IT’S QUITE A CHALLENGE THAT Sarah Mispagel has set herself. Sepia, one of Chicago’s most buttoned-up business restaurants, with a menu of classically elegant food from multi-James Beard Award nominee Andrew Zimmerman, calls for desserts that put a snazzy, playful cap on a meal and send people out happy. So the desserts that Mispagel makes for it are architectural constructions, Frank Gehry jumbles made of quenelles of ice cream and shards of crunchy stuff and dabs of fruit flavor and squiggles and nubbins. The kind of dessert you not only couldn’t make at home, you wouldn’t know where to begin to make it at home.

Sarah Mispagel

Then, a couple of doors north, is another challenge—Zimmerman and owner Emmanuel Nony’s new restaurant, Proxi, which somewhat paradoxically (but utterly delightfully) fills a chic downtown space with the kind of flavors you’re more likely to find out in the neighborhoods—or arriving via GrubHub. Thai flavors full of pungent fish sauce, Japanese flavors of miso and yuzu, Indian curries, middle eastern flavors of hummus and sumac—and lots of char from the restaurant’s wood fired ovens.

So what kind of dessert goes with all that? “When I heard what this project, which at that point had no name, was going to be, more global and casual, I was super-into it, because I’d always worked at New American, farm to table, seasonal kind of places,” Mispagel says. “I’d never really had a chance to get comfortable with flavors that were more global, and I came in with a list of things I’d always wanted to do—like, I’d never made a tres leches cake, I’d always wanted to do an avocado mousse and put it on the menu. Things that I talked to my other chefs about, and they would just look at me like… ‘That’s cute, but it doesn’t make sense here.'”

Proxi: tres leches cake, cajeta, strawberries, meringue

Which means that she had a bunch of misfit dishes in her head that she’d never been able to place at the places she’d been working—just like Andrew Zimmerman, who was looking for a way to utilize the Asian flavors that he loved so much, but that didn’t really belong at Sepia. So when Zimmerman and Nony told her about the place they planned to open, she said, “I’m ready. I already have a dessert list in my mind.”

As she was doing tastings of her dishes, “There would be times that I was so nervous, what are they going to think, they’re going to think this is Sarah’s weirdo food. And they had input and feedback, but every time they were basically, ‘This is great, this fits the bill.'”

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With the menu roaming over much of Asia (with some stops in Spain, Mexico and other places), there’s not an obvious or consistent flavor profile to match her desserts against. But besides making them simpler and more self-contained than her Sepia objets d’art—partly a necessity because they’re mostly premade and stored at Proxi to get final assembly on site—they also move away a bit from European dessert traditions.

“One of the things we have is a rotating selection of chef’s ice creams. And I really like working with tea. So I’ll think, what teas does Rod have at Rare Tea Cellars that would really fit the bill of these flavors,” she says. Beyond that, she doesn’t have particular preconceptions of what goes with the cuisines at Proxi—”I don’t really have a sweet tooth when I go out to eat like that, unless I know the pastry chef. If I go to a little Indian place, I’m not normally going to get dessert—but now I do, because I want to know, what does an Indian place dessert look like?”

Proxi: avocado mousse, tapioca pearls, pandan leaf, grapefruit gel, cocoa nibs, coconut

“Obviously you have to have a chocolate thing, and a fruit thing, and fill those slots,” she says. “But I don’t want everything on my menu to look like it came from Mexico, say. The servers are good about knowing, you already had this, you’re drinking this wine, here’s the direction I’d go in for dessert. Though then, a lot of people will end up saying, ‘I’ll have your recommendation—and chocolate.'”

“It’s great because between the two places, there really isn’t much I can’t do,” she says. “At the end of the day, it’s a huge opportunity for me, that I can make anything I want, and it’s very exciting.” The challenge of serving up different styles of desserts for two very different restaurants is one she’s risen to. Which leaves just one more challenge she’s set for herself, which she will finally take on this Sunday.

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FOUR DAYS A WEEK, SARAH MISPAGEL leaves her Logan Square apartment and starts running, mostly down Milwaukee, to her job downtown. Five miles to work, though if she’s not working, the run might get extended to as much as 17 miles. This Sunday, she’ll reap the payoff of that training—she’ll be among thousands running in the Chicago marathon.

“This is my first marathon, and something that I was always afraid to do because of being in this industry and not having the time to do it,” she explains. “I actually signed up for it before I took this job, so I thought that I had more time on my hands.” At the time she was helping launch Giant’s dessert program, and “I was working a normal-ish foodservice schedule, 9 to 7, so to me a ten-hour day felt like smooth, easy, I felt like I had a lot of time on my hands.”

I told them I just needed a little bit of daylight to run in, and they said, you can pick whatever 12 or 14 hours out of the day you want to work.

What inspired her to want to run the marathon was that between Giant and an earlier stint working for Jason Vincent at Nightwood, she had worked in St Louis for a year. “When I first moved to Chicago, I had this idea that I would start running so that I could sign up for the marathon, and that would be a Chicago experience that I had,” she explains. But work (then at MK) got busy, and running fell by the wayside. She started running again in St. Louis, where the nature of her job gave her more time to run, “and when I moved back to Chicago, I kind of wished that I had taken more advantage of the city. I wanted to do all the things I said I would do.”

Sepia: goat’s cheese cheesecake, raspberries, pistachio, beet sorbet

“One of my conditions [for taking the job at Sepia and Proxi] was that I wanted to be able to run the marathon, and of course they’re very supportive, but until you start the job, you don’t really know what that means,” she says. “I told them I just needed a little bit of daylight to run in, and they said, you can pick whatever 12 or 14 hours out of the day you want.”

Mostly she’s squeezed runs into her schedule, taking only one Saturday off completely to run a 20-mile practice run that day. “I worked something stupid like 18 hours the day before so I could avoid having to come in to work after running 20 miles,” she says. “I texted my sous chef, how we doing, are we all set up, I don’t have to come in, great.”

“It does seem like a crazy person thing to do,” she says, “but I have lots of company.” In fact, she’s not the only one at Sepia running in the marathon—a server named Stephanie will be running her third Chicago marathon this weekend as well, and a cook at Proxi named Carlos has run them in the past. “Thankfully I’m not the only one who wants to talk about running,” she laughs.

The other reason that she’s doing it has to do with the memory of a family member—her mother. “My mom was a runner. She never did any formal runs, but it was just part of her relaxation—we always had a large dog growing up and she would take the dog for a run in this field near our house.”

Sepia: Sweet corn, blueberries, sunflower seed, popped sorghum

“She had early onset Alzheimer’s,” she continues, “and she passed away three days after my 25th birthday, six years ago.”

“It was around the time that I moved to Chicago the first time, and running was something I did to clear my head, and deal with it. When you experience that kind of loss, people tell you that you just have to deal with it. But that doesn’t actually mean anything to people in that moment.”



“So it was kind of my way of finding out what dealing with it meant. Running became a way that I felt connected with her, it became a way that I felt I was able in a healthy way to process the grief. And so the intention of the marathon run was to be one more way that I felt connected to her. To make her proud,” Mispagel says.

So she chose to run with the Alzheimer’s Association, based in Chicago, which guaranteed her an entry. “I’ve raised about a thousand dollars for them. It’s great that they’re local, too, because I’ve been able to interact with the team captains for the race. So it’s been a really good experience, that I feel like I’m running for this charity based here—a really good Chicago experience.”


Michael Gebert is smooth as avocado mousse as editor of Fooditor.

Sparrow Black 2019


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