This is The Gatekeepers, in which Eater roams the city meeting the fine ladies and gentlemen that stand between you and some of your favorite impossible-to-get tables.
Koren Grieveson [Photo: Tim Hiatt]
Avec's Koren Grieveson has won a James Beard award (best chef in the Great Lakes region in 2010) and was named as a Food & Wine Best New Chef in 2008. So while this chef de cuisine is clearly respected for her culinary prowess, many people may be surprised to know that she also acts as a floor manager at the renowned West Loop restaurant. Grieveson's dual role allows her to step out from behind the kitchen line and interact with patrons, giving her a better sense of how people react to the food and service at avec. Eater caught up with Grieveson to talk about how she balances this split personality.
So everyone knows you as the chef de cuisine, but you're also a floor manager? How does that work?
I have my hands in everything and I'm a partner here. I wanted to know how everything works. I wanted to be involved in more than just the back of house. I think it's good to have my presence in the front so I can see what they're doing and our customers can see that I'm involved in more aspects of the restaurant. I enjoy it because it gives me another perspective.
Have you always had that double role?
I like to believe mentally I have always had that role because I care about the business from both the front and back of the house. I started putting on regular clothes and seeing customers in a different light in the last few years. Customers sometimes wonder who is cooking and I have great cooks and sous chefs and I can just supervise.
I have a feeling I know the answer to this question, but what do you like better?
I was trained to be a chef so that's my first and foremost love, but it is nice to wear a change of hats every once in a while and have cusetomers see me with my hair down. Also, when I'm in that position, I can talk to more people about the food and keep things interesting for them and myself.
You open for dinner at 3:30 p.m. What time does the restaurant start to fill up?
It depends on the weekday and whether there's a game in town or the opera or symphony. It can start right at 3:28 and people are looking through the window. But typically it's around 4:30. They may have had a late lunch and want to keep it going.
OK, so it's 8 p.m. Saturday. What's the wait for a table?
Typically it can be up to two and half hours [depending on party size]. It depends if you want the bar or a table or, if you're open to either, that certainly opens a little time. As long as you're flexible we can make it work.
What about just sitting at the bar; can you just sit or do guests need to get placed there, too?
You still need to get placed by somebody. Each seat is accounted for and people who ask for first available will get priorty.
Do people generally prefer to sit at one or the other?
We definitely have some diehard bar people and we have people who want a table and then don't realize that it's snug and communal. They'll change their mind, but then you're back on the list. We're trying to be fair to everyone.
As a customer, is there anything I can do to make my wait shorter, like cash or gifts?
No. I hate to say that even if my folks come in for dinner, they'd be on the waiting list like everyone else. We may throw you out some extra goodies, but if you know the routine, you can put in your name, we'll take your number and you can go somewhere and have a drink.
You've had a lot of national, and international, press. What percentage of your diners are coming from outside of Chicago?
I don't know the percentage. I do know from talking to customers every night we have quite a wonderful international following from all over. I always ask how they heard about us: Was it through a travel magazine or looking at a website? We have a nice following in that regard, but at the same time we have wonderful repeat customers that we know and, who doesn't like being a regular somewhere and the perks that come along with that?
What sort of perks?
Being recognized ... getting warm invitation, maybe a little extra pour for a drink. I can't say exactly what my bartenders do, but it's extra recognition and a nice reminder of what they drink and not waiting for a drink or whatever.
Tell me about your favorite customers, whether a specific type of diner or regulars.
People who inquire about the food, how long we've been around – I'm always surprised when people say, "So you've been around for like a year or two?" It reminds us that we have to keep things fresh. We have an interesting variety of people. There's one woman named Linda who stops by nightly when she's in town. She's a comedian. She's one of the few people I let create her own menu. She's kooky, but wonderful. We've all come to love and accept her and deal with the quirkiness. I don't love when people ask for food to go – we're not equipped for that.
Well part of dining at avec is taking in the experience, no?
You wouldn't believe the number of customers who challenge my thought about [take out] and say, "Well, what if I take one bite and ask for it to go?" We want you to be here to experience it.
Do you get a lot of celebrities?
We do. We've certainly had our share over the years: Will Farrell, David Schwimmer, tons of musicians, Yoko Ono, Sonic Youth, Plain White Ts. And they've all been wonderful and not demanding and no issues.
How do you deal with VIPs when there are no tables left to give?
Usually we're give a heads up when we have someone and we'll allot a certain time and window when they can walk in. It's not always the case. Everyone gets treated equally, but that's a sticky subject to approach when that happens. If you're going to get mean, you're not going to get much from us. We do our best with everyone. We'll give them some wine or cocktails. Each scenario is very different.
What's the strangest request that you've gotten from a customer that you've accommodated?
I cant think of anything off the top of my head. Oh, [photographer] Victor Skrebneski goes to Blackbird a lot and doesn't like the bread there so he asks for our bread to be brought over extra crispy. Sometimes he'll come here and doesn't like the wine so asks for wine to be brought over from next door.
What about any requests you couldn't accommodate?
For the most part, we can accommodate about most anything. We're not a vegetarian restaurant, but we can accommodate that especially with a little heads up so it's not just a salad and a piece of bread. There's pretty much nothing we can't do ... within reason. I don't like being caught off guard.
What's the one Gatekeeper tool you need to do your job?
When you're not at avec, where are you eating?
Usually picking up a taco and going home. I haven't had much time off this summer and when I do I'm not looking for that new restaurant or a "see and be seen" kind of place. I went to Perez last night and got one goat and one chicken taco, went home and had a margartia and was as happy as could be. I go low key these days like Palace Grill. I keep it simple. Delicious food that's quick and fast.