Celebrity chef Matthew Kenney elevates plant-based cuisine to new heights at Althea, the chic new restaurant at Saks Fifth Avenue.
Kimchi dumplings at Althea are vibrant with red cabbage and ginger foam. (Photo by Morgan Scofes/courtesy of Althea)
Matthew Kenney is no stranger to new restaurant openings. The Los Angeles-based vegan chef sits atop a fastgrowing culinary empire that spans five continents with 32 restaurants either open or in development across 16 cities, with recent additions in Buenos Aires, New York and Edmonton, Canada. But opening the globally inspired, plant-based new Althea in meat-loving Chicago was something of a coup.
“I’ve always been a fan of the Chicago restaurant scene,” 54-year-old Kenney says from his headquarters in L.A., mentioning how he’d often visit restaurateur friend Gordon Sinclair in the ’90s. “It’s a major place for culinary experience in the country. We always wanted the opportunity to do something there and there wasn’t a lot of plant-based representation.”
Teaming up with Saks Fifth Avenue, Kenney took over the former Sophie’s space on the seventh floor just off the posh men’s lounge. Since he wanted to open before the holiday rush, Kenney didn’t invest in renovating the dining room (“We’ll likely do some substantial changes once we get a better feel for the flow and seasonality,” Kenney insists), instead focusing on introducing his beautiful creations to diners eager to expand their plant-based options.
“When I grew up hunting on the coast of Maine, vegan wasn’t seen as a healthy option,” he admits. “Then I educated myself and listened to my body.” Kenney had his epiphany in 2002 and has since led the charge toward more plant-based dining options. The fruits of his labor appear throughout the menu at Althea, which means “health” in Greek but is also a botanical flower—something Kenney has incorporated into this menu and that chef de cuisine Kelsey Knowles executes daily.
Heirloom tomato and zucchini lasagna. (Photo by Morgan Scofes/courtesy of Althea)
You’ll find an array of flowers— rose petals, marigold and bull’s blood—delicately placed atop tikka-spice-sprinkled avocado and a curry leaf yogurt as well as on a coconut cream pie dessert featuring a rich layer of banana cream atop a sweet macadamia crust. That sense of color and freshness permeates almost everything arriving from the kitchen. Order the kung pao cauliflower, and you’ll enjoy various textures from ginger quinoa resting below sweetly crisp sesame seed brittle and arresting tricolor cauliflower. And where chickpea curry holds back in presentation, it bursts with spice, sweet coconut, fragrant lemongrass and micro cilantro that pack a lovely flavor punch. Indeed, the food is so stunning you’re not sure if you want to eat it, Instagram it or merely sit back and admire it. And the cocktails, like the violet-hued, gin-based Guilded Sage with muddled blueberry and sage, can be prepared spirit-free, so whether or not you imbibe, you can still enjoy fresh juices and housemade syrups.
“Our approach is to highlight vegetables and make them delicious, sexy, cool and appealing,” Kenney explains. “Plants are colorful and vibrant, and half of it is showing the presentation and trying to give an experience.”
Kenney admits that even 10 years ago a vegetable-focused concept wouldn’t get such attention, but due to a growing shift toward cleaner eating, he landed a key location like Saks. It’s part of a global movement Kenney is helping push forward.
“My big-picture passion is changing how people think about food,” he says. “And seeing plant-based cuisine represented is how we shift the food paradigm.” 700 N. Michigan Ave., 312.525.3400