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Stellar Granola popped up during the pandemic.
Stellar Granola [Official Photo]

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Four Gourmet Pivots Developed by Chicago Chefs During the Pandemic

As COVID-19 crushed business, these skilled chefs found new ways to show their talents

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Even as Chicago’s restaurants have fully reopened, the last 15 months have left their mark. From QR menu codes designed to limit contact between servers and customers (we predict those are here to stay) to the numerous “pivots,” a word now synonymous with a career change within the restaurant industry, it’s a whole new hospitality world out there.

Below are the stories of five Chicago chefs who used the downtime during the pandemic to create packaged food products with a personal touch.

Kristine Subido, Peckish Spice Co.

Peckish Spice Co. wasn’t Kristine Subido’s first attempt to keep busy when her job as executive chef of Free Rein at the St. Jane Hotel on Michigan Avenue disappeared during the pandemic. (The restaurant has since closed and the space has been converted to a French restaurant, Venteux.) While she took some food service consulting jobs, Subido wanted to do more, and even tried hosting. She took a stab at doing virtual cooking classes but quickly realized it wasn’t a good fit.

The cooking classes weren’t a total waste, however, as that’s where the idea for her dried seasoning line came about. “All of these things are sitting right in front of me,” Subido says. “This is the way I cook every day.”

Born in Manilla, Subido moved to the U.S. when she was 9 years old. Years later, her deep connections to her family and heritage have remained strong. She’s often seen at farmers markets with her mother, where their empanadas, lumpia, and barbecue pork skewers have earned a loyal following. That sentiment translated into a line of seasoning blends reflecting her passion for Filipino food and flavors. “This is my ode to the Flores family, the joys of cooking, and my childhood memories and conversations around the kitchen table,” she says.

On May 9, 2020, Peckish Spice Co. launched — on Mother’s Day — with six offerings, ranging from Mom’s Curry Blend and Filipino Adobo to Tatay’s Langonisa — the latter of which is named after her grandfather, a butcher and skilled cook. “He’s the guy who introduced me to all of this,” says Subido.

While all the seasoning blends are inspired by family recipes, Subido tweaked them for home cooks. Plus, the blends can also be easily utilized for different items. “The inspiration is Filipino, but the dishes don’t have to be.”

That means her Filipino adobo, a blend of dehydrated soy sauce, vinegar, organic garlic, and Tellicherry pepper, can be sprinkled onto meat, fish, or vegetables to create a riff on the traditional Filipino dish. Subido’s seasoning blend for kare kare adds all the expected flavors minus the lengthy cook time.

While Subido contemplates returning to restaurant work, Peckish Spice Co. isn’t going away. She has six more blends in the pipeline, which, like the ones that came before, will be taste-tested and approved by her mother, who lives downstairs from Subido because, well, family.

Available here and at the Logan Square and Andersonville farmers markets

Chrissy Camba & Emily Knapp, Stellar Granola

A bowl filled with food.
Stella Granola is a collaboration between two chefs.
Stella Granola [Official Photo]

It’s not like Chrissy Camba and Emily Knapp have a lot of free time on their hands. They’re full-time research and development chefs at Tovala, the Chicago-based startup that delivers meal kits to customers who heat them in special smart ovens.

The two met at Tovala and got along so well they decided to collaborate outside of work.

Originally, they toyed with the idea of a CBD-related product. Camba, whose resume includes touring chef for Cirque du Soleil, and executive chef positions at Laughing Bird, Bar Pastoral, and Vincent (and a stint on Top Chef Season 12), had already been experimenting with granola. Knapp liked the idea and Stellar Granola was born in December 2020.

While the process of deciding what product to make was relatively easy, ensuring it was something they both would be proud to have their names on was more complicated. After an intense testing process, the two decided on four flavors: “the OG,” s’mores, cinnamon toast, and golden milk. Triple berry pie is the first, but not the last, limited-edition flavor. “We started by making a list,” says Camba. “We knew we wanted retro, nostalgic flavors as well as chocolate and an original.”

Made with a variety of ingredients — think maca, turmeric, chia seeds, and cacao — with a base of oats, quinoa, and pumpkin seeds, Stellar Granola is gluten-, dairy-, tree nut-, and peanut-free. The granolas are sweetened with maple and coconut sugar rather than cane sugar. The snacks appeal to customers on diets like gluten-free and keto, and more obscure regimens like anti-candida.

