by Rock ‘n Roll Ghost
Mark Steuer has struck gold with his newest restaurant, Carriage House (1700 West Division Street Chicago, IL 60622). Steuer, who grew up in Charleston, SC had been wanting to do the low country concept he now employs to great success at Carriage House for awhile, but the road to his dream had its bumps. As is common in the restaurant industry, oftentimes financing falls through and chefs have to scramble to pick up work anywhere they can find it. In Steuer’s case, it was in consulting and then work at a heavy hitter in Chicago (namely The Gage).
But some luck came his way when he received a call to interview for what became The Bedford (home to what I consider to be Chicago’s best burger), a swanky restaurant/lounge (think supper club) inside what used to be a gloriously decorated bank in Wicker Park (the decidedly un-swanky CVS occupies what once was the bank’s lobby). They even kept the vault as part of the decor, along with the safety deposit boxes.
The Bedford‘s instant success, something Steuer admits that he and his crew weren’t entirely prepared for, paved the way for his dream to come to fruition. Sitting literally blocks from where The Bedford is located (on Division as well), is Carriage House, the name of which came to Steuer upon walking up to the space.
A vibrant, bustling, loud space (the noise is something that critics have already latched on to, but when people are flocking to your place and having a good time, things are going to get loud – see Tavernita for an example), the food by Steuer and his crew (including longtime Sous Chef Sean Spradlin) at Carriage House is knock your socks off good. The she crab soup has depth and soul; the fried chicken thigh – though unusual in approach (deboned, rolled and then fried) is set off on another level by the sweet potato hot sauce the accompanies it; but the best thing I tried were the Carolina gold rice balls – pimento cheese, sweet potato puree, smoked pork neck gravy and pickled cabbage – heaven, thy name is gold rice balls.
Carriage House has not only been packing the house night after night with delighted diners, though. Rave reviews, most recently a three star exaltation by Phil Vettel in the Chicago Tribune, have been tumbling in one after another the past few weeks. It seems that Steuer has created something loved by a spectrum that spans the casual foodie to the hardened critic. It’s just that damn good.
And we haven’t even mentioned the relief pitcher at Carriage House. Barkeep/Mixologist Michael Simon was snatched away from his post at Acadia to craft the drink menu here (he also doubles his work at The Bedford). This may be the coup of the decade, in my opinion, as Simon is the best at what he does in this city. His cocktails are always a vibrant, surprising detour from most served around town.
I had the opportunity to have a rather lengthy conversation with Steuer back in August, a month before Carriage House opened. We discussed his ascent as a chef, what it took to make it where he is today and how he wants people to know that southern food is not just fried things smothered in brown gravy. That’s the goal of Carriage House ultimately, to show people the truth southern cooking.
Rock ‘n Roll Ghost: Tell me about your beginnings – what made you want to be in this life?
Mark Steuer: I grew up in Charleston, SC. I worked in restaurants through high school. As a bus boy, then dishwasher, then prep cook. I always liked the vibe of a restaurant. The way it’s kind of a family and we all work together to make sure that service runs right. Even as small as being a prep cook, I saw how everything I did in the mornings allowed the restaurant to run at night.
I went to college in Madison, WI. Kept cooking there just to make some extra cash. I finished up in ’04, was going to go to law school. Told my parents I was going to stay in Madison for a year to cook and hangout. I was working at this restaurant called Le Chardonnay. I was just a line cook and one day the Sous Chef got fired and I said I’d do it. So I did that for a couple of months and then the Chef quit. The owner asked me if I wanted to do it. Well yeah, but I didn’t really know what I’m doing. I was 22 years old. I did that for close to a year. I really enjoyed learning on the go and being in charge of the kitchen. I’ll be honest, I did a terrible job there. (But), that’s where my creativity started to kick in. I never thought of myself as being a creative person. I made the decision that this is what I wanted to do. So I called my parents and they were not thrilled.
I started thinking about what the next move was and it seemed like Madison was a little small to really learn. I moved to Chicago with the intent of going to culinary school. I got a line job at Hot Chocolate. That’s really where I grew into who I am now (as a chef) and that’s in large part to her. Even though Mindy (Segal, Hot Chocolate‘s owner) doesn’t cook savory food she has a great palette for it. She’s been around so many great chefs that she understands flavors and plating and all of that. She convinced me to not go to school. I worked my way up from line cook to Executive Chef in 3 1/2 years and then ran it for two years. I learned so much there, from sourcing from farmers to technique.
I worked my ass off. I always tell my cooks, a decision has to be made about what you want to do with your career. And if you want to be a chef and you want to have your own restaurant then there are certain things you have to be willing to sacrifice. I missed my best friend’s wedding, my girlfriend of five years broke up with me, but these were all things I was prepared to give up because this is what I wanted to do. I knew to get there you have to work super hard and be willing to make this the most important thing.
