The year was 1986. The Bears were basking in the afterglow of their only Super Bowl championship, Reaganomics was a thing, and Chicago diners were awash in a plethora of old-school French fine dining options. Chef Jean Joho, then owner of Maxim's next to The Pump Room, opened his own fine dining restaurant high atop the Chicago Stock Exchange. Today, Michelin-starred Everest is the second-oldest fine dining restaurant left in Chicago, after Les Nomades, while other fine dining options fell to the wayside and cutting-edge tasting menu spots have popped up and changed the game.
The jovial French-raised Joho is proud of Everest's longevity—particularly of its ability to adapt to the changing needs of upscale diners. "I'm French but I'm very different than all the French (chefs) who came (to America)," he says. "Before it was very stuffy, conservative, very classic dishes. I thought to be successful you can't be narrow."
He sat down with Eater in Everest's still-eye-popping dining room overlooking the grand Chicago landscape and discussed the future of fine dining, why Everest is still successful, and why other fine dining restaurants went away.
How did Everest come about and what was the original idea?
I liked the location. They were building a private club; there was nothing on this floor. I thought the location was very unique for fine dining. After two months opening, the Chicago Tribune came out and gave us four stars on the flash.
It was fine dining in the beginning. The focus was lunch right away—you're in the Chicago Stock Exchange and lunch (should be) booming—but when the market is busy you have no time for lunch and when the market is slow you go home. You didn't have high power lunches in the 80s (in Chicago) like you had in New York. I tried everything and it was never successful so I gave up. I said, let's make it very successful at dinner.
What made Everest stand out in the beginning?
The style of cuisine was unique and I brought something new to the table that was different than all the restaurants. Yes it's elegant and formal, but there was never the stuffiness inside. Many times people confuse stuffiness and elegance and we were always known not to be a stuffy restaurant. For me the customer is the king of the room, not the waiter. It's your evening when you come here; it's not mine.
One of the reasons why I think fine dining will be always here, why you have to respect the customer who goes to fine dining (and) what they're looking for, (is) it's something unique still. This restaurant today is still unique when I walk in the door. When you come to this restaurant you want to experience something that you don't get anywhere else.
What was the Chicago fine dining scene like in 1986?
Lots of restaurants were on the stuffy side. You go over there and you don't know what the dish is and the waiter almost insulted you. I was shocked; why does it make a difference if you can't pronounce or not? But the food I did here was always very unique and a lot of fine dining was a bit more of the same menu. When people sat down I'd give them three or four amuse (bouche) and nobody did this.
Were there many other fine dining restaurants in Chicago when you opened?
Yes there was. Mostly they were French; some American and some Italian. But not so many are left anymore.
Why do you think that is?
Some owners or chefs got older and they closed or retired. In fine dining you don't have to be trendy but you have to evolve all the time; evolution is a very key point. To me, trendy is a very dangerous word about short living. It's the progression of your daily work that makes you better and makes you improve where you are. You can never steer from where you are today or where you're going tomorrow or you fail. You start to climb or you fail. I make changes every time I come in, even today. I think there's a lot more I can achieve still at Everest.
Nowadays, many high-end restaurants are the opposite of stuffy. But that is not always the case in true fine dining, even now.
Too many fine dining restaurants are too snobby, too rigid, not comfortable, not welcoming. All those things you have to take away in fine dining but you have to keep the class. Luxury brands will always exist. You'll always have a place for Chanel. You'll always have a place for Cartier. Fine dining never will disappear. I may be wrong but I hope not.
I know there's lots of young restaurants, loud restaurants, people sitting and only using their phone, but you want to have your time where you enjoy something else, not the technology or the environment, just enjoy yourself.
What has helped Everest remain successful? How has it evolved?
The food evolves all the time. But also service: The wine service, the food service, the waiter service, the greeting service. The way we take reservations. There's a lot of little details and changes and I think that's what can be improved. Today you're approaching the customer differently than it was 25 years ago. The customer has a much bigger knowledge which means you have to follow through. People know more about food, they have many more restaurants, they know more about product, they read more. You always have to be on the hunt for much more that you can find.
You don't invent a recipe. It's an evolution of your daily work that improves. That's where you come up with something new. But you can't sit on a chair and come up with a brand new creation. To me it's an evolution of your work that you do during the year.
Are you surprised that a lot of those fine dining restaurants are gone?
Certain ones, no. Certain ones, yes. A good competitor only makes me stronger. A lot of times when a restaurant closes you know the reason why. It's not just the food and service, there's so much more operation-wise. I wish we had more fine dining in Chicago. I hope it will come back.
Do you feel that Everest is a torchbearer for Chicago fine dining?
I've heard from customers that "we should have more fine dining in Chicago like yours." They say (that they) want different things (to do) in the evening when they go out. They're looking for a different adventure. They're looking for a certain professionalism in a restaurant on this level. And I don't think we have enough in Chicago; I've heard from many customers that we don't have enough happening in Chicago.
What do you think it would take for that to come back?
Everything goes in circles and I don't think fine dining will ever go away. It may be on the weaker side and it may come back but I don't think it will ever disappear. The stronger the city gets and the stronger all different kinds of dining (get). If it's casual, if it's fine dining, the stronger the city gets food-wise, the better it is for the whole restaurant industry in Chicago. Today, Chicago is stronger than it was 20 years ago, food-wise.
Where do you see Everest going in the future?
I'm very happy; we're still doing very very well. I hope I can keep going as long as I can; as long as I'm healthy I want to be here. You don't do fine dining for financial reasons, you do it for passion. My heart is here; everything else comes after. The day I don't like anymore what I'm doing, I'll close it. It hasn't happened in the last 30 years and I don't think it will happen in the next 30 years but that's my philosophy right now. I have no intention to close and I think we have a wonderful team here and I want to keep it for a long time.
What do fine dining restaurants need to do to adapt?
The heart and the soul is there, but you have to be open enough to make some changes. 30 years ago, you take all the reservations on a piece of paper and write it down. That doesn't exist anymore. It's lots of little things.
How much have prices changed since you opened?
My three-course meal is $94; when we opened it was $64. The tasting menu is $165; when we opened it was $100.
Were there any changes over the years that you were resistant to?
I don't think so. As long as it fits the concept, I would do it. For me, it's very rare to say no. When somebody wants a burger, when they call ahead, I'd do the burger. I would like to make the best burger they've ever had in their life, but I would. I have a couple that comes in every month and they always want a 10-course vegetarian menu and they always want something different. And I do it. It's challenging, which is great.
Dress code. Remember, 30 years ago you had to have a suit. I don't have a dress code here (anymore), except you have to have pants on and a collared shirt. I haven't required a tie for almost 15 years already.
Will there ever be a point here where people can come in in a T-shirt?
It's all discretion. You can come in a wonderful pair of slacks and a nice T-shirt and it's fine. If it has holes, maybe find them a table where no one can see it. It's only for the respect of the other people.
Tell me in five words or less why Everest is a classic.
Sophistication. Consistency. Welcoming. Generosity. Special.