Nailing the texture was just as important as the flavors. Knapp describes it as “airy-crisp with lots of chunks,” ideal for snacking, crumbled on yogurt, or simply topped with milk. “This isn’t like traditional granola. You can play with it and make it your own,” says Knapp, who has previously worked as a culinary instructor at the Social Table/Cooking Fools and was kitchen manager at Sakara Life. People have taken notice “We went from selling out 175 bags our first month to 300 a month now with a waitlist of 80,” says Knapp.

Available here

Tony Quartaro, Gemma Foods

Never underestimate the value of text messaging. Chef Tony Quartaro made a life-changing decision because of it.

It was back in May 2020, when Quartaro sent a text message to 12 or so of his family and friends in his Beverly neighborhood to see if they were interested in buying his house-made pastas and sauces. Turns out they were — so much in fact that Quartaro had to “kindly” ask them to not talk about it, so he could make sure he could fulfill their orders every few weeks.

Eventually Quartaro began operating out of a shared commercial kitchen, and made some equipment and storage investments. In January 2021, Gemma Foods, named after Quartaro’s daughter, made its official debut. “That they could see a future for this beyond the pandemic gave me the fortitude to push forward,” he says.

While his story is a happy one now, it was anything but back in March 2020. Having just come off his company’s most successful year in 2019, Quartaro, who was the executive chef for Limelight Catering, found himself laying off 70 employees. “It was the worst day of my professional career,” he says.

Gemma’s seasonal menu of pasta and sauces changes weekly, and always includes a meat and a vegetarian offering. Past options have included spring herb linguine with walnut truffle pesto; squid ink tortellini stuffed with a summer sofrito of corn, zucchini, tomato, and Tropea onions, paired with Sungold tomato sugo; and toasted farro canestri with a creamy mushroom ragu.

Quartaro has plans to expand with a move to a brick-and-mortar space in the next few months. He believes Gemma provided customers with a bit of comfort during an “uncertain and surreal time.”

“Two months into the pandemic it became clear to me that the homemade pasta and sauce I was creating for a few neighborhood friends would ultimately become a successful pilot for the next chapter of my career,” he says.

Available here

Thommy Padanilam, Thommy’s Toddy Shop

While for some, it took a crushing pandemic to realize their true passion, Thommy Padanilam was already familiar with the art of the pivot, having switched from a career in accounting to the culinary world a few years back.

So when COVID-19 hit just a few months into his dream job, working the kitchen line at Superkhana International, Padanilam didn’t hesitate when his bosses, chefs Zeeshan Shah and Yoshi Yamada, offered the kitchen staff the opportunity to partner on a packaged food product to be sold out of the restaurant’s new pickup window. Thommy’s Toddy Shop launched in late August 2020 with a variety of achars, or Indian pickles.

Born in Kerala, India, Padanilam moved to Springfield with his family when he was 6. College led to a move to Chicago, where he studied accounting and history. Missing the South Indian food he grew up with, Padanilam began cooking those beloved dishes himself, with frequent visits back home for advice and tips.

Padanilam continued to explore his cooking passion even once he moved into his accounting career. After he helped out at a Malai brunch pop-up with chef Margaret Pak (Thattu) where he made all the appams — “That’s something very near and dear to me as my mom personally trained me on how to make appams,” he says of the pancake-like dish made with fermented rice batter and coconut milk — something changed. “Once I got a taste of seeing how my food made other people feel I wanted to take it to a bigger level.”

Those brunches led to working with Pak full-time at the now-closed Thattu in Politan Row food hall. Six months later, Padanilam, looking to expand his culinary skills, took a line cook position at Superkhana.

In South India, a toddy shop is a roadside eatery specializing in a lightly alcoholic beverage made from fermented coconut or palm sap. In addition, they feature a lot of interesting unapologetic homestyle cooking. “That was something I was going for with the flavor of the products I’m producing.”

Padanilam takes a seasonal approach to his achars, using Midwestern ingredients like zucchini. “It’s a weird relationship because a lot of produce you would find back in Kerala isn’t available here,” he says. “With our sourcing, we meet in the middle.”

In addition, Thommy’s Toddy Shop has featured a tomato thokku (slowly reduced tomato-based sauce with South Indian spices), coco podi (a dry chutney powder), kari leaf podi, and inji sauce (tangy, ginger-forward). Next up is Padanilam’s hybrid chile crisp-meets-macha sauce. Nationwide shipping is also a future possibility.

Padanilam is taking the shop on hiatus, but stay tuned for updates on his Instagram page.

Available here

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