Norman Fenton isn’t the first chef to say his restaurant will represent a unique personal expression, where everything from the dishes to the art to the ingredients were picked due to some sort of a deep connection. But the way Fenton talks about Cariño, his upcoming 20-seat Uptown restaurant, it comes off different, that this isn’t just some hackneyed narrative and that all these converging elements — including a photo of Mexican rapper Santa Fe Klan — will actually matter to him and his family.
Cariño is an upcoming fine dining restaurant where Fenton is both executive chef and co-owner. He says folks could wear shorts if that’s what makes them comfortable. The tasting menu, they’re aiming for about $190 per person, will feature 12 to 16 courses with influences from Central and South America, with a noticeable Mexican influence: “We’re going to over deliver and undersell,” says Fenton.
They’re targeting a December opening at 4662 N. Broadway. That’s the former Brass Heart space, the fine dining restaurant that Fenton worked at for more than two years before it closed in June. Fenton says he’s had plenty of time to figure out way to improve the space and now, with a new business partner, he can execute his plans.
Fenton has split his time between Mexico and Chicago in recent years. The Detroit native started a family in Mexico where he’s worked at Wild Tulum and partnered with Londoner Karen Young, a British Lebanese entrepreneur who’s produced music festivals like Exit, an electronic music fest in Serbia. She moved to Mexico in 2015: “I didn’t speak the language, I didn’t know anybody,” Young says.
Her first dip into the hospitality industry was opening Wild. But a few years later she met Fenton and offered the restaurant for a Day of the Dead pop-up. Young was impressed and she brought Fenton onboard as Wild’s executive chef.
The Young and Fenton team will take their show from the jungle to Uptown. Fenton says customers will be able to connect dots between his work in Tulum and Cariño (where the chef plays with Caribbean and Mexican influences). Still, the Chicago restaurant is a separate entity. Young is sensitive to community needs, not wanting to just open a business and profit off locals. She’s been active in Mexican charities in helping the needy and wants to do the same in Chicago.
Young is an expert on design and marketing thanks to the experience on the festival circuit. Fenton feels he’s dialed into the food after working at Detroit restaurants like Tom’s Oyster Bar and with the Alinea Group and Schwa. Fenton raves about their chemistry and their attention to detail in shaping a unique experience for the diner: “We’re not just some guy sitting down at Gibsons for lunch saying, ‘hey, let’s open a restaurant!’”
“This is a passion — this goes beyond [an investment], this is my family’s future,” he adds.
Mexico is where Fenton met his wife, Karina Garcia. She lives in Cancun with the couple’s 9-month-old and Fenton’s 9-year-old stepson. “Cariño” which means “care” also sounds fairly similar to his wife’s name.
Fenton’s introduction to Central America came at an earlier age thanks to an aunt who was a part of FEMA’s National Veterinary Response Teams which provide aid to animals hurt during disasters. When Fenton was 16, she took him to Nicaragua. It was his first time outside of America.
“I’m a Detroiter — I don’t know about Nicaragua or anything like that,” Fenton recalls. “If you’re going to a rave in Detroit, I’d say — OK, let’s go!”
The trip changed his life. He had already been cooking since he was 14, and hooked up with a Detroit pop-up series. One of the first things he made showing the impact of his trip seems so trivial looking back. He made a sea-salt caramel with cilantro. “At the time, it wasn’t something anyone was doing there,” Fenton says.
Latin American selections will comprise the wine list: “If it’s not from Latin America, you can’t get it here,” Fenton says. While tequila and mezcal will figure into the spirits list, Latin American whisky and pox — which Fenton describes as “the moonshine of Chiapas,” will also appear.
Experience has proved valuable and Fenton’s cooking involves more than adding herbs in unexpected places. Fenton also took a nine-month voyage through Mexico in 2019 and further expanded his horizons visiting various regions. He ate a few memorable tacos during his time, which brings up Cariño’s second component — a late-night taco omakase.
Starting around 9:30 p.m. or 10 p.m., Fenton will serve a second menu with six or seven seats available every night. Perhaps diners will see an item from the main menu, but everything will be taco related, if not in the standard recognizable form of a tortilla stuffed with fillings. The two or three courses will be special and go beyond heirloom corn or any other cliches that may be associated with gourmet tacos: “You can say heirloom corn, but that doesn’t tell me anything,” Fenton says.
“We’re just going to food fuck you with tacos,” says Fenton.
Music will also play a large role with Reggaeton, Latin hip-hop, to contemporary flamenco on Fenton’s playlists: “I can go anywhere from dirty Detroit underground rap all the way to Rancid or Green Day,” says Fenton.
Cariño, 4662 N. Broadway, planned for a December opening.