Four months after leaving his position as opening executive chef-partner at Venteux, off Michigan Avenue, Donald Young has launched a bimonthly pop-up series called Duck Sel, that, he says, represents a return to his Midwestern roots. The menu features locally sourced seasonal ingredients and, yes, duck, prepared with French and modernist techniques.
Young slots into the vacancy at RLM Events in Old Irving Park left by Stephen Sondoval’s Entre Sueños after the chef and his Baja Med pop-up head to Soho House Chicago.
The menu’s 12 courses will feature lots of fruits and vegetables sourced from local providers like Mick Klug Farm, and a special spring forward dish with ramps and morels that Young foraged himself. As it’s early in the growing season, there will also be lots of pickled things — Young is a pickling enthusiast — including blueberries, which provide a dash of acidity and sweetness to cut the richness of a braised-short rib dish. For dessert, there will be a popsicle made from last summer’s frozen strawberries.
“I’ve always wanted to do a popsicle,” says Young. “It’s regrettable that I’ve never done it before. But I don’t feel pressure with this dinner. I don’t need to turn these tables. If it takes 10 minutes to eat, it’s not that big a deal.”
Young’s a fan of nose-to-tail cooking, where chefs utilize as much of the animal as possible. Scraps of meat get glued together into roulades. Trim from fish filets becomes, after three or four weeks of fermentation in brown rice koji, a garum that’s used to flavor a different fish dish. He applies the same philosophy with fruit and vegetables: pulp from the popsicles’ strawberries turns into jam, which, along with an English muffin, becomes part of a take-home package for customers after dinner.
Young unveiled Duck Sel’s original iteration in 2016. then known as the Salted Duck, named after the chef’s Instagram handle, @donaldduckconfit. This was before Young began working at Temporis in Noble Square, where, in 2018, he became, at 28, the youngest executive chef ever to preside over a Michelin-starred kitchen. In between Temporis and the corporate hotel life at Venteux, Young also had a stint in Streeterville at WoodWind. The chef is happy to be back in the more informal environment of the pop-up kitchen where, with a team of three sous chefs and one server, he can cook the kind of food he likes and indulge his natural goofiness, like the punny name and the explanation on the website that it emerged “from his obsession with cooking and eating ducks (especially the cute ones).”
“With everything going on in the industry, it’s a nice break from the push that I’ve had in the past year,” he says. “It’s a lot more relaxing, a lot more of being able to do what I want to do, not watching some of my favorite dishes torn apart and taken off the menu and be told that I’m not allowed to serve that. It’s nice to be my own boss.”
Young is learning, however, that there are some downsides to being his own boss without the support of a restaurant. For one thing, suppliers no longer come to him. He spends entire days on what he calls “scavenger hunts,” visiting vendors and other purveyors for ingredients. The apartment he shares with his girlfriend is filled with glasses, dishes, and silverware — enough to serve 12 courses to 20 people — plus a second full-sized refrigerator that is just for ducks.
Eventually, Young hopes to return to traditional restaurants. But for now, he plans to continue doing pop-ups twice a month, which will give him time to cater private dinners and teach cooking classes.
“I want people to be happy,” he says. “With pop-up dinners, it’s higher-end food, but it’s really relaxing. I’m not wearing a chef’s coat. If I’m inviting people into my home, I’m not wearing a chef’s coat. I want to cook food as though you’re in my home.”
Duck Sel, 6 p.m. Friday, April 1, and Friday, April 8, RLM Events and Design, 4042 N. Pulaski Road, tickets are $250 via Tock.