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By Cait Rohan | January 12, 2017 | Food & Drink
We caught up with Sarah Grueneberg of buzzy Chicago Italian spot Monteverde Restaurant & Pastificio to discuss hosting First Bites Bash, what food is in and what’s out for 2017, and how she felt about being the runner up on Top Chef.
Chef Sarah Grueneberg.
The best way to conquer the post-holiday/January blues? Chicago Restaurant Week, of course. The 10th annual citywide event will kick off on January 26, 2017 (5:30-8:30 p.m.) at Aon Grand Ballroom at Navy Pier (600 E. Grand Ave.; tickets on choosechicago.com) with the First Bites Bash. Tease your tastebuds as over 60 of the city’s top chefs and eateries share a sample of what’s to come on their restaurant week menus. To add to the fun, the evening will be hosted by Top Chef alum and Monteverde Restaurant & Pastificio chef Sarah Grueneberg, who will be at the event to meet fans and culinary enthusiasts alike in Michigan Avenue’s lounge.
We recently rang Grueneberg to find out what to expect at this year’s First Bites Bash, food trends for 2017, and why losing to Paul Qui on Top Chef was actually a positive thing.
How did you get involved in First Bites Bash?
SARAH GRUENEBERG: I was asked to host it, which was a huge honor for me. Restaurant Week is always a good time around the city, you get a lot of new people into the restaurants, so why not kick it off and throw a big party? We all kind of hermit up in our restaurants during January, so it’s a good time to say let’s start 2017 and celebrate a bunch of our great restaurants, and Restaurant Week, and getting a lot of new diners into the restaurants.
What’s in store for you at this year’s First Bites Bash?
SG: Well, we are serving a bunch of snacks—grissini wrapped with country ham and Parmigiano-Reggiano with balsamic vinegar that is from Italy but it’s aged eight years and it’s delicious and syrupy. So it’s kind of like, Italian tapas.
You have an Italian restaurant, Monteverde, in Chicago. How did you first get interested in Italian cooking?
SG: I’m originally from Houston, Texas, and I really didn’t know much about Italian food. I knew more Italian-American, or what I thought was Italian. I moved up here to Chicago in 2005 to start at Spiaggia. At first it was really challenging; at first I was like, ‘I don’t understand this food’ (laughs), because I cooked Texas/Creole cuisine for four years with the Brennan Family out of New Orleans. That was a little challenging, but I fell in love with it and I worked my way up through that kitchen, and then Tony Mantuano sent me to Italy when I became just chef de cuisine. And I think that trip was the first time I was like, ‘Whoa, this is cool,’ and I wanted to learn everything I could. I wanted to just throw myself into the food culture and absorb as much as I could.
You’ve called Chicago your favorite American city—why is that? And why open your restaurant here?
SG: Oh, I love Chicago. I guess it’s a little like Goldilocks, it’s just right. I love New York, and San Francisco, and L.A.—those are great cities—but I think there’s a thing where like, you see your skyline and you’re like, ‘Yep, I’m home.’ I totally have that feeling, and Chicago is a really tight group of people who work in kitchens and a really tight group of people that run restaurants. We like our food here in the city, so I think for me it’s a great mix of all those things.
Any up-and-coming restaurants or chefs you respect or admire in Chicago?
SG: Oh man, of course. There’s a lot of chefs that are pretty awesome. I think what Lee Wolen is doing over at Boka is really, really killer. And Ben Ruiz over at 2Fun Chinese. It’s hard because there’s a lot of chefs that aren’t up and coming that I respect, like Gene Kato at Sumi, and John Manion over at El Che Bar. I’m excited to see what Zoe Schor does with her new restaurant. I’m really at [my own] restaurant a little too much so my goal, my New Year’s resolution for 2017, is to go out and support the community more, the restaurant community, because the first year of the restaurant has been a little crazy.
Monteverde cacio whey pepe.
Would you ever open another restaurant? If so, where would it be and what sort of food?
SG: Oh man, I don’t know, that’s a hard question. I have lots of little concepts that I would like to do. Right now I’m thinking that one restaurant is just enough. The one restaurant, that’s like the baby, it takes everyday care and we have great managers that run our restaurant with us, but we definitely run it as a team. It’s not like I have a bunch of sous-chefs doing it all. A part of me is throwing around another Italian concept. I have lots of ideas—I love Vietnamese food, and I come from Texas so there’s a lot of that Southern food that I grew up cooking. I also really love Chinese food and so, I love soup. I had a fun idea for that. As far as anything on paper or in the works, no. Most of them would be quick-service, casual concepts.
Speaking of Southern food, let’s talk about you growing up in Houston, Texas. Do you have any favorite Southern/Tex-Mex recipes, and, if so, what are they?
SG: One of my quintessential Texas dishes was fishing with my family off the Gulf Coast and we’d fish redfish, I have that on our menu right now. The redfish has really big scales, and so you basically just cut the sides of the fish and bone it, and you leave the scales and the skin on, and then you put it on the grill directly with the scales, and it’s called redfish on the half shell, and you put a bunch of butter and herbs and garlic [on it]. The scales, when they’re thrown on the grill, turn into a hard shell and it’s so delicious, it’s all of like, the fat and collagen that’s naturally in the skin. Kind of like a whole fish preparation without the bones, so that’s awesome. And then I love making gumbos when it gets cold, or cornbread, all those delicious treats (laughs).
What ingredients will be in, and what will be out in 2017?
SG: I feel like Brussels sprouts are played out (laughs). I wish there was a newfound love for turnips or, I feel like fennel is kind of forgotten these days and I do love fennel. I feel like sea urchin is on its way out but I totally love sea urchin so I don’t want it to be out. As a chef, you ask yourself, ‘Is it lame if I put a sea urchin on the menu?’ but I do love it. I think what’s out too is charging full cost or triple markups on white truffles. I see a lot of chefs offering truffles at cost or near cost—we do that at Monteverde. Paying lots of money for truffles is out for 2017.
You were famously on Top Chef and you were runner-up to Paul Qui. What was it like to hear that you were the runner-up?
SG: Oh, it was totally devastating at that time in my life. The show did such a great [job] of separating me out of real-life reality. I thought I was this warrior chef lady that was there to cook my heart out. So it definitely was a show [where I] did a great job of that, I think that’s what made the not taking home everything really hard and really like, ‘Oh my god, what did I do wrong? What could I have done differently?’ But honestly, now, the older, more mature Sarah would tell that Sarah, ‘Don’t worry about it, runner-up is freaking awesome.’ It gives you a little more of a tenacious attitude I think, to go out and to continue to fight and push, and I think that’s where I take this knowledge. The best thing Top Chef did for me was to feel confident in finding my own voice and cooking in my own voice, and that’s what Monteverde is.
Would you ever do a reality cooking show again—why or why not?
SG: Maybe. I don’t know, they’re a lot of fun, they also terrify me. It’s a good way to get you going again, but I’ve kind of been on a reality show of my own the past year (laughs) so I don’t know. It depends. It’d have to be the right fit, I think.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY GALDONES PHOTOGRAPHY