Nine months after Erling Wu-Bower took over the helm from opening chef Koren Grieveson, ten-year-old avec has a new chef de cuisine in Perry Hendrix. Hendrix, who has a degree in botany with a concentration on wine production, had cooked in Asheville, NC, Utah and St. Louis, MO, before coming to Chicago in 2010 to helm Custom House Tavern and then opening Maison in 2012 (both restaurants have closed in the past year due to owner issues).
Hendrix has traveled extensively around the Mediterranean rim, giving him a wealth of inspiration to continue the culinary mindset found at the beloved eatery. He spent the month of May training with Wu-Bower (who is now doing his own training for the forthcoming One Off Hospitality restaurant Nico) before taking over June 1.
Reached by phone on the Fourth of July before leaving to begin the day at avec, Hendrix enthusiastically discussed his love of the restaurant, what will change (and more emphatically, what will not change), news that avec will begin a Sunday brunch service in the coming weeks, along with a desire to qualm any customers' fears. "Tell people not to worry—I have a lot of respect for avec. I'm sure that some people would be concerned that some things are going away, but I think I'll maintain the heart and soul of (the restaurant)."
You're not working today, are you?
Yes, we are open. I think this is the first year that they've opened on the 4th of July.
What has changed since you've taken over?
There are things that are untouchable that will never change. I call them the holy grails—the dates, the focaccia and the brandades—those are still on the menu and won't change anytime soon. A good portion of the menu has switched over to my stuff.
I've been trying to keep on it to change out a dish a week. We keep moving through stuff as more produce becomes available at the markets. A couple of dishes I like quite a bit, one is seared shrimp—head on gulf prawns served with corona beans. And then we have radishes a couple of different ways—we do roasted, raw and radish topped pesto and then limoncello vinaigrette with that. (These are) inspired by travels I made in Italy years ago.
What advice were you given before taking this job?
I think for me it's one of those jobs I always wanted, but never really knew was out there. It fits with a lot of my experience. I have a degree in botany and I studied wine towards the end of my college years. I had always traveled quite a bit around the Mediterranean rim. As far as advice it was to be myself and to follow that geography of the Mediterranean and let those flavors come through.
Did you find it easy to plug into how the menu has evolved over the years? What one dish stands out as your favorite in the times you've eaten there?
That's hard to say. I've eaten at avec over the years—it's one of the few restaurants in Chicago I've eaten at over a dozen times. So I was really familiar with the restaurant.
I found the transition to be pretty easy. I know Koren, so it was big shoes to fill with her being at the helm for so long. I really want to respect what the restaurant is. The transition felt easy and natural to me and it's food that I really like to cook. Technically it was easy, but it is also big shoes to fill and pressure. Pressure in the regard to not sway what the restaurant has become in ten years.
I can imagine that idea may be in the back of your head that this place has been around for awhile now and it's revered and really loved. And it's loved for changing, which is odd because people don't typically like change. Even though people love the changes, people are probably hoping that someone new coming in doesn't suddenly ruin what they love about it.
It's great to walk in to this place that's well established, but you don't want to be the one to muck it up.
Is that something that is helpful for your creativity in creating menus or is the idea of creating something new constantly daunting or perhaps a little of both.
For me I would move faster. I really enjoy going to the markets. It's something I've done for years and years. Another great part of working for this group is that they really do allow you to do your job creatively. I wouldn't even call it a challenge—it's one of the best parts of the job, to be able to make great food, change it and move forward.
There are (always) opportunities for avec to grow. We're adding brunch in a couple of weeks, a real deal Sunday brunch. That's something exciting to look forward to.
When do you plan on starting that?
The end of the month, end of July.
What kind of dishes are you planning for brunch?
I'm thinking about a bread pudding french toast done in kind of a traditional Spanish style. A baked white beans, corona beans, summer squash, soft cooked egg on top and feta bread crumbs. Steak with papas fritas and a sunny side egg. Certainly keeping with the Mediterranean rim and what they eat with our own spin on it.
What are some of your favorite places to go to when you do go out?
We (Hendrix is married with a child) end up staying in our neighborhood quite a bit. I live in Lincoln Square and there's some great restaurants up here. We go quite a bit to Spacca Napoli—it's great pizza, especially with a seven-year-old. It's really great pizza. Burgers at Bad Apple. We get Thai food from Spoon Thai. We don't stray too far out of the neighborhood, regularly. It's nice to be able to walk places and get some great food here in Lincoln Square.
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