The steady progression and innovation of Chicago’s vibrant dining and drinking scene hinges on the talents of chefs, pastry gurus, mixologists, baristas, bakers, farmers, brewers and more. Fortunately, Chicago is chock full of them — each working to better the local restaurant and bar culture. From a crafty syrup-maker to a poke pioneer, these are the 11 superheroes of the Chicago dining scene.
The hero: Ryan Dailey
His lair: Sawada and C.C. Ferns
Superpower: He’s the Picasso of latte art, with a heart as warm as his drinks.
Origin story: As the manager of two inventive and game-changing coffee shops, C.C. Ferns and Sawada, Ryan Dailey has helped change the face of latte art as we know it. That Sawada's green tea lattes are as delicious as they are photogenic is icing on the cake. Dailey has been in the service industry in one way or another since he turned 20. Since moving to Chicago from Kentucky after turning 30, he’s had just about every front-of-house position there is within the Hogsalt Hospitality group (Au Cheval, Bavette’s Bar & Boeuf, Doughnut Vault and others). “It’s been very important to me that despite being in a management role, I still have time behind the counter," he says.
The hero: Alexander Roman
His lair: Floriole Cafe & Bakery
Superpower: As the baker at one of Chicago’s best shops, he’s the mastermind behind some of the city’s best breads.
Origin story: Growing up in Chicago’s Little Village neighborhood, Alexander Roman drew inspiration from home-cooked meals with his family would gather around the table and share home-cooked meals. After exploring bread-baking while at Le Cordon Bleu in Chicago, Roman did an externship at the now-defunct De La Costa and the venerable MK. Upon returning to Chicago after four years in New York City, he looked up Floriole. “I realized that if I was to get any better, I needed to work in a bakery; one can only learn so much by themselves,” he admits. He eventually became head baker, and he’s since focused on increasing bread sales and developing a wholesale business. He also works with farmers to get local grains.
The hero: Jeff Eichem
His lair: Rootstock Wine & Beer Bar
Superpower: The reason why Rootstock remains a neighborhood keystone.
Origin story: How do you keep a pioneering neighborhood restaurant not only relevant, but consistently exciting? At Rootstock Wine & Beer Bar, 28-year-old chef Jeff Eichem is responsible for a menu that attracts not only a cadre of local regulars, but a constant influx of destination diners. Eichem moved to Chicago with art and music aspirations, but playing shows while working at a sandwich shop in Lincoln Park inspired him to pursue a new career. Instead of culinary school, Eichem dove right into restaurants, clocking time at Green Zebra in order to learn as much as possible. His impressive resume includes stints at award-winning restaurants Senza (now closed) and Lula Cafe. At Rootstock, he’s tasked with a concise and constantly changing menu that draws inspiration from the small-batch beverage list.
The hero: Laurell Sims
Her lair: Growing Power
Superpower: She’s the definition of farm-to-table, growing produce from her Bridgeport farm and selling directly to chefs and other shoppers.
Origin story: Sims is the production and marketing manager for Growing Power, a national nonprofit organization that oversees urban farms in Chicago and beyond. She's also a familiar face at Green City Market, where she sells produce harvested from the cumulative 13 acres of farm land throughout Chicago. Not only does she oversee daily maintenance for Growing Power’s farm projects and manage farmers’ markets, but she somehow finds time to coordinate fundraising efforts, sell to restaurants, co-teach Growing Power’s Commercial Urban Agriculture Business Training Course and manage international farm projects in places like Haiti and Uganda. Sims also tends beehives on the roof of the Palmer House Hilton, was a founding member of Green City Market’s Junior Board and serves on the Board of Directors for Slow Food Chicago. In every way, she’s a farm-to-fork wonder woman.
The hero: Melissa Yen
Her lair: The Jo Sno Syrups kitchen
Superpower: She can jazz up any cocktail, latte or snow cone with any number of her crafty syrups.
Origin story: “I never dreamed I would become a syrup maker, but here I am,” says Melissa Yen, the woman behind some of the most interesting bottled syrups in Chicago. She livens up lattes, sodas, snow cones and cocktails everywhere from Ipsento to Milk & Honey. Now in business for six years, Yen operates out of a friend’s commercial kitchen in Chicago. She’s aligned with Two Brothers Coffee Roasters as her distributor and is hoping to grow with them into more cafes and coffee houses.
The heroes: Bruce Finkelman and Craig Golden
Their lairs: MONEYGUN/Saint Lou’s Assembly/Revival Food Hall/The Promontory/Dusek’s Board & Beer/Punch House/Tack Room/Longman & Eagle/Empty Bottle
Superpower: The dynamic duo behind 16” on Center hospitality group can open stunningly distinct concepts in unexpected places and neighborhoods, sometimes even as a total sudden surprise to the public.
