AS YOU HAVE PROBABLY SEEN, I HAVE the cover story in this week’s Chicago Reader about Schwa, the once-radical, now plainly influential restaurant whose combination of formally precise fine dining food in a casual, rock and roll neighborhood setting has set the tone for so much of Chicago’s dining scene. Schwa not only established the idea that you could do high-end, intellectually challenging food out in the neighborhoods at a relatively modest price point (and BYO), but that it was okay to dispense with many of the parts of the fine dining experience that weren’t essential to the food, from servers to stemware, and to play heavy metal or hiphop, and to drink with the kitchen, and… well, go read the whole thing. This will still be here.

Okay, you’re back. The idea of writing about Schwa came to me earlier this year, when Wilson Bauer, who took over as Chef de Cuisine when Brian Fisher left to launch Entente, won the Jean Banchet Awards prize for Best Chef de Cuisine. I’ve run across Bauer a number of times over the years, going back to when he took over the short-lived Pensiero following Brandon Baltzley’s time there, but I didn’t really know what he was doing at Schwa—honestly, keeping up with the restaurant, given its notoriety for being difficult to get into, was something I had let lapse as I kept up with a million other openings in recent years.

So it was interesting to rediscover what had been going on at Schwa, and that started with interviewing Bauer about his time running the kitchen. The main thing I quickly learned was what would become the theme of the Reader piece—that, as Bauer put it, “We still have fun. We’re still the same people, but we have kids now.” Here’s the interview (it’s from this spring, as a few references will suggest), almost all of which will be new to readers—as Bauer-era Schwa proved to be new to me when I ate there the week after this interview.

Schwa owner Michael Carlson and chef de cuisine Wilson Bauer

 

FOODITOR: What’s your background here?

BAUER: I started here about three years ago, and left two summers ago, after my first year, to try to open a place up in Lincoln Park, Etno’s—that’s what it used to be. [The space is now Broken English Pub—ed.] It was going to be King’s County Tap, and they did open, but I wasn’t there by the time it opened. They wanted to open a restaurant, but they didn’t know how to do that, and they weren’t really listening, so I said, look, I already know how this goes, I’ve been cooking for a while. Took some time off, spent some time with the kid.

I worked at Grace for two months, which was really awesome, but had to support a family, give the child some toys, that didn’t really do it. I was going to give up on pushing myself creatively. I was going to go and get that hotel job. The goal was to get at least 75K on my tax form this year, which I don’t think I’m going to do, but at least I’m being satisfied creatively. That’s worth some compensation, that’s not monetary. It’s all right. My kid’s got a full stomach.

Were you from Chicago originally?

Seattle.

Did you work anywhere there?

Not anywhere too notable—Restaurant Zoe, down in Belltown, but then just bounced around a lot of places around the city. A lot of bistros. I met Jared [Wentworth], the chef over at Longman & Eagle, at Quinn’s Pub. He was living out there at the time, we opened up a gastropub out there. After he left Seattle he brought me out here to open Longman. Been stuck out here ever since [laughs].

Graziano OMG

 

So the first time you came to Schwa—tell me about that.

Well, I was hired as a cook. And then maybe six months in, I was promoted to sous chef. So I got that right around the time that Brian [Fisher, now at Entente] got promoted to chef de cuisine. When I came back, I came back as the chef de. But that was like eight months after I had left, or so.

What does that mean to be chef de cuisine here? It’s a small place, and it’s identified pretty strongly with Michael—

And I think each chef de cuisine kinda does it differently, you know? It’s one of the great things about this restaurant, each time, whether it was Vinny [Alterio] or Brian or myself, each time, it’s still Schwa, it’s still Chef’s restaurant, but it’s a little bit different-tweaked. When he sees that we’ve got our shit together and we’re running it all right, he lets us do what we want. He’s in a lot checking things out, but he definitely lets us make mistakes, and learn from that.


Look, I’m not very good at the talking thing. But the cooking thing, I’m great at.


What do you think is yours about the restaurant?

The food is pretty awesome now, I like the food, where it’s at. The food’s always been great. I think it’s more my style, I guess, it’s definitely heavily influenced by Chef, because I did work for him for a while. The food is mostly my food.

Look, I’m not very good at the talking thing. But the cooking thing, I’m great at.

Dave Beran [Next] was in before he left for L.A., and he said it felt more mature. And I think that’s something that… we still have fun. We’re still the same people, but… we have kids now.

It’s more stabilized, it’s more consistent now. We plan our closures a little more often. It’s still the same Schwa.

Tell me about a dish that you’re proud of.

I guess the pork and beans—it’s been on for a little while now. It’s braised pig head—we get the porcelet pig heads from Canada, milk-fed guys—little heads. We braise ‘em, pick the meat off, the tongue goes in, the eyeballs don’t go in but most of the meat goes in. And then we roll that in dried pork skin, so that pork skin is the “bread” instead of, like, panko or something. And then deep fry the whole thing, real hot, so it puffs like chicharron on the outside. So it’s like pork rinds, and this braised pork thing, and it’s gooey and nice in the center and it’s all crispy and porky on the outside.