Mark Steuer: I was the lead cook – Mindy had hired a Sous Chef – her and Mindy didn’t see eye to eye – the time came when they parted ways and Mindy approached me. Again, I wasn’t ready. If I wasn’t ready in Madison, I wasn’t ready a year later in Chicago. I like to think that Mindy saw something in me. That I was a hard worker. That was the hardest six months of my life. I don’t think that I had a day off for the first four months. We were closed on Mondays, but I came in. She was constantly on me about things I wasn’t doing right and I hated her for awhile. It started getting better. She was just trying, in her way, to make sure I was doing the job. In six months we started working on changing the menu more and that’s when she really started helping me think about what flavors go together. How to make dishes that are simple, with 3 or 4 ingredients, but really elevated in the way that the flavors taste. Taking an ingredient and using it several different ways in the dish to reinforce the flavors and the different textures. Texture is a huge thing that I learned from her. Pastry Chefs think about that more than savory chefs do. I think that’s why hers are so good. So I was Sous Chef just in charge of the menu, and then I think it was after my third year, she promoted me to Executive. Which was great, at that point I understood how to run a kitchen, how to do scheduling, ordering. That’s when my confidence started to grow. In the last year and a half there we started doing really well. We got three stars from the (Chicago) Tribune. The food was great and I was really proud of what we were doing.
Not that I didn’t like being there anymore – it was five years – I love the neighborhood, Mindy, I loved my staff – I still have a couple of them with me now – but I started to think about what’s next. I started talking to people about opening places. I met a guy who owned a restaurant named Eve, it’s now Bistronomic, and he was trying to make a change. We started talking about a southern concept that I had in my head which is basically this (Carriage House). I took a trip with my Sous Chef Sean (Spradlin), who’s still with me. We went down to Charleston, drove up all up through the south, got back to Chicago with the hopes that we were going to start building the menu and getting a timeline together with this guy. And that’s kind of when the economy went to shit. He called me one day and said we’re not actually going to do this. I had already quit Hot Chocolate so I was like, okay. I got a bunch of offers but it was nothing that I wanted to do. The concepts were already in place. I wanted to go into a place with a blank slate and create something. I spent a hard 9 months not really doing anything. I helped a friend with a knife skills cookbook, did some consulting work. It got to the point where nothing was around.
I had some friends who were working at The Gage when they were opening Henri. I called Michael (Dean Reynolds, now Executive Chef at Leopold) who was the Chef de Cuisine there, just to see, on the off chance if they needed any help opening the new place. As it turns out, Dirk (Flanigan, Executive Chef at Henri and The Gage) wanted someone to help run The Gage while they opened the new place. So I went there as an Executive Sous Chef, which was a great experience. That’s where I met my girlfriend, that’s where I met Michael Velo who is the GM of Carriage House, met some really great new friends and learned a lot about how to operate a really big place. This place we had eight cooks on the line at lunch, eight cooks on the line at dinner, I had three sous chefs underneath me. I was happy there.
I got a phone call one day, during work, it ended up being one of the partners here (at The Bedford). I interviewed, went to one of their apartments to do a tasting, started talking and then signed on for The Bedford. Which was a big, big project. I had opened places before – I helped open Rootstock as a consulting chef – but I was not prepared for the scale of this place. I feel really proud now of what we’ve accomplished here. I’m really, really happy where we are.
With The Bedford, some of the criticism I’ve read, has been that people felt a little bit of uncertainty in the beginning – I haven’t heard a lot of follow-up – which is a problem with writers I’ve found.
Mark Steuer: It took me a couple of weeks to…it’s a three man line for 200 something seats. When we opened, I tried cooking everything to order. Imagine the first night – I had like 40 steaks on fire in the oven and chickens – it got to the point where I had no idea anymore which steak was which steak. We figured out our system and now we’re very smooth. Food comes out real quick. But I think the uncertainty you were touching on, that problem stemmed from the uncertainty that we as a group – we were a little uncertain as to where we were going. We learned our lesson with that, too. We opened up on a Friday and announced it to the press. Sure enough, just what we asked for, everybody came. We learned our lessons and we won’t make those mistakes again. We worked through it and we’re better for it.
How has the menu progressed since the opening and what are you proudest of in that time?
Mark Steuer: I think when we opened, the menu was fairly simple. As time went on we realized we were a neighborhood place during the week and on the weekends we’re a destination from the ‘burbs and downtown. Which is exactly what I thought we were going to be. At that point we had to cater to the neighborhood. And what do those people want? They want a place they can walk to, either off the train or from their house and they can get – if you want a burger and a beer, you can have a burger and a beer – if you want a glass of wine and a roasted chicken…I think it needs to be elevated comfort. Things that are familiar, but they can’t do as well at home. I think that’s what this place has become.
