Chicagoland's own Billy Corgan is a very busy man these days. He's recording two new Smashing Pumpkins albums (with Tommy Lee on drums!) for 2015 releases and other music, recently graced the cover of Paws, and still manages to run and attempt to fine-tune his Highland Park tea shop, Madame Zuzu's, where he recently launched an online shop and other changes.
Corgan's first foray into the restaurant business has taught him some new appreciation for the hospitality industry, chefs, and food. He chatted about where and how he eats in Chicago, what he's learned from his experience in less than two years with Zuzu's, and what he hopes to accomplish in the future.
Besides the restaurant, you're working on a lot of music now.
Yes, I just released an electronic music only album from 2007 that I sort of made but never put out. I just put that out on vinyl on my website and we sold out the first 500 copies right away, which was nice. Working on (two) new (Smashing) Pumpkins (albums) in the studio now. We've got Tommy Lee from Motley Crew playing the drums, which is awesome. I have a Ravinia show on August 30 which will be more acoustic.
It's definitely a fun time musically. For a lot of years I was really busy with music but I really didn't feel like a musician, I felt more like a politician. Now I feel very much back to being a musician.
Where do you spend most of your time these days?
I'm mostly on the north shore; having ZuZu's takes up a lot of our time. So I don't come to the city much anymore. But I just ate at the new Harry Caray's (Seventh Inning Stretch), it was cool. But having cats and dogs prevents you from coming down. I've lived here on and off my whole life. I would love to come down more; chefs that I know and the relationships I have are such a big part of my life. I just ate at Green Zebra about a month ago.
What chefs are you friendly with?
I know Curtis Duffy—what a mind-blower that guy is, right? In fact, Tommy Lee was saying, "when I come to Chicago with my fiancé, where should we eat?" I said, "I have to take you to Grace and meet chef Curtis." Kerry Simon obviously isn't here in Chicago, but I met Kerry when he was working at some small restaurant. I met Jean Georges back in the day when he had a small restaurant in Chicago. These guys roll out some crazy f'n things.
What restaurants are your current favorites?
If I was in the city, I would say to take somebody to Green Zebra or Grace because I think that shows the sophistication of the city. A lot of times people who come to Chicago are just blown away by the level of our food. My joke is, when you're inside six months a year and there's nothing to do but eat, food becomes very important. But it extends down into the local joints. I'll go eat at a Mexican restaurant in some other city and I literally will say that any joint in Chicago will blow this place away. Our food is world class, it's America's best kept secret.
Where on the north shore do you go?
I love Happi Sushi, which is right by the tea house. It's family-owned and they've had it for over a decade. The quality of the fish is unbelievable. I love Miramar in Highwood, it's like a French-Cuban bistro, really really good. I love a little spot called Del Rio, I think it's been open since 1923 so it stems back to the mob and has that old-school feel. In the last decade the north shore food is definitely coming on. I recently had a conversation with Billy Dec and I told him you really have to look up here because I think this is the next place.
What are your favorite Chicago restaurants from the past?
When I was a kid in the 70s, there was a place called Sally's Stage and all of the waiters and waitresses were on roller skates, it was very disco. They had a massive old-school organ with drums and violins that was the size of a whole wall. The entire ceiling was pinball machine glass. It was such a cool place to go as a kid; I've never found another place like it.
What types of cuisine do you love?
My diet's pretty limited, I'm essentially a pescatarian, so I really appreciate a place that's adaptable to a vegan-focused, gluten-free diet. We grew up in Chicago, what do we eat? Steak and pizza and I can't eat any of that stuff anymore.
What have you been working on at Zuzu's?
We have desserts now, they're all gluten-free, healthy, vegan. We have a new pickle sandwich that's my creation—I was super poor at one time in my life and you got to eat something. It was Wonder bread, Miracle Whip, and whatever pickles we had in the fridge. Now we use Wienke's pickle, a veganaise, and Ezekiel bread.
What are your long-term goals at Zuzu's?
Coming in, I saw ZuZu's as not just having a literal tea house but to also brand it as a health-conscious hub where art, music, food and healthy living can intersect. For example, were about to start offering alfa ging tonics, they're pretty popular in LA. We're also selling farm-to-market-type vegan chocolates online; we sold out immediately. It's about carefully picking people you want to work with, brands and names that you really stand behind.
(Zuzu's) is not a money-making operation. We don't have to be localized, but we have to bring those local attitudes to the world and then be willing to share those local attitudes. The online stuff is a way to bridge out.
After all of your years in the music business, is there anything that has surprised you in the restaurant business?
It's so detail oriented. Reputation will carry you on stage for a while, but reputation in the food and drink business really doesn't mean much. Maybe because when you sit down at a table in a restaurant, it's very personal because you're putting something in your body. In the beginning I had a little bit of a Pollyanna thing where I was like, "oh, we'll pick some teas then we'll sell some teas." Now I'm way more invested in those relationships, the quality of the team, making sure there's a consistency in the the things we sell. (Now) I'll tell the person behind the counter that this isn't brewed correctly, I wouldn't be satisfied, the flavor is not right. It's all about detail.
ZuZu's very much brings me into reality, I really appreciate the people that come in, I truly do and it's not a tourist stop. It's meant to be a really high quality place, I take great pride in making sure their experience there is positive. It's funny, I look on Yelp sometimes and the bad reviews we've seen are that "Billy Corgan wasn't there." Like I'm supposed to be standing there like the abominable snowman with my hand up?
Anyone that runs a good quality restaurant, I go out of my way to thank them because I have a different appreciation for how difficult it is. I look at things from a different perspective.
What's next at Zuzu's?
I feel really good about what we're offering. As somebody who grew up in the suburbs eating pizza or drinking soda pop, I wasn't raised to eat healthy or know what the difference was. I thought people who were vegans were weird people and anti-vampires. So having to adjust my diet on health issues and all that stuff, it's been a long journey to understand what good food is, what a good meal really means.
· All Billy Corgan Coverage [-ECHI-]
· All Madame Zuzu's Coverage [-ECHI-]
· Madame Zuzu's [Official Site]
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