The pandemic has forced the restaurant industry into some unique partnerships as the novel coronavirus keeps customers at home. The latest comes in Gold Coast where S.K.Y. chef Stephen Gillanders is taking over the kitchen at Somerset, the restaurant inside the Viceroy Hotel. Somerset will reopen next week with a new menu and a COVID-19-friendly expanded patio.
S.K.Y. will remain open, says Gillanders, Somerset’s newly anointed executive chef. He trusts his culinary team who have created a new identity for the restaurant since March. S.K.Y. has run a successful takeout and delivery D.I.Y. operation. But as his staff continues establish themselves, Gillanders says he’s found little left for him to do. Sometimes he’d find himself doing dishes.
Meanwhile, Somerset has been in search of an operator since Boka Restaurant Group exited the project in July. The hotel also has a rooftop pool bar, Devereaux, which will be retooled. An acquaintance Gillanders met while working with mentor Jean-Georges Vongerichten — Rebecca Carey — is the Viceroy’s food and beverage director. As she was looking for someone to replace Boka, Gillanders saw an opportunity for Big Brother to depart, allowing the kitchen staff at S.K.Y. to flourish.
Gillanders is Filipino, and his wife Seon Kyung Yuk (whose initials make up his restaurant’s name) is Korean. While S.K.Y.’s lobster dumplings and other fare have titled Asian, Gillander relishes the opportunity to show diners he can cook cuisine for other parts of the world. That was the onus behind Apolonia, his new European-Mediterranean restaurant that he still plans on opening in South Loop. He’s already selected his general manager, sommelier, and chef, but opening is ”still a while’s away.”
Somerset opened in 2017 with the rest of the new Viceroy Hotel. Boka, James Beard Award-winning restaurant company, was brought over to run its food and drink programs, giving the project the credibility of a nationally recognized hospitality group. The breakfast, lunch, and dinner menus at Somerset are still under development. Gillanders says he doesn’t want to canibalize from his other S.K.Y. and Apolonia. He describes his food at Somerset as simple and seasonal. He says he doesn’t want to “manipulate ingredients.”
“We’re not going to disguise them, they’ll speak for themselves. It’s a simple and chic approach,” he says.
S.K.Y. also opened in 2017. Gillanders’ crew rehabbed a long-vacant building in Pilsen to open his dream restaurant, one that was originally ticketed for LA. Previously, he helmed Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises’ Intro Chicago in Lincoln Park.
Tatum Sinclair, S.K.Y.’s award-winning pastry chef is following Gillanders: “We’re kind of a package deal now,” he says. She’s consulting for Somerset, working on pastry recipes. She will retain her title at S.K.Y. Earlier this year, Sinclair won the local Jean Banchet Award for Rising Pastry Chef of the Year.
Somerset will reopen with expanded outdoor seating as Gillanders says hotel staff is moving planters to make room for tables overlooking Gold Coast’s infamous Mariano Park. While Gillanders aggressively dove into carryout operations at S.K.Y., he says the Pilsen restaureant would be in better shape if the city allowed restaurants expanded indoor capacity back when Chicago reopened dining rooms in June. Gillanders anticipated able to open at 50-percent indoor capacity. Instead, the city cut that to 25 percent: “It really slashed our ability to operate efficiently at the restaurant,” Gillanders says.
On Monday, four months after indoor service resumed, Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced that capacity can rise to 40 percent starting on Thursday.
It’s been particularly rough for restaurants across the country in recent months. Gillanders reflects on the fire that destroyed three-Michelin-starred Meadowood in Napa, California. Gillanders sees the opportunity at Somerset as silver lining.
“There just seems to be so many minuses in the world,” Gillanders says. “But I was thinking this is some of kind of a plus? It’s got to be out there.”
Somerset, inside the Viceroy Chicago, 1112 N. State Street, reopening October 8.