ice-cream element.”

At Chuck’s, she convinced Pine that having house-made ice creams would give his restaurants an edge over the others in the area that use commercial product. Customer response seems to bear that out. “We have a newsletter, and some people get really excited about the flavors,” she reports.

HP

 

For Sullivan, another source of inspiration is the restaurants’ two gardens, one behind the Darien outpost and the other in Hickory Hills. (They’re tended by Michael Foley, the Chicago restaurateur whose Printers Row, now gone, was an upscale Midwestern-cooking pioneer.)

Garden peppermint goes into mint ice cream flecked with chocolate; basil into a sorbet that accompanies cheesecake. She paired garden habanero pepper ice cream with a mango cobbler, but that “was outside our customers’ comfort zone” and didn’t sell very well. The only fruit harvested so far has been pears, and although there hasn’t been enough for ice cream, Sullivan’s pear-walnut cobbler served with hazelnut ice cream is a hit.

Chuck’s in Burbank—advertising ice cream

“Zucchini apple bread in mini and big loaves sells like hot cakes in zucchini season,” she says, “and people love rhubarb time, because we put the vegetable (that cooks like a fruit) into Chuck’s Mom’s possum trot pudding, a baked bread pudding with fruit and Jello, served warm.” She’s also made tomato jam with garden tomatoes to sell with the to-go case’s cheese scones flavored with garden thyme and oregano.

When I ask Sullivan “what’s next?,” she hesitates. She’s been tempted to return to fine dining by friends who have opened or are opening restaurants, but she’s having fun at Chuck’s and likes the free time it gives her to think about the future. “My real dream is to open an ice-cream shop of my own somewhere near home,” she says, “and I’ve been researching what it will take to make that dream a reality.”

 


Anne Spiselman is a freelance writer who has covered food, wine, and culture for decades. She’s a frequent contributor to Crain’s Chicago Business and Edible Chicago and has written for most local publications and some national ones.


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