Origin Story: While the chefs and mixologists they work with are prominent throughout Chicago, Bruce Finkelman and Craig Golden are the behind-the-scenes power players that make the magic happen. Both raised in Chicago’s suburbs, they worked food jobs in high school and college, and their fortuitous meeting came after Finkelman moved back to Chicago to open The Empty Bottle. They now run one of the largest groups in the city. In every sense, Finkelman and Golden think outside the box and act as game-changers in their industry, from a subterranean punch bar in Pilsen (Punch House) to a Southern-accented meat-and-three eatery in the West Loop (Saint Lou’s Assembly).
The hero: Michael Carroll
His lair: Band of Bohemia
Superpower: He’s got the power to fuse the culinary with the brewing, creating beers infused with the likes of thyme, apple, guava and coconut.
Origin story: As the head brewer and partner at Band of Bohemia, Michael Carroll is responsible for beckoning a new era of in Chicago’s rapidly expanding beer scene. “Orange chicory rye was the first bread I made at Alinea, [which] eventually morphed into the first beer I made at Half Acre and was among the first beers I brewed at Band of Bohemia,” Carroll says. Born out of the idea of elevating the brewpub well beyond the typical chicken wings and IPAs, Carroll's own operation is a masterful collaboration between food and beer, all housed in a space that Carroll largely designed himself with another Alinea alum, Craig Sindelar.
The hero: McCullough Kelly-Willis
Her lair: The Butcher & Larder at Local Foods
Superpower: The meat maven can cut like a pro, develop a dry-curing program and maximize extra bits by whipping up jerky, bolognese and roast beef.
Origin story: Originally from New York City, McCullough Kelly-Willis moved to Chicago for a now-ex-boyfriend. “I had little sense of what I wanted to do long-term or career-wise, but I knew I wanted to get into food,” she says. She Googled ‘whole animal butcher shop Chicago,' which lead her to The Butcher & Larder. Now with Chicago’s preeminent butcher shop for three years, Kelly-Willis is a jack of all trades. She works the retail counter, cuts meat, makes jerky and she developed the dry-curing program. Of everything, cutting meat is the part she loves the most. “It’s the foundation of what we do,” she says.
The hero: Zach Friedlander
His lair: Aloha Poke Co.
Superpower: Chicago’s ambassador of Hawaiian poke commands a ravenous fanbase for fresh fish.
Origin story: When one takes on the lofty task of becoming Chicago’s emissary of a red-hot food trend sweeping the nation, it entails a good deal of pressure. Kudos are due to Zach Friedlander, the man behind Aloha Poke Co. "The idea for Aloha came organically through a conversation with a friend,” Friedlander explains, who describes a massive void among fast-food chains and the movement into fast-casual business models. “I wanted to attack something that seemed like a more sustainable business model and that had a stronger forecast for scale,” he says. He’s since established a hospitality group, Pineapples & Dreams, and is already in expansion mode with a new Aloha in Lakeview and an upcoming location in the Loop.
The hero: Genie Kwon
Her lair: Oriole
Superpower: As partner and pastry chef of Oriole, Kwon single-handedly pushes the limits with her multiple dessert courses and large open kitchen space.
Origin story: Genie Kwon’s career has taken her from the Boston University chemistry lab to the forefront of one of Chicago’s most exciting fine dining restaurants. The decision took her into the kitchens of Boston’s Joanne Chang, of Flour Bakery and Myers + Chang. Kwon then worked in New York City before moving to Chicago, where she doubled down on pastry programs at BOKA and GT Fish & Oyster. That’s when the idea for Oriole and the opportunity to work with Noah and Cara Sandoval emerged. In its infancy, Oriole has already cemented itself as the new face of fine dining — one with dead-serious food and near-surgical precision without any of the haughty pretense.
The heroes: Joel Rund and Benjamin Schiller
Their lair: The Sixth
Superpowers: Masters of cocktails and ice, the crafty pair creates some of the most colorful and irreverent drinks in the city.
Origin story: The Sixth is a den of lustrous libations and beautiful ice thanks to Joel Rund and Benjamin Schiller, who combine strengths to freeze, carve, shake, smoke and stir some of the most exciting cocktails in town. In said ice room below the bar, they produce hundreds of pounds of clear ice and flavored "snow." Describes Schiller, “We create large cubes that melt slower in drinks; we use flavored ice as an ingredient in cocktails like the Silly Rabbit and Drinky McDrinkerson; we use ice as a visual showpiece in cocktails like the Doris and in our punchbowl service.”