Jimmy Bannos Jr. grew up in the restaurant business – he’s the fourth generation in his family – specifically, he spent most of his formative years in his father’s (Jimmy Bannos Sr.) restaurant Heaven On Seven. Bannos would come to graduate from the College of Culinary Arts at Johnson and Wales University, working at the popular Al Forno before interning at Emeril Lagasse’s namesake restaurant in New Orleans.
Despite an offer to work full-time at Emeril’s after college, Bannos trekked to Italy instead, taking in as much as he could. From there he headed to New York City to work for Mario Batali, eventually putting time in at four of the renowned chef’s restaurants (Lupa, Esca, Bar Jamon and Del Posto).
While on vacation back home in Chicago and still employed by Batali, Bannos was enticed to join his father and partners Scott Harris (Mia Francesca) and Tony Montuano (Spiaggia) in their new venture, what would become The Purple Pig. The name was coined by Bannos Sr. as a description of what a pig would look like after consuming a lot of wine. He is now the Executive Chef as well as a partner in the hit restaurant.
Since opening in January of this year, The Purple Pig has enjoyed great success, becoming the premier late-night eating destination in the city and earning a litany of accolades for its Mediterranean inspired menu. The menu isn’t completely pig-centric, however, though it does feature a lot of the delicious animal. There’s fish, chicken, seafood and more, including a lot of vegetarian choices.
“We probably have more vegetarian choices than most restaurants in the city if you look at our menu,” Bannos says. “There’s probably over 20 vegetarian (choices).”
On a beautiful spring day in Chicago I walked into The Purple Pig for an interview with Jimmy Bannos Jr. and Sr. as well as to sample a few dishes. More details on the food I sampled, as well as my interview with Jimmy Bannos Sr. can be found here. The below is my interview with the young chef about his past, his present and his future.
Rock ‘n Roll Ghost: You were working in New York before – what were your first thoughts when you spoke to your father about this space?
Jimmy Bannos Jr.: I was back home. I had just left one of Mario’s (Batali) places in New York and I was going to move on to the next place. I was taking a week or two off in between. He had just got the space – I actually went to the first meeting. I thought it was really cool but I still wanted to be out in New York for another year. He made inklings that this would be a good spot for you to start out. I’m like, ‘I’m too young. I’m not ready yet.’ I came back to New York about three weeks in I started thinking to myself, like, fuck it! I gotta do this whether I’m ready or not. Let’s go! I had been in New York for three and a half years at that point. It was the best experience of my life. I just kind of went for it.
Jimmy Bannos Jr.: From the start my dad said ‘You’re running the kitchen.’ They gave me 100% control of the menu. My sous chef, we worked together in New York, he moved out last July, but I started doing the research on the menu that spring. We did tastings for my dad, Tony (Mantuano of Chicago’s Spiaggia, as well as being President Obama’s favorite chef) & Scotty (Harris). Which was a really, really big deal. We really knocked them out, every tasting they pretty much loved everything. After the first tasting and everything went well it was the first impression they needed and it was all good from there.
The design – I had a lot of input on the kitchen as to how I wanted things positioned. Everything my dad and Scotty were doing with the design, I saw every step from the beginning. This is an unbelievable design. I learned a lot – it was an empty shell, so I saw, from start to finish how it is. It was really an awesome experience.
He only wanted to do a wine bar. He thought that, if he was only going to do a couple of paninis and cheese that you wouldn’t need a hood, but in Chicago…in New York you can get away with having a toaster oven without a hood, in Chicago you can’t. When they said we had to have hoods, we were like, alright, I guess we’re going to build a kitchen.
When they knew they were going to have hoods and they had to build a menu my dad wanted to get some different pork dishes on the menu, so I did a lot of testing out different parts of the pig that I never worked with before. Pig liver. Nobody eats pig liver. Even in New York nobody eats pig liver. We made it work here. Pig’s ears. A lot of that stuff I didn’t learn from Mario, that was all trial by error over the summer.
What was the inspiration for going with pig? Because it seems that pig is definitely in the last few years.
Jimmy Bannos Jr.: The pig is definitely in. I think for our style of restaurant, Mediterranean style cooking, it all goes together. But also I think a lot of people before they come in here, I talk to a lot of customers who are like, ‘Oh I thought this was going to be heavy, pig on top of pig.’ I’m like, no! We probably have more vegetarian choices than most restaurants in the city if you look at our menu. There’s probably over 20 vegetarian (choices). So it’s very based around a Mediterranean style of eating. We offer some different, crazy parts of the pig as well. And there’s a lot of different fish. There’s something there for everybody, that’s the way I look at it. To overkill – everything has to have pig in it? That’s not my (thing).