As far as dishes, I love our mussels here. I constantly have people tell me they’re the best mussels in the city. I don’t know if that’s true because I love The Publican‘s mussels. We had one guy come in last week and ask if we could make him a batch of mussels and take the broth home without the mussels. Because he wanted to make his own mussels with our broth at home. Which I thought was pretty funny. And our octopus. I think we do a really good job with octopus. It’s a recipe that I developed at Hot Chocolate. We braise it for two hours in red wine and lots of spice and then it gets cooled down in the liquid, cleaned up and then marinated in roasted garlic and parsley and then grilled so it’s really crispy, almost burnt. I love it, it’s one of my favorite things to eat. I was a little concerned that it wouldn’t take off, but it’s our best selling appetizer. And the mac ‘n cheese. Everyone loves the mac ‘n cheese.
Mark Steuer: We had been open for almost a year and we were talking about starting to look for other spaces. None of us were in a hurry. We talked about several different ideas for concepts – I have a couple other I want to do. I didn’t want to do another one this big. Not that we won’t do another one this big. We found the space right down the street. It reminded me of what a carriage house looked like in Charleston – not exactly right – but it sparked a memory. We came back and I said, honestly, this is what we should do. There’s a story behind it now and I already have six menus written.
Isn’t that amazing how that works? You walk a few blocks and there’s a place that evokes what you wanted to do after you left Hot Chocolate.
Mark Steuer: I felt very, very strongly that this is what we should do there. I hope that the new trend is going to be restaurants with stories. Because I think that if you have that passion within you about something, it transcends…it’s going to go a really long way towards the experience. I even pitched the name, Carriage House, the first day. I’m really excited about it. Here (The Bedford), the design was all done before I came on board. I’ve had my hand, probably annoyingly to some people, in everything from kitchen design to actual restaurant design, furniture, color schemes, the way we’re going to do the porch up front. And I think that they’ve allowed me to run with it because of where I come from.
We’ve been working on the menu for quite awhile – I have it where I want it to be now. To me, southern hospitality is about that Sunday supper where your grandma cooks and you all sit around the table and share a bunch of stuff. That’s where the menu concept come from. It’s going to be almost all small plates. We’re separating it into two sections. First one is Old Style (now dubbed Traditional) and then there’s New Style (now dubbed Reimagined). Old Style is pretty traditional – things that I grew up with that I loved, like she crab soup, shrimp ‘n grits. I don’t want to be a fried chicken restaurant, but we’re going to do a little play on some fried chicken. I think that those will stay pretty consistent throughout the year. New Style is where we’re going to have fun. Still stay within the realm of southern flavor. We’ll take a really traditional southern recipe and change up some of the ingredients based on what we have locally or change some technique to use some fun, modern stuff. Or we’ll take a dish from another culture, because the cool thing about Charleston is the influence comes from when the French came, the Spanish came, the slave trade brought all the Africans, people from the Caribbean came in. There’s this whole melting pot of cuisine and technique in Charleston that you don’t find anywhere else in the south, except for maybe New Orleans. So I think we have the liberty to take maybe a Spanish idea and put southern ingredients into it. To give people southern flavor in a way that they’re not used to seeing it. I’m really excited about that. Then there’s going to be a section below of larger plates that are not meant to be entrees, either. I want everything to be kind of shared at the table. We’ll do a big low country boil in the pot. With crab and shrimp, potatoes and corn, homemade sausage. I want to do a big chunk of smoked pork shoulder just with grits and pickled vegetables. This will be on our management and the service staff to explain the way you should eat. I’m not going to tell someone they can’t eat this big ribeye we’re going to have if they want to eat the ribeye. For me, for the idea to be complete, the service needs to encourage them to eat in the way that this menu is intended to be eaten.
What are you most proud of that you’ll have at Carriage House?
Mark Steuer: The big thing for me was I wanted it to feel really open and I wanted the kitchen to be a part of the space. I wanted the energy that the kitchen provides to reverberate. I wanted that to happen even if you’re on the patio.
I eventually want to do tasting menus (at the two two-tops by the kitchen) and not have it be a written menu. It’ll be interactive because I’ll be expediting between the two tables. Basically we’ll just cook for you until you’re ready to leave.
Did you hire Michael Simon early on with the Carriage House in mind or with both?
Mark Steuer: The way that came about, Michael Velo, he and Simon have been friends since they were kids. We started talking about maybe we could get Simon to come over and initially it was only for Carriage House. We got him on board and I was talking with my partners and we started thinking, we employ Michael Simon why not use him over here (The Bedford)? I love the way he thinks about things.