Headcheese meatball rolled in chicharron bits

Deep-frying puffs the chicharron bits

And then it sits on top of this, like—basically imagine all the things that you get in a can of pork and beans, so there’s the tomato-based sauce, the diced onions, the pork and beans. So there’s a bean puree, a tomato puree, we dry out these tomatoes for hours in the oven, and an onion puree which just gets stewed in butter for hours, sous vide, and then a bacon vinaigrette, and that all gets in a little circle, and then there’s some gooseberries and other garnish. That seems a pretty big hit—I don’t think it’s going to go anywhere for a while. It’s pretty cool. I like it.

Play on the flavor of pork and beans

The cocktail that we start with is pretty fun. So there’s [a cocktail called] The Last Word, with gin, chartreuse, lime and Luxardo. We build that cocktail, like we ferment limes, like the Vietnamese lime drink that’s so fermented and funky, they’re usually so dissolved that you can suck them through the straw. We still use a little fresh lime juice for the brightness, but we build the cocktail on top of those limes, it’s got kind of a salty, savory quality to it, and we serve it with these mushroom-breadstick things, and it’s cool, a tasty treat.

I always call it The Snarky Remark, because it’s a salty Last Word. Some people think that’s funny. I get crickets most of the time.

So tell me about Schwa these days. It stays full? To judge by this morning, the phone rings a lot.

Fridays-Saturdays are always busy still. But we’re doing all right. This year looks better than last year already. So that’s cool. Last year there were a couple of rough months. It’s hard to peg, well, this week we’ll probably be busy because of this. Like the Cubs fucked shit up.

Well, and it’s old enough, and there aren’t the media like there were, so you can not hear about it for a long time. You hear about the new places.

I think Ari [Bendersky, then at Eater] loved this place. He used to write a lot about this place. Mostly slander [laughs].

Do you feel like there’s a lot of Schwa regulars?

Yeah. There’s definitely people who I’ve seen the first time around, still coming back. I can definitely think of a few families, or couples, who’ve been coming for ten years now.

It’s still here. It’s funny seeing all the places that are opening up now. There’s so many more options to go to. And that I think can make it more difficult, but it also educates the diner better, so they’re more open to try new things. Oh, I saw that ingredient over there, so I know it’s going to be okay. It’s not like, wait, you’re serving barnacles? Oh yeah, I saw that on Alinea’s Instagram last week, you’re using that too. There’s more education out there with more of this caliber restaurant, which is awesome.

Well, and the idea of this place—the rock and roll restaurant, that was obviously spray-painted by the chefs and all of that.

That’s still part of the restaurant, and it’s part of the restaurant that I cherish, I like that, during service, we are definitely still the same Schwa. But we get rowdy sometimes. Which can be taxing. That’s maybe the hardest part, like on a Friday-Saturday when we’ve just been going at it all week, and then people come in and it’s like—it’s Friday! Let’s keep going! Uh, it’s 12:30, I gotta go. I’m not doing this four nights in a row.

The diners here are definitely fun. I think people come here to have more fun, the food’s great, we want to have fun too.

But I think you see a lot of places now—Parachute is nothing like Schwa, but would Parachute exist if Schwa hadn’t said, you can open on a side street and have a real casual place and do serious food? You could ask the same about Longman & Eagle, or EL Ideas. How do you keep being on the edge of that?

Well, it’s the original. The food has to stand out, which I think it does. But all those places still do employ a service staff. Which we don’t, really. I guess EL doesn’t, but they have the one guy. Which we usually have someone here, to kind of do that front role person. But I just think here it’s genuine, where some places it’s kind of forced.

HP

I also think it’s just become the new style of dining.

It is, and I think it’s had to become that way. Diners, it seems, aren’t putting so much importance on just being waited on, being served. They don’t care if all their dishes are cleared at the same time. Some people do, and there’s places for them. Like Grace. I like that when you see everybody come out at the same time, and it’s like, holy shit. Such coordination, it’s nice to see that. But I don’t think most people care so much for that any more, and I don’t think they’re willing to pay $500 for that any more. Food’s become more expensive, service has become more expensive, so you gotta start cutting something somewhere.

So what’s the interaction between the chefs and the diners these days?

We still do shots. We still share a glass of wine. They have to interact, they come back [to the kitchen]—the bathroom’s through there. Even if they don’t want to, they still have to come back. Usually we get people who want to interact, it’s good, I like it, I guess. Sometimes it can be weird.

It’s definitely different being in an open kitchen—outside of Elizabeth, I haven’t really experienced this kind of thing. Ten years where it’s like, I’m behind that door, I’m not interacting with the guest at all. People are nice, they’re understanding, they know that we’re not social people.

This part’s still the kitchen. In our eyes. And if we go to a table, I want to see that the glasses are a certain way. We organize it like a station. That’s how I view the dining room, and that’s the only way I can get out here, if I view that as, that’s also my station, it’s part of the kitchen too. Otherwise, it’s just weird going out there—ugh, what do people want.

Come in and have some food. That’s the most relevant thing about me—I’m pretty much normal. This restaurant’s unique, but it’s become normalized. Everybody’s heard about it, you’re not going to be able to write anything new about Schwa. We haven’t changed that much. It’s still the same, we’re just a little bit older.

How old’s your kid?

He’s six.

So approaching rational human.

He is! He’s getting there. Definitely all about him, still.


Michael Gebert is great at the editing thing at Fooditor.


Sparrow sustaining


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