Jason Paskewitz was confident his first restaurant would be successful, but the avalanche of accolades during the first year of The Blanchard surprised even the rarely-speechless New York-bred chef. After paying his dues for a quarter-century in other people's restaurants, Paskewitz left Lincoln Park's twin French-tinged restaurants Gemini Bistro and the now-shuttered Rustic House in order to gain the recognition and financial success he felt he deserved, which he felt he could achieve with his own French restaurant—less than two blocks away. And recognition he got, receiving nearly every local award possible and becoming a semifinalist for a James Beard Foundation Award. The Blanchard is such a critical darling that Paskewitz is already looking at spaces for a follow-up.
That success, combined with the declining number of French restaurants in Chicago that's been happening for years, has created a mission for Paskewitz—"to be known as the guy who brought (French cuisine) back." The longtime chef chatted through his New York accent about the story behind The Blanchard, how he made French cuisine popular again, and his lofty future goals.
When you decided to leave Gemini Bistro, was it only to open The Blanchard?
For the most part, yeah. I left for other reasons (too) but I'll use this as the only reason why. I don't need to get into that underlying story of what happened over there. This is what I wanted to do. While I was at Gemini, I was aggressively looking for spaces and investors and I knew I probably wasn't going to do a restaurant with my business partner there. It was difficult to open up, or even conceptualize a restaurant while you're working at another one. Probably three or four months after I left I signed the lease on this location.
What were you looking for in spaces and locations?
That's a good question; I was looking for a couple of different things. Location wise, I definitely wanted to stay in this neighborhood. I didn't feel like (leaving Lincoln Park) would've made sense, especially given the client base that I had built over the last five years. It just so happens that The Blanchard space is a block and a half away from Gemini — that wasn't planned. I showed it to a few people who said no because it sits on the west side of the building, and doesn't face the street, it's kind of hidden, but that was the whole thing that I loved about it.
What did you like about it being hidden?
It's very private. It definitely had its difficulties when it opened of people finding the place. "You opened a restaurant that's so hard to find." My response to people was, "Well, you found it. You're here now, no need to cry."
How did you know it was time to go out on your own and open your own place?
As I've gotten a little bit older and have been doing this a long time, it was just time to get serious about my future. I got married, I have two kids, at the end of the day I have to put more food on my table than anybody else's table. As chefs, you're making other people successful. You don't necessarily get the recognition or the financial success that you may necessarily deserve. That being said, I had a good deal at Gemini. But I just needed to call all the shots, basically. I'd been doing this for 25 years at that point, I think I know what I'm talking about.
I'd been doing this 25 years at that point, I think I know what I'm talking about.
As far as the concept goes, you have been doing versions of some French food for a long time. Why did you decide to go with another French restaurant?
I always wanted to do a straight French restaurant. It was a no brainer. I've had this idea, this thought running through my head for the last 10 years. At Gemini there was plenty of French influence, but I took it to the next level as far as not being a bistro, more than just steak frites and profiteroles. It's just what I've loved to do.
You have a good amount of bistro dishes, but you go a lot further on the menu too. Was there any other reason for that?
There was the business aspect of saying, "Hey, let's do a French place, nobody's doing that right now." And people think of French food all the time, they think of stuffy, expensive, they're intimidated, and that's not what I wanted. If I changed the style of service, if I changed the way food was plated, if I changed the prices on the menu that could easily happen. A lot of those (perceptions) are created by those sequences of service, whether it's the white-gloved waiter pulling the cloche off the plate or the music. My service here is very casual, it's loud in the restaurant, that's what I wanted to create with that brasserie feel. I balance it well with a steak frites, escargot, the bistro salad with the poached egg, but I also have rack of lamb and foie gras up the ass.
It's a good balance of those recognizable things that get people in, and then once they're in, they're like "oh, this is French food?" Yeah, this is French food. French food is a technique. It's pretty spread out, it's not as easily defined as other cuisines, and I enjoy that. Plus, that gives me room to play.
I'm making it approachable. I'm dumbing it down. Maybe my cookbook will be called "French Food For Dummies."
Do you feel like you're demystifying French food, that you're brining it to more the masses?
I'm making it approachable. I'm dumbing it down. Maybe my cookbook will be called "French Food For Dummies." Obviously, that's not what I want to call it, or say, but that's what it is. I am making it more fun, I'm lightening it up, taking the more serious side out of it and bringing some life and some energy to it.
