Welcome to Front & Center, a series highlighting front of the house professionals in Chicago restaurants. Right now, Daily Candy Chicago editor Emily Fiffer writes about Balena server Emily Wallace.
She is a motorcycle-riding, skydiving maniac. She has a wine dictionary embedded in her hippocampus (thanks to years of serving at Alinea and BOKA). She remembers every allergy and apprehension. She's Emily Wallace, a red-headed pixie who serves at Balena.
I, like most people, usually go to restaurants for the food. When I head to Balena, I not only have chef Chris Pandel's handiwork in the kitchen to look forward to (he nails it every time), but I also have a server who elevates the experience, making recommendations and small talk without ever being overbearing.
At this point, Emily knows that I'm a pescatarian, Aaron (my boyfriend) hates nuts and loves beer, and automatically brings me a Negroni as soon as I sit down. Service with a smile.
—Emily Fiffer, Daily Candy Chicago
Emily Wallace isn't the only one getting props at Balena. A few of our readers wrote in to praise the following:
On Erin Phillips and Mike Heberlein:
I feel everyone should know about our managers Erin Phillips and Mike Heberlein at Balena. It's because of the two of them that I have a job that I can't wait to get back to, even after the worst night. Erin, for one, is a cicerone and together with our sommelier, they hold training sessions for our Italian wines and beers. As a pastry cook/barista, I love getting to learn things outside of my realm and hone my palate. She is also incredibly hard working and has always been there for me in tough situations. Mike, or Dumbledore as I call him, because he is magical and wise, is the peanut butter to Erin's jelly. Together they are incredible. Mike is always the one to come to me and tell me a goofy inspirational quote to get a smile on my face. Or bandage me up with no hesitation when I cut my finger on the meat slicer. As he said afterwards, "I got your back, homie." There is so much else I'd love to say about them, but it would end up being a novel. Basically, without them at the wheel at Balena, we'd all be lost. Every one of our employees is lucky to work with them and I can't imagine a Balena without either of them.
— Kayleigh Giorgio, Balena pastry cook and barista
On Henry Mizhquiri, food runner, bus boy and more:
I would like to tell you about Henry Mizhquiri from Balena. He is Balena. Food runner, server assistant, party captain, bus boy, and he even expedites service when we are short staffed. I have been working with him for six years. Before this he was at Bristol, where he ran the restaurant there as well, as a server assistant. He takes his job very seriously, and is the hardest FOH person I have ever met. The best part is, he just turned 23. He's decided to make this a career. He started at 16 working for John Ross at one sixtyblue, and John turned him into a superstar. Now he is doing the same, with his 16-year-old brother, Erik, who is Balena's food runner. If there is anyone that deserves recognition, it is Henry. It would be a very big honor for him. The reason he is so good, is because not only does he outwork everyone, but he will take the time to teach the staff in a positive way. In eight years in this industry, I've yet to meet someone better at what they do.
— Joe Frillman, Balena sous chef