In February 2020, longtime Chicago restaurant publicist Lacey Irby and chef Ryan Brosseau were on the edge of signing a lease. For months, they’d plotted their new restaurant — Dear Margaret, a tribute to the chef’s French-Canadian roots — but ultimately passed on the space. Four weeks later, COVID-19 shuttered Chicago’s dining rooms and bars, and the pair felt they had dodged a bullet. Now, after nearly a year, Dear Margaret is finally open for carryout and delivery in Lakeview.
Brosseau (Perennial Virant, Table, Donkey and Stick) aims to warm diners’ hearts and stomachs with large portions designed specifically for easy transport in using French techniques and ingredients sourced in the Midwest and Ontario. His menu offerings include putsinsm (braised chicken and whole wheat dumplings in bone broth); and tourtière (a savory Canadian meat pie filled with mushroom, potato, herb, and pork inside a lard crust).
Brosseau is also excited to offer smelts from Lake Erie that are fried in beef tallow (accompanied by fried pickles, tartar sauce, and lemon). He’s also offering the unofficial national dessert of Canada: Nanaimo bars, made with graham crackers, coconut, walnut, custard icing, and chocolate ganache. The restaurant plans eventually serve wine, craft beer, and a small cocktail list.
The restaurant honors Brosseau’s mémé (grandmother), Margaret, and the meals she cooked for her family in Chatham-Kent, Ontario. A mother of six, Margaret butchered her own meat and canned and pickled local produce, cooking with the ingredients around her. Her ethos is one that Brosseau recognized while working at acclaimed Chicago chef Paul Virant (Gaijin)’s now-shuttered restaurant Perennial Virant in Lincoln Park. Working under Virant, who known for his preservation expertise, “showed me that the food I grew up eating was relevant in a culinary sense,” Brosseau says.
Irby has spent more than a decade as a food and beverage publicist in Chicago and started her own PR firm representing clients like District Brew Yards and Finom Coffee. She’s watched many restaurants open and close along the way, and sees Dear Margaret — her first experience as a restaurant owner — as a long-awaited chance to put her hard-earned knowledge to work.
“It became undeniable to me that I had to try and do this, to open a restaurant with people I care about on the premise that a restaurant should care about its people first,” writes Irby.
Though she says her positive experiences have outweighed the negative. Irby, a single mother, mentions encountering “widely accepted misogyny” in an industry disproportionately dominated by men. She believes that when decisions are based on what’s best for employees and customers, financial success will follow.
“You could say the reckoning for the hospitality industry is upon us,” Irby adds. “And if I’m not going to be a part of the change now — yes, even in the middle of January in Chicago amid a global pandemic in an industry that is raw and ready to heal — then when am I going to do it?”