The chef's special

Author: Tara Hunt ’12

At 9 a.m. Erling Wu-Bower ’05 arrives at avec, a chic, minimalist, communal-style wine bar on the Near West Side of Chicago where he is the head chef. He’s drinking green tea that is brewed with rice as he walks down a steep, narrow flight of metal stairs into a basement even smaller than the 56-seat restaurant. There, prep for today’s crowd has already begun.

Erling Wu-Bower '05, photo by Barbara Johnston

In the lower-level kitchen, which smells more like a humid beach than a Midwestern basement, Jorge Ruiz is fileting 40 pounds of loup de mer because 60 pounds of octopus, 10 pounds of swordfish and 20 pounds of squid will soon arrive and require his attention. Since the morning kitchen manager’s 4 a.m. arrival he has already rolled 3,000 of avec’s signature chorizo-stuffed, bacon-wrapped dates, which are marvelously spicy and sweet, crispy and chewy, complex and simple all at the same time and are wildly addicting. But 3,000 is nothing, kitchen crew members will tell you. They once calculated that in his 10-year tenure at avec, Ruiz has wrapped in the vicinity of two million dates. They also say he’s the only one who can prepare them properly, making sure the chorizo doesn’t slide out the sides and the bacon adheres to the date’s slippery skin. “They keep you busy in this place,” Ruiz says smiling.

The popular dish at avec is left over from former chef Koren Grieveson, who served as head chef of the restaurant when it opened back in 2003 until last fall. It was under her tutelage that Wu-Bower began as a line chef at avec shortly after he graduated from Notre Dame with a degree in philosophy. But philosophy, he insists, was never a career aspiration. It was always going to be food.

“I was never going to do anything else. There was no other option in my life,” he says. “There was no ideology. I was going to be a chef, and I thought philosophy was fun. I wasn’t like I would be a better chef if I was a philosophy major. But I am a better chef because I was a philosophy major.

“What set me above everyone else was my work ethic. You have to have food skills, like you have to be a good cook, but you don’t actually create anything for the first couple years that you cook,” he says. “The only thing that you have to speak of is your work ethic and the quality of products you put out on a regular basis.”

Avec, photo by Barbara Johnston

Although his role as head chef now involves more menu creation and business operations, he still pitches in with the tedious work. At 10:45 a.m. he is peeling mounds of garlic and is shouting that his sous-chefs better get to work pronto. They will be presenting three new dishes to the staff at 1:30 p.m. and everything must be ready by then so the restaurant can open in time at 3:30. The salty smell from the fish has been replaced by the aroma of a hot vat of mushroom stock that is now cooling in a tub of ice and by whiffs of freshly chopped celery. Meanwhile, focaccia dough is being rolled and will later be coated with tallegio and ricotta cheeses, sprinkled with herbs and drizzled with honey, another avec staple. Pasta is being cut, octopus is being rinsed and Neil Young is strumming in the background. Everything is fast but nothing is chaotic.

“This job is all about ‘you start a job and you finish it.’ There’s no leaving it undone,” says line cook Sara Bradley. And though avec can involve 12- or 13-hour days and nonstop shifts, it’s one of the most desirable places to work in the city. “Here, people are excited to do what they’re doing,” she says.

Wu-Bower’s energy and stamina certainly helped the young chef begin his career, but his foodie-pedigree opened doors, too. His mother, Olivia Wu, is a food writer and cookbook author who introduced him to the likes of Rick Bayless (owner of award-winning Mexican restaurants Frontera Grill, Topolobampo and XOCO), with whom she wrote a cookbook. His dad, Calvin Bower, a professor emeritus at Notre Dame, is a Cajun from New Orleans who raised his son on authentic Louisiana cooking. Their interest became his interest.

“I was eating at nice restaurants since I was 6 with my parents. Food was like the fabric of my family’s life,” Wu-Bower says. “It’s just how we communicate — around the table, by cooking.”

In sampling Chicago restaurants, Wu-Bower discovered avec and Blackbird, both part of the creative One Off Hospitality Group co-owned by Donnie Madia and Paul Kahan. The restaurants and their dishes quickly became his favorites. As graduation drew close, and after summer internships with two Chicago restaurants and one in San Francisco, he called Kahan and said he was interested in One Off, one of Chicago’s best restaurant groups.

“Maybe naiveté was key in that,” he mentions in reflection. “It never even occurred to me that it might be a bad idea.”

And it wasn’t. After chef Bayless called and vouched for Wu-Bower, Kahan took a chance on the young cook with a college degree and lot of passion by giving him a line cook job at avec.

