Since Mike Sheerin split from Trenchermen, the renowned multi-faceted Wicker Park restaurant he founded and co-owned with his brother Pat, his next move, aside from helping out at Parson's Chicken & Fish, was unknown until recently. Now Sheerin is bringing his diverse cooking skills and loyal following to Cicchetti (and an adjoining Sopraffina Marketcaffe), the large upcoming Streeterville project with 45-year restaurant veteran and creator of the original Harry Caray's, Dan Rosenthal.
Sheerin, former chef de cuisine at Blackbird and Food & Wine Best New Chef, talked about the small-plate Italian concept, what he's learning, and his philosophies on change and personnel movement in the restaurant scene.
Can you share some of the ideas you guys are batting around?
I can't share too many of those to be honest with you. We're going to be open for lunch, dinner and brunch pretty much right off the bat. What I'm exploring is definitely a lot of crudo right now. I'm looking at a smoked scallop carpaccio with molasses, lemon, and buckwheat, maybe a little vermouth to brush over it.
What about the overall concept?
Cicchetti means small plates in Italian. People will be walking down the street in Venice, they'll run into an old friend and start chatting about what's going on in their lives and then they'll walk into a small place and grab a glass of wine, an Italian rosé or a nice white, and they'll have a small bite, which can be anything from baccala to carpaccio to clams on the half shell. The culinary overview is to embrace that idea and culture.
Our so-called bar menu is really our cicchetti menu which will have some interpretations of bruschetta. We're definitely going to stay within a traditional format—something that's been charred or baked with some nice toppings. I want to do some marinated sardines for sure. I alluded to rolled bread which is bread that has been rolled through the pasta machine to make it a little flatter, a little crispier and baked.
I think because of where we're located, in the Northwestern Hospital building, there's a lot of foot traffic there. We want people to be able to walk down the street and see people eating and come in and enjoy a glass of wine on the patio when the patio is open, or come in from the cold in the winter.
How casual will it be?
It's going to be extremely affordable. Some bites will be $4-7, we'll have an $8-12 range, then $12-15 and some larger plates that will break $20. It's going to be doctors in their scrubs, women with their strollers out for a walk, tourists wearing Tevas (laughs). We want to make a culinary statement for the neighborhood. I'm hoping to embrace some really great Italian flavors with a more modern idea and approach but no smoke and mirrors.
How did this gig come about for you?
You know, I separated from Trenchermen and I was just looking for something different, something new. I still have a lot to learn about business, the restaurant business, and creating an environment that really brings out who I am. I reached out to Dan (Rosenthal) and he was excited to hear from me, so we started to talk a little bit about things and he appreciated what I was saying and where I wanted to go in life, so we just decided to move forward.
How tough was it to leave Trenchermen? In an interview with you on StarChefs from 2008 you said, "hopefully someday I'll be a chef/owner in a restaurant with my brother Pat."
It was very difficult but something that needed to be done. Something had to happen. Unfortunately I can't (elaborate).
What is it like working with Dan?
Honestly so far it's been really eye-opening. There is a corporate culture and a lot of accountability. There's responsibility and he upholds his end and asks you to uphold yours. He's focused on making sure that people are happy and enjoy their lives in an environment that fosters creativity and good decision-making. He's a father figure there, he oversees everything and is hands-on.
So many Italian restaurants have opened or are about to open in town with a lot of fanfare. What do you think about the Italian scene and where Cicchetti is going to fit in?
What we're hoping to accomplish is finding a great audience that appreciates Italian food that's made really well. Italian food is seen as rustic a lot of times, and we're going for that obviously, but we're trying to heighten that a little bit. We're trying to put some technique and thoughtfulness behind it.
How do you feel about working at a restaurant this size?
I'm going to have a larger kitchen, and it'll be more involved. Service is going to be faster, people are going to expect to get their bites very quickly. It's 120 seats right now and in the summer the patio will make it double. We'll have so much going on at the restaurant itself from charcuterie, flatbreads, small pizzas, a lot of antipasto, a lot of things for everyone. And if you really want to indulge we'll have things for you to think about.
You're hoping for November?
That's the tentative date, November. Cicchetti will open after Sopraffina. It's happening quickly, and that was another draw. I've gotten some rest, am refocused and rejuvenated and I'm looking forward to being back in the kitchen on a daily basis. I've been at Parson's five days a week and I've learned a lot from Hunter (Moore).
I think Dan wanted to feel uncomfortable with the new project—uncomfortable in a good way and reenergize what he does already and show people how great a company he has.
What do you think would make him feel uncomfortable about this project?
It's 9000 square-feet, I think anyone would feel uncomfortable. I think if you talk to Donnie (Madia) and Paul (Kahan), they're opening Nico, they're probably feeling uncomfortable too. Everyone's got a new market. You either embrace change or you don't—when you embrace it it's uncomfortable and you start to feel yourself growing and then it feels wonderful that you went through that.
What do you think it is about the restaurant industry that creates so much wanderlust and change in people's careers?
I think it's a lot of the personalities. Technology moves forward and people's ideas of food don't necessarily move forward as quickly. I think people want to experience a lot of things that open their eyes. Food is life, and life is about experience. We're in a period of growth right now in the restaurant industry where there's a lot to see and experience.
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