After nearly 40 years, Chef Luciano, the takeout-focused and fast-casual restaurant on the Near South Side has closed its doors. Though quick-service dining in recent years has caught the attention of everyone from celebrity chefs like Rick Bayless (Xoco) to major restaurant groups like Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises (M Burger, Beatrix) the family-owned Near South Side restaurant was ahead of the trend by about four decades. The void the neighborhood beacon has left will be soon filled by Erick Williams, the chef and owner of Virtue in Hyde Park.
David Gupta founded the restaurant and adopted his “Chef Luciano” personna as a marketing gimmick to make customers feel more comfortable that an Indian immigrant was selling them jerk chicken, pastas, and grilled fish. Gupta, now 82, has slowed down after serving Chicago politicians and community members since 1982. His son, Rocky Gupta, has run the restaurant for years, and his family has also been looking to move out of Chicago. The pandemic accelerated the process.
“We were ready to move on, hoping to relocate into a smaller setting; a quieter town to raise our kids,” Gupta says.
That decision presented a unique opportunity for Wlliams. During the pandemic, Williams found his own calling preparing meals for overworked hospital staff on the frontlines battling COVID-19. He also donated meals made at Virtue to shelters. The challenge of doing charitable work forced Williams to shut down Virtue in the interim. Kitchen space is at a premium, and it’s been an industry-wide struggle to hire workers. Virtue has been humming along in recent months with Williams reopening the restaurant’s patio.
So Williams and Rocky Gupta, who have known each other for years, talked and came to an agreement: Williams has taken over the Chef Luciano space. In late October, he’ll open a new takeout-only restaurant, called Mustard Seed Kitchen. Williams says he’s three weeks away from an official debut.
Williams wants to continue Chef Luciano’s mission of providing quality and affordable meals, offering what he describes as everyday eats. Customers will find salads, sandwiches, burgers, and about a half dozen entrees including salmon, tilapia, skirt steaks, and roasted chicken. They’ll have fries for the burgers, but also lots of rice and vegetable choices. Like Chef Luciano did before, they’ll also serve pasta. It will be gluten-free, but not made from scratch. “I’m not trying to chef this thing up,” Williams says.
“Not everybody wants a sit-down dinner,” says Williams, especially during the pandemic when customers still aren’t 100 percent comfortable with dining at a restaurant.
Before Virtue, Williams made a name for himself at MK The Restaurant, working with chef Michael Kornick (co-founder of DMK Restaurants). MK was a fine dining restaurant hidden away in River North. At Mustard Seed, Williams will serve dishes like sautéed spinach, and pasta with “delicious red gravy” — the type of food Williams makes at home after a night of work.
Williams says his faith led to the restaurant’s name; several Bible verses mention mustard seeds. For Williams, mustard seeds are tiny, yet potent, and capable of the impact he wants to make. Another connection to the name didn’t immediately occur to Williams —mustard seeds also play a large role in Indian cooking. From time to time, David Gupta would use Indian seasonings and spices at Chef Luciano’s food. His son sees it as kind of a callback to his family’s restaurant. The younger Gupta also jokes, saying his father for years been trying to get him to rub mustard seed oil on his head thinking it would stimulate hair growth.
Naming aside, Rocky Gupta says he trusts Williams to serve Chef Luciano’s loyal customers.
“I didn’t want to come back in one, three or five years and see it was an apartment complex,” Gupta says.
Mustard Seed Kitchen, 49 E. Cermak Road, planned for a late-October opening.