Line cook Sara Bradley with Wu-Bower, photo by Barbara Johnston

“Being a successful chef is about 35 percent cooking and about 65 percent all the other things — the ability to teach, the ability to learn, the ability to adjust. A four-year undergraduate degree involves struggle and ups and downs and a lot of social experience,” says Kahan, who holds a bachelor’s degree in computer science from Northern Illinois University.

The line cook’s job at avec wasn’t glamorous. It involved preparing other people’s creations and, as Wu-Bower says, “working your ass off all the time, five days a week, miserable hours. That’s just the way this industry is.” He advanced to kitchen manager and, after 18 months, was asked to become the opening sous-chef at the Publican, a German-style beer hall with a focus on homemade sausages and pâtés and meats. He was then promoted to executive sous-chef for both the Publican and Publican Quality Meats, an artisan butcher shop and café, both in the One Off family. To do the job well, he needed to become an expert in charcuterie, or the preparation of meats, so he devoured cookbooks and recipes, searching for perfect, simple combinations. One such creation is the ’nduja, a spicy, spreadable salami that avec gets from Publican Quality Meats. It is served on sourdough with parsnip mostarda, cheese, basil and parsley as one of avec’s small plates.

But meat isn’t his specialty. Fish is. So last fall when Wu-Bower was offered the head chef job at avec, which in French means “with,” a nod to its original design as a wine bar waiting room for Blackbird, he jumped at the offer to join the aggressively Mediterranean and fish-friendly venue, now a successful and busy restaurant in its own right.

“My food philosophy is such that in order to get somebody to really love your food, you have to tap into their memory. And by tapping into their memory, you can transport them to places that are besides where they are eating right now. And fish does that in a way that nothing else does,” he says. “It’s because when you eat fish, and you eat wonderful fish, usually the experience is so rich because you’re eating it by an ocean where it’s very fresh and where you just saw a lobster live.”

Beef and pork and lamb don’t usually have that same transformative effect, he explains, because they are linked to farming and mass agriculture, things most people don’t experience. The chewing they require, too, keeps you in the moment rather than allowing you to be transported. But fear not, they’re still on the menu, prepared in a Mediterranean, rustic fashion. That means no mustard (northern French), no soy sauce (Asian) and no frills. It means concentrating on the basics: spice and seasoning, heat and heart, and overall, exceptional ingredients.

“[Wu-Bower has] done a much more clear job of defining the [Mediterranean] set of rules, which makes the concept more clear and more focused and ultimately better,” executive chef Kahan says. “It’s become sharper. It’s more seasonal. Now as ingredients become available the menu changes a little bit more. . . . He shares the same love of product that I do, and I think he uses higher quality raw ingredients which has made a big difference.”

Wu-Bower explains, “I think food should be simple. I think food should be approachable. Food is nourishment first and foremost. You can’t remove it too far away from nourishment or you lose its purpose.

Photo by Barbara Johnston

“There’s a whole [trend] to put weird things on plates and make things look like what they’re not. Why? You have beautiful ingredients that are provided to you all the time. A chair is a chair is a chair. Just cook the steak right, rest the steak right, put good things on top of it. You don’t need to make it look fancy to make it good. That’s just ego, and I have a big ego, don’t get me wrong, but that is just ego on a plate.”

With Wu-Bower’s food philosophy in mind, you can expect to find food that is simply and deliciously prepared. Take the swordfish for example. The dish is a mélange of Mediterranean rim cultures — Italian and a bit of Moroccan — a cut of the hearty fish served over yellow lentils and celery root with lime vinaigrette. Nothing absurd. Nothing on the plate you can’t eat. And you will eat everything on the plate. It’s fresh and interesting, and even the lentils, which sound mundane, are flavorful and intriguing.

Today, three new dishes will premier, as they do on avec’s menu every three to four weeks. But this time, none of them is Wu-Bower’s.

“Anybody and everybody can put dishes on the menu. The sous-chefs and kitchen managers are assigned creative tasks. They have to put dishes on the menu. But anybody could,” he says. “A waiter could. Say they come up with an idea, then we’ll sit down and refine it, we’ll bring in the ingredients, we’ll work on it together.

“It’s good for the restaurant to have more than one person’s ideas down. It gives you versatility. That’s one of the things this company does well as a whole: creative license,” he says.

Which is why Kahan says he gives the staff the liberties he does: “It’s not my face and my name. I just care about the success of the restaurant. I want the food to be great and people to be happy. That’s what’s going on at avec and why I think it’s a great place.”

