OUTSIDE OF CHICAGO, THE MOST influential Chicago restaurants of modern times would include Charlie Trotter’s and Alinea, for how they conceived an American form of classic fine dining—at stratospheric prices. Look around the city itself, however, and the most influential restaurant is undoubtedly Blackbird, the more reasonably-priced downtown restaurant that launched the One Off Hospitality group in 1998. You see echoes of it all over the city, from the the location in a once-obscure neighborhood (West Randolph), to the chicly minimalist dining room with the tables close together so the room almost always seems to buzz with energy, to the focus on locally grown products and cheap, flavorful cuts like pork belly (which, ultimately, helped create enough of a trend for them in restaurant kitchens that it pushed the prices of cheap cuts up).

Beginning with One Off partner Paul Kahan, Blackbird has had four main chefs de cuisine, and the newest one, Ryan Pfeiffer, came up through Blackbird over the last five years, although he did a month-long stage at the Bay Area’s three-Michelin-starred Manresa shortly before the announcement was made. It seems to have been the right training, since he promptly got a four-star review from Phil Vettel in the Tribune for his new approach, which is focused on a tasting menu built on a monthly theme relating to an ingredient.

Ryan Pfeiffer, making a falafel quenelle

Ryan Pfeiffer, making a falafel quenelle

A recent conversation was my first chance to meet Pfeiffer, who’s soft-spoken, thoughtful and has a bit of California New Age intensity to him, occasionally undercut by a little Chicago guy dry humor. As it turns out, that pretty much captures the experiences that led him to this position:

FOODITOR: I know, when you got the position officially, there was a lot of noise about you coming from Manresa—but that was only a stage, right? You’ve been a Blackbird guy for a while now.

RYAN PFEIFFER: I went out there for a month. They made it sound like I came from Manresa. I spent some time out there, I asked the chef de cuisine Mitch [Lienhard] if I could spend a little time with them to see what they do.

I had lived in California before for a decent amount of time, in the Santa Ynez wine country. I came back to Chicago in 2011 and did a lot of stages, ended up staging here. They were hiring for a lunch cook position, and I was really ready to get back in a kitchen. I really liked what David Posey was doing here, I’d heard nothing but good things about Paul Kahan. I wasn’t super familiar with the entire restaurant group, but I was very excited to work here. It felt like a very healthy mesh of what I was used to, doing ACF [American Culinary Federation] competitions, and my apprenticeship with chef Tim Bucci [Cordon Bleu], and also kind of a lenient kitchen—there’s a lot of free thought, it’s not like a military-style kitchen.

Not heavily concepted? 

No. Everybody’s input is welcomed. If I give them a task to do, and I say “This is how you do it,” they do it a couple of times and they figure out a way to make it fit into their prep day better, who am I to say they can’t do it that way? If the end product is the same… there’s certain things that have to be done certain ways, but there’s a lot of things that I’m incredibly lenient about.

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What was the progression of your career here?

I worked lunch for a little less than a year, eight or nine months, and then I moved up to dinner. Started as a garde-manger, then worked my way up to sauté and then grill on dinner. They promoted me to junior sous chef, and shortly after I got promoted to sous chef. Paul asked me if I would like to take the [executive chef] job here, and there were a couple of other things that were clanking around in my head, but I’m really happy that I took the job. I love the restaurant group, I love this restaurant, and I love the things that they allow me to do.

They’re very set in what they want the restaurant to be showcased as, but they’re also letting me put forth the vision that I had for the restaurant. It’s a healthy collaboration.

So how does that work if you’re the lunch chef? Do you and the chef develop ideas together, or—

Well, first you just have to adapt to the way the kitchen is run. Every single chef has a different way that he, or she, wants something. Certain chefs are a lot more meticulous than other chefs about certain things. Like one chef will be crazy about having a perfectly folded towel at the top side of your cutting board. Another chef will just throw his dirty towel at the end of his station. Finding out what you have to do to do things correctly, and also to kind of stay under the radar while you’re learning—the last thing you want is to start, and just have the chef completely on you, all of the time. If you can show that you can do the job, and that you can do it without having to be babysat—that’s what I’ve learned is the best way to adapt into kitchens.

 

Obviously I’ve been cooking for a while, but it’s terrifying, starting in new kitchens. Every single cook that’s been there is already established, they know what to do, they know where everything is. And having to ask where everything is, and having to ask, how do we do this?

But David is a very talented man. He’s actually a good friend of mine, we developed a very good relationship. I still talk to him every day.

How did it evolve as you started putting more of yourself into the menu? 

It started off when I was working lunch, and there was a young woman by the name of Jennifer Kim—she actually just opened up Snaggletooth. Posey said that we were allowed to put a dish on the menu, and so we collaborated on it, we met together after work and we executed this dish, and… then we had a dish on the menu. It was like, oh wow, we got to put a dish on a Michelin-rated restaurant’s menu, that’s pretty special. I never had the chance to do that before.