Can you go through some of the trials and errors you had getting to the menu.
Jimmy Bannos Jr.: We did all of the testing of the recipes at the original Heaven On Seven, which was a little bit of a challenge because that kitchen’s 30 years old. There’s no state of the art equipment you’re using. For a lot of the recipes (we) ended up finding different and better ways to do something on accident. The stuff that was most hard to perfect, like I said, the pig’s ears, the pig’s tail, the pork liver pate – those are dishes you take more pride in because those are harder to make taste good. I’d see a recipe and look up a bunch of different stuff online and you just kind of play around with different stuff and it works.
Was there anything from your families’ recipes that you grew up eating that inspired anything you do in here?
Jimmy Bannos Jr.: Definitely. On our smears section of the menu, our pork neck bone gravy, that’s my grandmother’s recipe. That’s the Italian side of the family. The Greek side of the family, the whipped feta is another one, that’s my ya-ya’s recipe. Pork neck bone gravy, we eat on bread with ricotta cheese. Usually what we do on Sundays, we always have our Sunday dinners, it’s pasta. Which you add in meatballs and sausage in the gravy, too. So it brings it up a whole other level. People are really going crazy for that. I mean, neck bones, I hope people start using neck bones more. We use neck bones in our rillette, too. So much flavor. We take neck bones…in this dish we pick all of the meat from it. The fun of it is eating it off…gnawing on the bone. Can’t do it here…we don’t want people choking.
What was the experience like when you first started working for your father?
Jimmy Bannos Jr.: I’ve been going to that restaurant with my dad since I was like 3 or 4 years old. So I always wanted to be there. He never put any pressure on me to do it. We have a pretty unbelievable relationship. A lot of people think, ‘Oh you’re working with family, that’s gotta be tough.’ Me and my dad, I guess, are a rare case. We work well together. Scotty, is my dad’s best friend, I’ve known him my whole life. You hear a perspective on things from my dad and you hear a perspective on things from Scotty. Scotty is like my second dad, I say. We’re very, very close.
What does it mean to be in business with your father now?
Jimmy Bannos Jr.: I just feel pretty lucky to be in business together. It’s pretty awesome. There’s always more motivation for me. Like he said when he was working with my grandfather, when they started the original Garland Coffee Shop. It’s just a sense of pride and you want to do your best. That’s how I feel. Don’t mess up.
Do you remember what the first meal you prepared was?
Jimmy Bannos Jr.:The earliest memories I have of cooking would be with my grandmother, she used to always bake. So I always helped her out baking. Chocolate cake and brownies and all of that. She’s the one who made the neck bone gravy.
Where around here in Chicago…what are your favorite places to eat?
Jimmy Bannos Jr.: Besides my dad’s partners: the Mia Francesca restaurants and Spiaggia. avec – phenomenal, Bill Kim’s place – Belly Shack and Urban Belly, Tony Priollo’s place Piccolo Sogno – unbelievable and one of the best patios ever. And kind of on the outskirts, kind of near Elmwood Park area, a place called Augustino’s – go there! Check it out. It’s some of the best Italian food.
I can’t imagine you have much spare time these days, but if you do, what do you do with it?
Jimmy Bannos Jr.: I take like one day off a week. Every Sunday we still do family dinner. That’s for real. I’m a big workout buff. I’m obsessed with lifting weights. I go to the gym all of the time. It’s a big release for me. All of my friends – I’ve had the same friends since I was five years old from high school. I read – I read books – I read cookbooks, man. My dad’s got over 2,000 cookbooks at home. It’s like a nice library for me. A lot of people underestimate just reading. I learned that from my dad early on. It’s extremely important, because you can pick up so many ideas and then you put it how you want to do it.
How do you feel about your kitchen staff? Do you have everyone you need and want?
Jimmy Bannos Jr.: A pretty young crew – very diverse kitchen. Some people haven’t made it since we first opened – we’ve been open for four months. I think I’ve already realized my style of management. I told people from when they first started, I don’t care what you do, when you walk into this kitchen your intensity level has to match my intensity level. Doesn’t mean you have to slave drive anybody. I’m not mean. I need to see that intensity and that passion. If you don’t bring it, you’re just not going to make it. The people we have now are on that level. I want people that this isn’t a job, this is what you do and you take pride in every single thing that you put out. That, to me, is the most challenging thing is making sure that everybody is tasting their food, every dish that they put out. People don’t do it! It’s actually pretty amazing that it doesn’t get put in place in manykitchens. If you do that, you’re good.
