Jimmy Bannos is a legend in the Chicago culinary world. To underline this fact? He was the second inductee into the Chicago Chefs Hall of Fame (the first being the lion of Chicago cuisine, Charlie Trotter). As the owner of Heaven On Seven, Bannos, with his love of New Orleans cuisine (he worked with Paul Prudhomme, Frank Brigtsen and Emeril Lagasse – immersing himself in the food and culture of New Orleans), thirty years ago was at the start of the Cajun food craze that would soon blow across the United States. In the years since, in an effort to keep the restaurant vital, he’s incorporated Latin, South American, Asian and Western European influences into the menu.
In addition to his Heaven On Seven locations (the original Chicago location on Wabash Avenue, the Rush Street location and one in Naperville, IL), Bannos also opened T-Bone’s Steakhouse in St. Charles, IL with business partner Scott Harris last year.
But it’s his newest venture, The Purple Pig (500 North Michigan Avenue, Chicago, IL), that is signaling the advent of a new age of Bannos. Like his father before him, Bannos enlisted the services of his son, Jimmy Bannos Jr., to partner with him (along with Harris and Spiaggia‘s Tony Mantuano) in the Mediterranean cuisine themed restaurant. Jimmy Jr. interned at both Emeril’s in New Orleans for his studies when attending College of Culinary Arts at Johnson and Wales University in Providence, RI, worked at that city’s Al Forno while in school, then went to work for Mario Batali in four of the star chef’s restaurants (Bar Jamon, Lupa, Esca and Del Posto) in New York City.
Originally conceived as a wine bar that would serve a few paninis until the City of Chicago required a service hood be put in place, necessitating a move to a full-fledged menu, The Purple Pig features an intoxicating array of high-quality, no-bullshit dishes that brings back memories of grandma’s cooking (even if your heritage is Dutch/German). I jumped at the chance to try a sampling of what The Purple Pig had to offer on the day of my interviews with Jimmy Bannos Jr. & Sr.
First thing that hits you when you walk in to the restaurant is the wonderful aroma. Lush, bold smells that don’t overpower, but rather lull you into a beatific smile. Next is the tasteful design and friendly welcome from the staff. But the food – oh momma! The food is why you’re there and there is no denying the level of care and execution that goes into it.
While at The Purple Pig I had three dishes. First, the Lardo Crostini – gentle, teasing shavings of lardo (cured pig fat) on a crisp bit of toast. Next, the Chicken Thigh Kebabs with Fried Smashed Potatoes & Tzatziki – tender, succulent pieces of chicken thigh with bold spices that tantalized the tongue and are smoothed out by the refreshing homemade tzatziki – there’s a reason why this dish is mentioned a lot in reviews.
The Pièce de résistance is the Calabro Ricotta with Pork Neck Bone Gravy. If heaven can exist in a bowl, then this is it. The recipe is Bannos Jr’s grandmother’s (Italian, on his mother’s side) and it is nothing short of euphoric. The flavors, the smell, the luxuriousness of it on your tongue – you won’t want to share this (or if you do, you’ll want another bowl) after getting a taste. This dish will call to you even weeks later, begging you to go back for more. It’s a thing of beauty, a notion that goodness can be found in this life and gives you hope in mankind. Forget about recreational drug use – get yourself a bowl of The Purple Pig‘s Pork Neck Bone Gravy and have a great trip for a fraction of the cost.
After interviewing his son and at the tail end of finishing the Calabro Ricotta with Pork Neck Bone Gravy, Jimmy Bannos Sr. came over to me, extended his hand introducing himself with a hearty shake. The following is an edited transcription of our conversation.
Jimmy Bannos: It’s unbelievable. Number one, I got a chance to…my father and I worked side-by-side together for about 18 years, probably a little bit longer, actually. When I bought the original Heaven On Seven we worked 18 years next to each other in the kitchen, so now for me to relive that and I’m the third generation and Jimmy’s the fourth, it’s extremely exciting. It’s like something you can’t ever believe.