That's why we've really taken off and been successful is because not only was there a calling for it, but people enjoy it. People are getting tired of the dining experience (at some other new restaurants) — the dining experience (at The Blanchard) is you come in, sit down, order a drink, you have an app, you have an entrée, you have dessert, you go home. That's just normal. There's no eating your menu or smelling your course or something exploded on your table, that's not my thing.
Do you feel like you're becoming a poster-child for French cuisine in Chicago?
I'd like to be. I'm not going to lie, as much as I downplay it or say how simple this is and this is basic and this is cooking. That's what I'd like to be known for, when it's all said and done for me, when I hang up my apron, I want to be the guy that brought it back, and be recognized as a French chef. The kid from Queens who talks funny is the guy who reinvented French cuisine in Chicago. That's a funny fucking story.
How was it when you first opened? Was it kind of like a slow build, business-wise?
Very slow. There were a couple nights when I first opened where I closed the restaurant early, which I never do. I (had) two covers; no reservations. It was a little scary but I knew, being that I opened so many restaurants, that that would change.
I remember the second night (after the grand opening), July 15, I'm doing my pre-shift meeting and I said, "Alright guys, we need to be on the lookout for three or four different food writers that might be coming in. But this is a little early, they probably won't be coming in this soon, they usually give you around two months." It was an hour into service and who I assumed was Phil Vettel comes walking in. A few weeks later a review came out and I haven't slowed down since.
Every review you've gotten has knocked it out of the park. Is there something that you can attribute that to besides being just great food and a great restaurant? so
The kid from Queens who talks funny is the guy who reinvented French cuisine in Chicago. That's a funny fucking story.
I don't know. I think the people who were reviewing or writing about us were recognizing what I was trying to do. I think maybe things just caught on. I can't explain it. Even I'm shocked. I've never been involved with a restaurant that has gotten so many reviews like that out of the box. Each one that came out I was expecting to be bad, like someone's going to write something bad just to do it. I thought that was going to be Mike Sula but he wrote probably the nicest review he's ever written in his career. I mean it was fucking nuts.
You have this social media thing where all the local chefs would come in and you would post a picture with them outside the restaurant, like fake punching them. What's that about?
It was Jason Chan who started it. Whenever he goes out and takes a picture with someone, he always does that, like a karate thing. We did it in front of the restaurant, I posted it, then this slew of chefs started coming in — not because of that picture, but I think just because they wanted to eat this style of food. Everyone was like, "hey, can we do that picture out front?" It just caught on, people still do it now!
And how about the other accolades?
It's unbelievable. I get nominated for the (Jean) Banchet Award, and I win. I get the second round nomination for James Beard. Unfortunately I didn't win. Then Chicago magazine restaurant of the year, on the cover, and the Tribune restaurant of the year, on their cover. It didn't stop. It was the only time in my life I had been nominated for something. When I was sitting at the Banchet Awards, I knew I was going to win. I wore my medal around town for two weeks.
Going in, did you have any expectations of how successful you'd be?
Any chef that tells you "I just want a financially successful restaurant" — that's bullshit.
I had my eyes set on a few things. I was pretty confident I'd get three stars from Phil Vettel because I've gotten them from him before. Did I think I'd be restaurant of the year? No. I had personal expectations, we all do. Any chef that tells you "I just want a financially successful restaurant" — that's bullshit. Everyone wants the critical success. Everybody does.
Sometimes I think that I am getting a little Peyton Manning respect. I've been doing this for so long, like hey, finally give this guy some recognition. The joke is now that I'm an overnight success. It just took me 25 years to get there, right?
What are your goals for the future?
I'm looking for another space right now. I would love The Blanchard to be home base and be my flagship, but my eyes are always open for the next space. I have two French concepts: If it's a smaller space, I would do something more on the fine dining end. If it was a larger space, I'd probably do something a little bit more casual, that big bistro or big brasserie like Balthazar in New York City. I don't know why that hasn't happened here yet.
Personally, I want a James Beard Award and a Michelin star. Being at the awards this year and making it through to the semifinal round of nominations really lit a fire inside. If it happens, I'll do a backflip. And I will make sure that I will never lose (the Michelin star).