I come in at noon right when lunch is starting and then I stay all the way. Sunday-Thursday we close at midnight and then Friday & Saturday we close at 1. Now it’s gotten to the point where it’s always at least a 12 hour day.
Do you have a sense of admiration for the struggles that your father and grandfather had to go through? Not saying that you don’t have your own struggles.
Jimmy Bannos Jr.: I look at it like each generation it got one step (better). My grandfather owned different diners on the south side of Chicago back in the 50s and 60s. My grandfather was an ex-Marine, so hard work runs in the family. It just always has. On both sides of the family. My mom’s dad is almost 80 years old, he’s still going at it. He had one of the biggest nut distributing companies in the country. It’s coming from both sides. But back to my dad, I think the opportunity to open the original Heaven On Seven – it took five years for the New Orleans concept to develop. That was my dad’s opportunity. Now the opportunities I had to work at the places I did were essentially because of him. The first thing he said to me, when I was in chef school, my internship I worked at Emeril’s. He said, ‘I can get the door open for you, but you gotta keep it open yourself.’ I always looked at it as more difficult for me because all of the guys knew in the kitchen where I was coming from, so they right away try to bust your balls. It was always motivation for me. I busted my ass.
What was it like working at Emeril’s?
Jimmy Bannos Jr.: It was unbelievable. The thing for me, which I didn’t know back then, I realized a few years later, when interns come in they just prep and they’re downstairs and they don’t get to touch anything. The chef at Emeril’s was like…I worked three stations when I was there. I was on the line. I was a freaking line cook. Really, really busy restaurant. That’s right there I, after a few weeks, you start gaining the respect of these guys who were ten years older than me at least. After the 2-3 months there, because I knew I was going to go to Italy after I graduated culinary school. He’s like, don’t go. After you graduate come back to New Orleans, man, we want you.
Was that hard to pass up?
Jimmy Bannos Jr.: I knew I was going (to Italy).
What did you do while you were in Italy and what was that like?
Jimmy Bannos Jr.: I was 20 at the time. I wouldn’t change anything I’ve done, but now I have such a better understanding of Italian cooking and wanting to learn so much more. I know exactly where I’d want to go now. I didn’t know specifically about each little region in the south. Working for Mario you just learn all these different…and all the research and reading I’ve been doing, I wish I would have done Italy after New York. That’s why I can’t wait to go back.
What was it like working with Mario Batali? Where did you work at and what were you doing for him?
Jimmy Bannos Jr.: My first job was at Del Posto and then I went to Lupa and then Esca. Each restaurant I learned different lessons from each place. Del Posto, I was there for the opening. (I’m) 21, all those guys in that kitchen were hand picked. Guys that had been working with him forever. Other guys that one of Morimoto‘s original chefs was there, he was a freaking line cook. They really gave me shit, every day. Every single day was a war, was a battle. It was miserable. The first six months I was miserable. But I still kept, every day, fighting and fighting. I performed well, but it didn’t matter.
Was it because you were new?
Jimmy Bannos Jr.: Yeah. And because your dad knows Mario. And who the hell is this kid? And I would have done the same thing. It’s the way it is. And over time you show that you can take the punishment and keep coming back stronger, then you gain respect and then things just…there were times when I was like, I’m done. I’m going back home. This is insane. Then you just fight it and then opportunities open up. I was at Lupa for a year and a half and I worked my through the whole system there. I was pretty much offered a sous chef position there at 23 years old. It shows, you stick things out, hard work – what if I would have went home, none of this would be happening right now. For sure. If I didn’t stay out there? No way.
New York to me is…Chicago is an unbelievable food town and it’s growing every day, New York just ’cause there’s so many people and everybody comes from different places, it’s the big leagues, man. It’s put up or shut up. Very competitive and cutthroat. You learn so much. I think that Mario’s the best chef in the country.
The Purple Pig‘s al fresco dining area, located directly south of the restaurant, made its debut May 22. Three high-top communal tables serve as the dining centerpiece, accompanied by a number of marble slab tables just like those in the restaurant. The patio is accentuated with a lemon tree and a fig tree, with kitchen plans to use lemons for juice and figs in future desserts.