Is that something you always hoped for?
Jimmy Bannos: Yeah, yeah. In the back of my mind, when building these restaurants you hope that it doesn’t go by the wayside. And I didn’t have to force him in it. It’s good to have him take a liking to it.
How special is it to you to have family recipes involved here?
Jimmy Bannos: At Heaven On Seven, I creole-ize a lot of my Greek recipes. It plays really well. When you tell people the history of it, then they get even more excited that they’re eating something that’s been passed down and passed down and passed down. It’s like when I made my first cookbook people were saying, ‘why are you putting all of your recipes in there?’ My thought was, I got a chance to blast them out there so that’s my legacy.
How often do you actually cook at one of your places, nowadays?
Jimmy Bannos: It’s more of a management role, where I go in there and make sure everything’s running right. I usually run the line, so all the food goes by me. When I go into any of the restaurants I’m tasting all of the food and making sure everything’s right. No specials get put on the menu unless I pass them. Here at The Purple Pig, I trust his palette. He’ll run stuff by me, but basically this is all his.
When he was developing the menu he’d bounce off of myself, Scotty Harris – who’s our partner over at Mia’s (Mia Francesca) and Tony Mantuano from Spiaggia. We would do tastings once a week. We started tastings in August all the way into October. He’d give us usually five, eight things each tasting and we’d mark ’em off. If we like it, go, go, go. Here’s what you need to do with it. We’re his consiglieres, you know what I’m saying? It’s a beautiful thing. He’s got a lot of energy, a lot of passion and he’s got a palette. Where a lot of these kids don’t have a palette. They don’t know what a little citrus is. They don’t know what a little acid is. Plus his travels. He gets it. A lot of times a lot of the Chicago chefs they travel within each restaurant in a city. As in, one guy will work here then he’ll go to the other restaurant and then the other restaurant. Then you’re getting almost the same flavor profile because a lot of these guys all went to the same restaurants. So what Jimmy has is that he’s worked in New Orleans with Emeril (Lagasse). Worked with George and JoAnn at Al Forno in Providence, RI. Went to Italy and cooked. Worked for Mario Batali in four of his restaurants in New York. Del Posto, Lupa and Esca and then at Bar Jamon, their Spanish restaurant.
What else are you working on?
Jimmy Bannos: I got a couple of other things in my head that are floating around that we eventually want to do, Jimmy and I. We want to do a pasta house. From his travels in Italy and working with Mario. So he’s got a lot of stuff buzzing around his head and my head that we could put together. I’m actually thinking about a lot lately of doing a po’ boy shop.
The idea of a pasta place – this sauce has to be on it (Calabro ricotta with pork neck bone gravy).
Jimmy Bannos: In the winter time here we’re gonna do baked pastas with that sauce. Like a baked rigatoni with that red gravy in there. It’ll be pretty awesome. So a small thing like that for five bucks, six bucks.
How do you feel about the success of The Purple Pig so far?
Jimmy Bannos: I always knew he was gonna do really good. I think that the success of the restaurant is a ninth inning, bases loaded, two outs, grand slam. That’s how I view it. Plus, Super Bowl victory, NBA championship victory. We’re blowin’ it off the charts. You know what it is? It’s being really well-received in the culinary group. We have a lot of restaurateurs that keep coming back. A lot of wine people in the city that are coming back. And, of course, the foodies and things like that. We’re getting a lot of the same…a lot of people come back two, three, four times. So it’s great.
Editor’s Note: The entire month of May the Wabash location of Heaven On Seven is featuring an anniversary deal. All entrees (not available for dinner) are $7.77
To purchase Jimmy Bannos’ cookbooks, click on the following titles: The Heaven on Seven Cookbook: Where It’s Mardi Gras All The Time! and Big Easy Cocktails, Jazzy Drinks and Savory Bites.