Imagine an eight-year-old John Manion on a family vacation in São Paulo. At one of the many traditional Brazilian restaurants, the kitchen is a coal-filled pit out back where skewers of meat are carefully tended to as they develop a delicate char and smoky flavor. "That's the kind of thing that you don't forget—the smell of beef fat sizzling on charcoals—so for all my life I've loved cooking outdoors," Manion recalls. "I fell in love with Argentina later in my life, and it's always been a goal to do this sort of very primal, very simple cooking."
For his more recent, and possibly final restaurant as a chef/owner, Manion will bring his lifelong dream to fruition in the form of a ten-foot hearth that will act as the focal point of El Che Bar when it hopefully opens in March. Rather than a kitchen full of ranges and ovens, the Argentinean-inspired spot will do the majority of the cooking over an open hearth, which will feature three 24-inch grills, one large flat top, a small wood-burning oven as well as various shelves and hooks within the hearth for hanging and braising ingredients, respectively.
"It's simple cooking for a complex world."
"We had talked about putting burners in and putting in a sauté station, but the decision was made to give up safety nets," Manion says about the restaurant. "If we're going to do it, we're actually just going just cook on wood...don't think that doesn't wake me up in the middle of the night."
While much of the menu is still in flux until Manion can get his hands in the fire, so to speak, there are a few dishes he is sure will make the cut. Blackened sweetbreads that made their debut at Cochon 555 changed the way he prepared the offal. He was so happy with the result of searing on the chapa and then slow roasting, that he took a less charred version off the menu at his previous restaurant, La Sirena Clandestina. "I was doing it wrong," he admitted, unable to replicate the flavor and texture possible via the open flame in a traditional restaurant kitchen.
To contrast an assortment of grilled seafood, roasted meats, and smoked vegetables, the menu will be saturated with bright notes. The beverage program will rely on equally "ballsy" flavors—from smoke and leather to acid. It will not however, incorporate ingredients prepared over the hearth into the drinks themselves, unlike the restaurant that largely pioneered hearth cooking in Chicago: The Promontory.
The Hyde Park restaurant opened in the summer of 2014, paying tribute to the south side lake-shore landmark by the same name. Not coincidently, the lookout is known for oversized fire pits that date back to 1938 and the restaurant bases its culinary and beverage programs on an open hearth. "The method is the cuisine," according to Manion, resulting in dishes such as hearth bread, ember roasted oysters, smoked Manhattans, and classic Kentucky burgoo.
Although The Promontory paved the way for others such as Rural Society, Maple & Ash and Oak + Char to install similar hearths, owner Bruce Finkelman hardly calls it trendy. "It's simple cooking for a complex world," he says. "Everyone cooks over fire at one point, whether it's barbecue or cooking wieners over the grill on a Saturday afternoon, but I think the real interesting point was watching [chef Jared Wentworth] create food that could be cooked in the hearth but serve a 115-person restaurant."
"It takes a very intuitive cook, because it's the opposite of a lot of cooking that's going on right now," Manion explains. At El Che Bar, the opening team will consist of himself and chef Mark Steuer, who will spend the first few weeks, or even months, identifying hot spots and nuances of the hearth. Even after all the practice, hearth cooking is not a forgiving method—grill marks, burnt spots and all the "flaws appear on the plate," making each dish that comes out of the fire a unique one.
Even the kings of molecular gastronomy (we're of course talking about Grant Achatz and crew at Alinea) will put down the tweezers at their newest concept, Roister, a boisterous departure with, yep, an open hearth. Chef Andrew Brochu refused to comment when asked for a statement on how open flame will fit into the restaurant, supposedly opening very soon. However, if one thing is certain, the 2016 Chicago dining scene will be on fire.