And also, when I worked on garde-manger, that person has the autonomy to put up whatever soup they want. You can make a soup every single day. You can run it for a couple of days, or make a different soup every single day, and put it on the prix-fixe menu. And I thought, a lot of people before me in that position, they didn’t put the effort in. And I was just so excited to go into the cooler every single day, I would stay until 10:00 every single night and just think about what I was going to do. Or I’d just stay and watch Posey butcher. I was incredibly zealous.

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I feel like I still carry that, but as opposed to looking up to somebody, I’m not looking down but I love looking at my cooks, I love watching what they do. The other day was a perfect example—one of my cooks, his name is Jeff. And we were making staff meal. And he was just making rice, as simple as making rice. But he takes it to the sink, and he rinses all the rice off.

And you know, I haven’t seen that since the last time I worked in a Japanese restaurant. People don’t polish the rice. It’s one of those things that’s a lost art. Especially for staff meal. Nobody thinks about that kind of stuff. But he made that thought, he consciously thought, I’m going to make that rice perfect. So it’s not too starchy, I’m going to get as much off of it as I can.

I was amazed. And I didn’t say anything to him about it, but it was one of those things I notice, and it just got me excited—you know, this person really cares. And we try to encourage that in everybody. Everybody is constantly working on passion projects. We like to do a lot of fermentation. We like to figure out a lot of ingredients that we haven’t seen before—how it reacts to this heat, how it reacts to this heat. How it reacts to marinating, escabeche, all these different things. That’s how you adapt, that’s how you learn. It’s not just me learning and evolving the menu, it’s us growing as a team.

 


Gallery: Recent dishes by Ryan Pfeiffer at Blackbird

Photos by Sandy Noto

 

I went to a special dinner here once where they cooked early Blackbird dishes. And the thing that was surprising to me was how Jewish the food seemed. And of course that’s Paul’s father’s background, the deli business, and many of these things that we think of as contemporary hipster cuisine, like fermentation, are things a grandmother from Poland would have done too. 

Anyway, it made me wonder what all the stages of Blackbird’s cooking have been over the years. I know you weren’t here all that time, but you must have some sense of that, the history that you’re working in.

I liked where Paul’s head was at when he started Blackbird. The food was super-simple, it was super-local—and yeah, obviously he has a passion for charcuterie, and we have a butcher shop now. All of that translated into early Blackbird.

And then Mike Sheerin took over, and obviously his background comes from Jean-Georges and WD-50 with Wylie Dufresne, and he brought a lot of different techniques, and I think that got Paul excited.

Mike mentored David Posey, and he has more of a Nordic style of food. But he’s also very scientific about stuff. He knows why every ingredient works with other ingredients. The Nordic mentality is, these ingredients are from here; these are the ingredients that I’m using. To us, all of these different things sound so bizarre, but it’s just different things that they’re using, It’d be the same as me using different ingredients that are local to here. It just doesn’t sound as great, because we don’t have sea buckthorn and cloudberries and all this other stuff. We have pretty generic ingredients available to us, especially in the midwest, and in the seasons that we have.

I think the transition from David Posey to me is, I have a very simple approach to food. I try to be as cerebral as possible, I try to be conscious of the integrity of the ingredient. I don’t like to manipulate things too much. But I also like to think about in the sense of, not just the taste of the food but the dining experience of the guest. How you compose a plate, and whether you compose it all… sporadic, and everything’s in a different part of the plate. You’re kind of leaving it up to the guest to eat it how they want, so it has to be perfectly balanced in every single bite.

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Beautiful plating is one thing, but I think that you could be giving the guest the wrong experience. There’s a pickle over here, and there’s a puree over here. It looks beautiful, but if you eat the pickle by itself, it’s not balanced. You need the fat from the puree to eat the pickle. So there’s a lot of dishes where I’ll just compose everything really subtly, in the middle of the plate or on the side of the plate or whatever, but it’s all developed into the bites I want the guests to eat. And then, sometimes I’ll put one component off to the side because you can eat that separately but you can also eat everything together. It’s just all very thought out.


There’s a lot of food on the menu right now that you have to eat with your hands. Which is not something that’s been done here before.


And then, also, the experience for the guests, with the guests that they’re eating with. I think about that. Because, we’re not a stuffy restaurant. We’re 55 seats, but we’ll do 175 covers. So we’re turning over a lot. It’s loud, it’s bustling, the tables are close together. So meticulous plating is great, and beautiful food is great, and we still try to do that as much as we possibly can. But making it so it’s an experience where the guests can communicate with the other guests.

There’s a lot of food on the menu right now that you have to eat with your hands. Which is not something that’s been done here before. We force them to communicate. They come in their nice suits and nice clothing and all, and the next thing you know they’re eating things with their hands. They get very weirded out by it. And then I try to incorporate at least a course in the tasting menus, that change every month, that’s communal. So you know, we did a menu that was based on squab, the last thing you would get is the entire squab rack, and it’s roasted and then we slice it and we put it back on the rack and then we serve it on a bunch of buckwheat crepes, and then just a bunch of different ramekins like Korean barbecue and different garnishes. And then you pick up the crepe and you lather it up and you eat it with your hands like a taco.