It’s 1:30 p.m. and the entire staff, clad in trendy button-ups and skinny jeans, or chic dresses and boots, is seated at two of the long, wooden tables in the restaurant. First, the owner of Rare Tea Cellars explains the new line of teas that will be available at the restaurant and passes around jars full of loose tea leaves, dried Spanish cantaloupe, fire-toasted rice and Italian almond oil, which people stick their noses into, trying to taste the smells. Then, it’s time to eat.

“The coolest thing about this menu change is that none of the dishes are mine,” Wu-Bower announces to the staff as sous-chef Rachel Dow passes out her first dish, a prosciutto with paesanella cheese, tatsoi (which Wu-Bower explains as tasting like “green”) and cherry vinaigrette on fennel crackers. Her second is a warm winter mushroom and roasted artichoke duo with black garlic vinaigrette.

The final dish, a hanger steak with bitter, pickled mustard greens, is a creation of kitchen manager Fred Noinaj. “What do you guys think?” Wu-Bower asks. “Last time you spoke up really well at this meeting.” From the seats people chime in, “More tapenade.” “I don’t get the olives.” “More mustard greens.” To which Wu-Bower responds, “Would an olive that was more acidic and crunchier be better?” Heads nod. Kahan, sitting in as is his custom, recommends adding a chickpea, onion purée, a suggestion the staff supports. After the back and forth, the staff is free to leave and the menu for the night is finalized.

That meeting reveals just how well-versed the entire staff — the bartenders, the hostess, the servers — really are and why Wu-Bower is willing to work with any of them on a dish. They know the place. They know what makes and doesn’t make an avec dish. They know the wines and what to pair with each dish. For a moment, you even wonder if the man mopping has some sort of developed culinary palette.

At 3:30 p.m., avec opens and at 3:32 the first customers walk in. By 5:30 the 1,500-square-foot dining area is full. People are rubbing elbows as they share tables; they’re chatting with strangers at the bar as they sip wine from an enormous and quirky list of inexpensive wines from relatively obscure regions; they’re reaching across the table and swirling a bit of someone else’s lamb Bolognese pasta onto their fork. You can actually see the small plate, pick-and-share idea working.

“Avec is a very communal experience,” Wu-Bower says. “At these tables you just share with everybody. You’re right next to this person right here; you talk to them; you share food with them; you get drunk with them. It’s a great place. It’s a party.”

It’s also a bit stressful for chefs. Though the prep kitchen is downstairs, come serving time, they migrate upstairs to the kitchen located in the dining room and plate food just feet away from the customers and then watch their reactions.

“[P]eople are eating their food two feet away from you. You’re like ‘Why aren’t they eating that? Why aren’t they finishing that? Why aren’t they eating it faster? It’s getting cold. Eat that faster. They don’t like that. What’s going on? Oh my God,’” Wu-Bower rants. “Once I stop doing that, it’s time to leave.” And with that he acknowledges that being a chef, being a good chef, is about the challenge.

It’s also about devotion and accomplishment, Kahan adds. “You know when you run into someone who won’t stop until they achieve something great,” he says of Wu-Bower. “I’ve seen him going from very confident with not a lot to back it up, to being confident with a lot to back it up.”

At 8 p.m. Dow, the sous-chef, scans the crowd, making sure people are eating and enjoying the new dishes. She picks up trays and serves the patrons; so does the hostess, so do the cooks. Every minute, every action is cooperative: Everyone serves everyone.

It’s nearly 9 p.m. and though it’s late, avec seems to be picking up speed instead of slowing down, which is perhaps why it is open until 1 a.m. during the week and 2 a.m. on the weekends. Wu-Bower brings out a plate of small desserts: a crispy rendition of a nutter butter made with crunchy, shredded wafers and a peanut butter so soft and creamy it tastes like caramel; one dark chocolate crisp and a milk chocolate one; and, finally, a mascarpone-and-coffee-filled date that is dusted in coffee grounds and drenched in anisette. As you bite in, licorice and cream and espresso hit your tongue just before you tangle with the chewy strings of the date. As you do, you’re reminded of the dates that started the meal — the bacon-wrapped, chorizo-filled ones — and immediately you’re craving them again, planning the next time you can start the whole experience over.

By 9 the tables are packed, and a crowd of people is standing near the bar. The oven is still hot and the wine is still pouring. Wu-Bower is in the basement, entering invoices, checking on coolers, running a business, and though he began the day at 9 a.m., he still has hours yet to go.

Tara Hunt is an associate editor of this magazine. Avec is located at 615 W. Randolph, Chicago. The restaurant does not accept reservations.