Had you known Michael before?
Mark Steuer: I considered us friends, I had known him for two years. I would see him at Bar DeVille every once and awhile after work and we’d chat. I’m really excited about the Carriage House cocktails. He really gets his head into a concept and he thinks about how he’s going to do his thing in a way that makes sense for that place. I think that a lot of people who do his job, they just want to make their cocktails the way they want to make them, without thinking about the grand scheme behind the restaurant.
There’s a book called Charleston Receipts, it’s an old Junior League of Charleston cookbook that I bought years ago. I never noticed that there’s a whole section about cocktail parties. I gave my copy to Simon and he’s got some really cool ideas about what to do with the cocktail list. I think that we’re going to have it mirror the menu, in the way that there will be old style cocktails and new style cocktails. So we’re basing some of the old stuff on really old Charleston punches. There’s one called Simon’s Punch in the book, which I thought was funny. I’m excited to see what he puts on paper.
The thing I foresee you getting compared to is Big Jones. Where is that in your thinking and have you been to Paul Fehribach’s restaurant and can you address the comparison early?
Me neither. As great as it surely is, I’m not paying that much for fried chicken. I’ll go to Popeye’s. Popeye’s never does me wrong.
Mark Steuer: That’s funny.
I’ve been to Big Jones, I think three times and it’s good. I think we’ll get compared to them no matter what, we’re very different. What Paul does is very historical. It’s a really cool way to approach southern food. I think people will see after we open that we’re on opposite ends of the spectrum.
Why I think this is a good idea for Chicago is that there’s a stereotype of southern food, that it’s very heavy, very deep fried, brown gravies and lots of cream. Yes that’s true of some southern food and yes we’ll have some of that on the menu, but where I grew up and what I think differentiates Charleston from the rest of the south is that we didn’t eat like that. There’s such a bounty of seafood and there’s year round awesome produce. And yeah I love barbecue and I love fried chicken, but there are barbecue and fried chicken restaurants. That’s not every restaurant.
I have memories of eating as a kid, this whole flounder – they’d take flounder, rub it with peach marmalade that they made, score it and grill it. You’d pick up chunks of this crispy, crispy flounder with burnt peaches on it. You can have really cool southern flavors without everything being really, really heavy. That’s not a knock on anybody.
Mark Steuer: So, we were just down in Charleston eating and staging.
You were working as a grunt in someone else’s kitchen?
Mark Steuer: I worked at Husk for a day (Sean Brock‘s restaurant). I took Velo and my Sous Chef Sean (Spradlin), we went down and stayed at my parents’. So we all worked for a day. Sean and Michael worked at Fig, I worked at Husk. We just ate the rest of the time. My parents live on a river, so we went out and caught a bunch of blue crabs and shrimp and then I went and bought some red snapper and cooked up a low country boil for my parents. We literally ate four or five times a day. It was a good reminder that Charleston isn’t so focused on cream based sauces. Especially eating at Husk, it was really cool to see a newer take on really, really old southern food.
When you do have time off do you prefer not to cook?
Mark Steuer: It depends on the mood. Probably for the next couple of months, I’m not going to want to just because we’re going to be swamped and I’m not going to have days off. Generally, one of my favorite things to do on my weekend, which is usually Sunday and Monday, my girlfriend and I will go ride bikes to the store, to a market, come home, get a bottle of wine and cook. Sit down and talk…she works in the industry, too so we’re both pretty busy.
Cooking in the restaurant – I love it but it’s fast paced and stressful. At home I still love cooking. It’s nice to just to cook two pieces of fish and have fun and talk about wine.
Is it better to be in a relationship with someone else in the industry because they understand what you’re going through more and that you can’t be there at certain times?
Mark Steuer: I think so. I don’t understand how you could do it (otherwise). Like I told you before, one of the sacrifices I made was my longtime girlfriend and I broke up. She was in law school. We used to constantly fight. I was working at Hot Chocolate and she was like why can’t you just take Sundays off? I was like, it’s Sunday, we do a huge brunch. I’m in charge of this place. Why don’t you take Wednesdays off? Is it less important what I do because I’m not a lawyer? Not that it was always like that but that fight will always (come up), I think. Even if she could have Mondays off, I was such a train wreck on Mondays, I needed to lay around until 5 to do anything.
When you have time, what is a day of fun that doesn’t have anything to do with the restaurants?
Mark Steuer: Honestly, we like to drink wine. If it’s nice out we’ll go to Millennium Park with a bottle of wine. We like to cook together. More often then not we end up going out to eat. It’s hard to see people we’re friends with in the industry other than events. We’ll go visit a friend at Maude’s or Gilt Bar and just sit at the bar and be face to face with this person that I don’t see that often.