People aren’t expecting that when they come in and see white tablecloths and linear design and all of this stuff. I like to bring people out of the expectation that we’re a snobby restaurant. We’re not at all. We’re super, super open—Paul’s always told me, you could come in here in a three piece shirt or you could come in here in jean shorts. You’re going to be treated the exact same way.

So going back to California for a minute—you’re from California originally?

No, I’m from Chicago. I kind of went out to California on a spirit quest.

So what did you bring back from that? 

I feel like I learned a lot about myself. My goal was—like I said, I was doing a lot of culinary competitions, and I was apprenticing with a member of the Culinary Olympics team of the United States. So we would spend day in and day out with super, super meticulous vegetable cutting, and everything had to be perfect. All these different terrines, and pâtés, and galantines. That’s really where I came from, and using a lot of tweezers and everything was precise.

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And I felt like I wasn’t—I felt like I jumped in too fast. I didn’t have a relationship with the ingredients I was using. I didn’t know anything about them, I was just using them because those were the ingredients that I used.

So I wanted to go to California because I wanted to build a closer relationship with the ingredients that I was using. And I most certainly did that. I mean, going to the market three times a week because there are three markets. And I’d get to wake up every single morning and go surfing. The smell of the ocean and the smell of the mountains… because I’m from Chicago, and we don’t have any of that stuff.

Sounds great, why would you ever want to come back?

Well, that was the thing. It was internal, it was entirely internal. Everybody asks me that question, why would you want to come back and deal with winter?

I never felt like I was home in California. I never once felt at home. I felt like I was on a constant vacation. And the restaurants that I worked in were great and all that stuff, but it was just so easy. They could use whatever they wanted whenever they wanted! I didn’t know when I went outside what season it was. I’m standing outside on my porch on Christmas, shirtless, getting ready to go surfing.

It just felt so bizarre, you know? It didn’t feel right. Somebody that grew up in California would think the exact opposite, but I’m used to growing up here. You know when the seasons are changing. You know you have to be ready for it.

And then being a chef in the midwest, it’s like we all have a common ground where, we don’t have things available to us but everybody just gets more excited about when springtime comes. And we all can relate on certain aspects of that, as opposed to just having access all the time.

So what’s something on the menu that you think really feels like your style?

The best thing about being a chef is that you develop a style, but I feel like my style is constantly evolving—I don’t think that I have a style. I know what I like to do, and when I taste dishes and I create dishes, the most important thing to me is when I eat something and I get a sense of nostalgia from it. That’s how I know that it’s a good dish, and it’s going to be accepted by guests.

There’s a lot of things that I’ve made that are wacky, and I like them, but it’s not always about what I like. We’re creating a product for our clientele. So we have to realize that my own ego can never get in the way of the fact that we’re a business. I want to do the things that I want, but I have to do them within reason. And I think that tasting things, and feeling that sense of nostalgia, just helps me relate to the common population that’s going to come into the restaurant.

Sturgeon with falafel crust, dumplings and falafel quenelle

Tuna with falafel crust, dumplings and falafel quenelle

Are you trying to evoke a specific memory of your own, or just a sense that there are certain things that feel comfy to everybody?

Yeah. It’s both. I feel like “comfy” feels like a cop-out—

There’s more fat in comfy—

Exactly (laughs). I’m not trying to make easy food. A lot of the dishes that I have on the menu, they’re not easy at all, but that’s not discernible to the guest. Making something that’s super complex, and super deep and layered, but then the guest eats it and they’re like, wow, this is really good. Not thinking, “It took six days to make this clarified stock!” I don’t want them to have to think about that, I just want them to put it in their mouth and enjoy it.

Tell me about how you approach creating a tasting menu. 

I don’t want to take anything away from the a la carte menu, because the a la carte menu is constantly changing, but I get really excited about the tasting menus. When I took over, I changed the format—before, David Posey and Mike Sheerin and Paul had a single menu, and it was a la carte, your appetizer options and your entree options. Then, I don’t know if it was Mike or it was David, but they decided to have a tasting menu as well, and they would take dishes from the a la carte menu, appetizers and entree courses alike, and they would organize it in a tasting menu format of 8 or 10 or 12 courses.

It just didn’t feel right to me, because this dish had this inspiration and this dish had that inspiration, and it just felt disjointed. The courses didn’t flow into each other. It was like here’s this course and and then here’s this one.

It was just Greatest Hits—

Exactly. I like the idea that, now I’m creating a menu that changes every single month, 8 to 10 courses that tells a story. The first one we did was based on this duck that we were getting from a small farm in upstate New York. And we created dishes that preceded that, that led up to that. And we showcased different parts of the animal on different parts of the menu. And you start off with a certain bitterness, or acidity, that will get you ready for the next course. Everything leads up to the next thing, and it ends up in this final hurrah of, this is the rest of the animal, it’s super-primal, it’s not necessarily super complicated, but it’s cerebral.

I think that’s the thing that I’m most excited about, which is, also getting to change the tasting menu every single month, it just keeps my brain running nonstop.

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Michael Gebert is chicly maximalist as editor of Fooditor.


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