Back in April, Chicago was charmed by a new restaurant on the South Side serving gourmet food and trendy wines in a neighborhood that was never deemed worthy of such amenities. Bronzeville Winery presented an intriguing menu, including a vegan smoked watermelon steak from chef Whitney McMorris, an industry veteran who had never been in charge of a kitchen.
A Chicago native who grew up in the South Suburbs, the 30-year-old had worked at upscale restaurants including Moto, Aviary, and Acanto. However, she didn’t get her big break until she responded to a Craigslist ad looking for an executive chef at Bronzeville Winery.
Externally, things were humming along for the winery with Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Deputy Mayor Samir Mayekar dumping praise on McMorris in April. Rick Bayless visited and posed for a photo with McMorris in May.
Now, three months later, Morris has departed and she’s now the executive chef at Venteux, the French restaurant off Michigan Avenue in Downtown Chicago next to the Pendry Hotel.
McMorris tells Eater Chicago she’s easing into her new role; she won’t have a new menu until the late fall or early winter. She also wouldn’t share what led to her departure, only saying of Venteux management, “I was looking for them, and they were looking for me.”
“In a nutshell, I don’t have anything to say except good things,” McMorris says of her time at the winery. “I was grateful to be part of the opening.” The winery’s management didn’t return a request for comment.
Bronzeville Winery has since promoted Dondee Robinson to executive chef and is serving the menu that McMorris developed. At Bronzeville, McMorris was charged with opening a restaurant, a stressful endeavor anywhere. But it’s even more challenging in an area that doesn’t have the benefit of a glut of other restaurants where operators can observe customer data and have some idea of what diners want. Many North Side operators have an advantage in this regard.
Working for Pendry, McMorris doesn’t have to build something from scratch. The processes are already built among its hotels across the country. She can concentrate on crafting a new menu. There will be some traditional offerings. McMorris wants to work on a classic snail soup, “praying” that she can make it approachable. She’s also excited about quail, saying she wants to convince diners comfortable with chicken to try something new.
McMorris attended Le Cordon Bleu in Chicago and feels that’s given her a solid foundation to French cuisine. Still, McMorris’s approach will be different from the French-Vietnamese menu that Venteux currently offers. McMorris says her menu will be influenced by France’s history. She’ll include dishes and flavors from countries the French army invaded, including Vietnam, Morocco, and the menu will feature some German touches with McMorris citing Alsace, the northeast region that’s been under German and French control through the years.
Of course, the conditions at Venteux are also different from that of Bronzeville Winery where McMorris worked at an independent restaurant. McMorris is now part of Pendry, a nine-hotel chain with corporate oversight. But McMorris says she doesn’t mind, and wants to focus more on menu creation. She’s also excited about working downtown.
“Being on the Mag Mile, you don’t know who you’ll run into, who is staying at the hotel,” she says.
Earlier this month, Jeremy Allen White, the star of The Bear, stayed at the Pendry. McMorris says she devoured the TV show and she related to the Black and female sous chef portrayed on the show. Sydney, played by Ayo Edebiri, reminded McMorris of how she’s had to prove herself to non-Black restaurant workers.
“Chefs come in all forms,” McMorris says. “People look at me and ask: ‘Are you the chef?’ I know what you think I should look like, but this is what I am.”