When the team behind the critically-acclaimed Wood decided it was time to open another restaurant, they headed to the bright lights of Randolph Row in the West Loop—in a space that many thought was cursed after Alimentari only lasted six months on the same block as Blackbird and Avec. But one year later, Salero has reversed the curse with 12 months of solid business and more critic and customer acclaim for its creative interpretation of Spanish cuisine in a stripped-down candlelit restaurant on Randolph Street.
Below, chef Ashlee Aubin chats about how the space and concept came about, why the opening was "incredibly smooth," why he didn't have any problems finding staff, and why he didn't care about the space's cursed reputation.
How did you guys come across the space?
Our realtor had the listing or something like that. We had been looking specifically for a place on Randolph for a while and it just seemed to be the right fit. I just thought it was a great location that was just underutilized—Alimentari just didn't do it right. A lot of people thought it was the location, but clearly it wasn't.
Coming from Wood, how did this concept come about?
When we started talking about doing a second concept, the three of us had thrown around a lot of stuff and this Spanish idea really stuck because it's something I've been thinking about doing for a long time so I already had a lot of culinary inspiration for it. It made sense too because there just aren't that many Spanish restaurants in Chicago. There's a lot more now than there were three years ago when we were talking about this, but you talk about a gigantic culinary mecca that is Chicago and there were only two notable Spanish restaurants. That's just insane.
Was there a personal aspect of the cooking style that kind of spoke to you as well?
I had done quite a bit of traveling in Spain and all over Europe. Spain was my absolute favorite place to eat. I really connected with how they eat, the casualness of it and the whole aesthetic of the food. It's something I just kept going back to for a long time. I always wanted to do something with that.
What was it about the cuisine or the aesthetic that you loved so much?
There's a certain simplicity to it, I find it to be really unpretentious. A couple quality ingredients. Big flavors. It's not covered up in too much fat, it's not heavy. That was just kind of the way I wanted to be cooking right now.
There's a huge variety of Spanish cuisine. When we draw inspiration from Valencia and from Seville in the south of Spain, the flavors are completely different from San Sebastian, the Basque Country. So you can end up going from saffron and peppers up to porcinis and venison. They're drawing very different from the same tradition.
Spanish food, like a lot of food, people have their pre-conceived notions, or they just think a few specific dishes is what it is. How did you go about making it your own?
When we looked at traditional Spanish restaurants in America, (they) were very similar to French bistros in America—there's 10 or 20 dishes that every single restaurant does. It was just kind of a carbon copy and in the same way that you look at a modern French restaurant, we were trying to do that with Spanish food. So drawing on the same inspiration of flavors, but definitely not trying to just replicate the same dish that's been done a thousand times.
What is an example that illustrates that point?
We've done a number of different octopus dishes. I think octopus is very synonymous with Spanish cuisine in people's minds. We did one that had octopus and confit potatoes which is like the ultimate Spanish tapas combination. But our dish was completely different than the traditional one, so we're still hitting that emotional connection to the classic tapas dish. But the dish itself is totally new.
How did you know it was time for a second concept?
We were over two years in at Wood and everything was clicking along really well. We had a number of people who had been with us since opening Wood and they were all just kind of ready to be taking on more responsibility, and if we weren't going to give them new responsibilities, they were just going to go and find jobs somewhere else. So it was a great time to be able to promote them and do new things within the restaurant.
Did you think about, "I'm on Randolph Row now so I have to do something in a certain way?"
When you have a neighborhood restaurant like Wood, you try a little bit to be everything for everyone. So you want to have the diversity on your program for the people who want to come in three times a week, all the way up to the people who want to come in celebrating their anniversary. You really try and diversify what you're doing. Where as (on Randolph Street), there's so many restaurants, there's no need to do that. You can figure out what it is that you want to do and just stick with that.
How did the design come about? A lot of restaurants on Randolph and in that area are kind of glitzy, and you guys went the other way.
The restaurant was designed by Karen Herold who also designed Wood. We wanted to evoke certain things from Spain. Whether it's material, textures, colors, but without it being a caricature. Sometimes a restaurant has a certain nationality or ethnicity and it almost looks like a Disney World version of that, (and) we didn't want that. We wanted something that was going to look classic 10 years from now. Staying away from the trends and just focusing on real, natural materials. Things that were going to age well, things that were authentic.
How was opening night and the beginning?
It was incredibly smooth because so many of the people working here had worked with me either at Wood or at other restaurants in the past. We had an entire crew full of people that I trusted and everyone is really professional, so our opening went better than I could have ever imagined. Of course, it's also one of the most stressful things that you can ever do. Opening here was much smoother than opening Wood because we had done it before.
So many restaurants are having trouble finding cooks these days, but you have a whole staff that you already knew?
Everything that everyone is saying (about the cook shortage) is completely true. That's probably part of the reason why I reached out to people that I already knew and trusted to come in as opposed to just trying to find random cooks on Craigslist.
Did you make many changes over the first few months or the first year?
One of the biggest things is we've loosened up a little bit. I think the restaurant's more fun now. Our tasting menu went from being traditional, individual courses to family style, which feels a lot more vibrant. We're doing perrons and I think there's a liveliness in the air right now.
It was a space that had the reputation of being cursed. Did you guys think about that?
I never even really bought into it when people were saying that before we opened because Meiji was there for quite some time, and I think they did pretty well for themselves for a while. We're on the same block as all these restaurants, there's no way there's a bad space right here. I'm not too superstitious about things like that.
One of the best things that we did for the space itself was we redid the front of the building and brought it out a little bit. Before, when you passed by, it looked set back and dark and we brought it up a couple feet with new windows. I think from the outside it does make a visual difference for people passing by.
What are you working on for the future there?
We just opened our upstairs private-dining space. We're still a baby. A year in, we're still just trying to define what we do and make Salero better for its next birthday.
How has it been running two restaurants?
It's a lot of work, it's a little hectic. There's some days where I'm back and forth three times. There's times when one restaurant just really needs more attention than the other one. It's been a lot of work finding that balance. Now, I'm finally comfortable with it.