Derek Rylon

Batter & Berries

01/29/2015

Derek Rylon is the chef and co-owner of Batter & Berries in Lincoln Park.

You started working in restaurants at a young age.

When I was thirteen, yes. I was a dishwasher. My uncle was the general manager of Chances R restaurant in Hyde Park. A couple of cooks didn’t show up, and I told my uncle, “I can do it.” And he’s like, “I don’t have time for this. Don’t come over here and tell me what you can do, I’m in a crisis here.”

So he went back in the weeds, he’s back there. I dropped a few fries for him, I would not take no for an answer. As the day went on, he eventually let me go ahead and do it, and I handled a whole line by myself. He fired one of the cooks and I became a cook on the line at thirteen years old. I still didn’t know I wanted to cook, I had somethin’ that I wanted to do at that time, but I had no idea--- I’m thirteen.

When I turned twenty-four, I had my son. I was working at Red Lobster, I became one of the lead cooks there. One of the managers was moving on to Lettuce Entertain You, Maggiano’s in Oakbrook. He ended up taking me with him, and I become the only African-American, out of three-hundred-and-sixty-something employees, working at the Maggiano’s in Oakbrook. And it flourished from that point on, I mean you’re looking at Embassy Suites, Westin, WhitehallGibson’s, Shaw’s Crab House, Grill On The Alley… I mean it just went on, it went on, it went on.

My childhood friend, Tanya Richardson, she knew she was gonna be a doctor at age thirteen. I am four or five years older than her, and at that time I was going to cooking school, and she said, “We’re gonna open up our own restaurant. We’re gonna open up a restaurant.” And here we are twenty-five years later, with our restaurant.

How did all that experience prepare you for opening your own place?

People don’t understand that if you do what the chef tells you to do, and do it to your best ability, you’re learning a lot. When he says, “Scoop ice cream,” make it the best goddamn ice cream scoop that you can get, “That’s a perfect scoop of ice cream on here,” you know?

I got it from that, learning from what they’re doing, and I’d say to myself, “Man, I could put a twist on that.” But I never did it, just in my mind thinking what I could do, and that’s where the creativity comes from. I don’t have a cookbook at home. I never look at a cookbook. I never look online. Working in all these places taught me how to cook a steak, taught me how to cook Italian dishes, taught me how to cook French dishes, taught me how to do parties and different things. And then when I put together all of that knowledge I got, plus my twist, it becomes something fantastic.

Tell me about founding Batter & Berries.

I always wanted my breakfast restaurant, that was my goal, and I was working at it. And then five years ago Tanya said, “Let’s do it. I got the money, you got the recipes, let’s do it.” We looked for a place for over a year, we found this place. I didn’t want to be downtown, I wanted to be in Lincoln Park, Bucktown, or Andersonville. I wanted to be in one of those neighborhoods because I knew that they were big brunch neighborhoods.

So when I saw this place I said, “This is the one,” but there were questions because every restaurant here failed. But I knew that what we were gonna do was not gonna fail. Because I looked at--- it’s a dead zone. Parking was a big thing for me, see if there’s too many businesses, now we have competition with parking, and I liked that it’s a dead zone. So I said, “We’re gonna do it,” and now you can’t even get in the building.

I like that attitude. Why does your breakfast stand out?

I wanted to change breakfast. Chefs, we all concentrate on dinner. We’re not gonna worry about breakfast. I noticed that, I studied it: people put on anything and go to breakfast. They won’t do that to go to dinner, they really won’t do that to go to lunch. How come they can’t get dressed up and go to breakfast? How come it can’t be joyful? How come you can’t come out and have a really good time for breakfast?

Just doing things different, because think about it: they sell food across the street, they sell food down the street, they sell food around the corner. What are you gonna do that’s gonna make people come and get your food? So that’s why I came up with the deconstructed omelette, where you can see the things on top.

Being a chef for twenty-two years: “Chef, the tomatoes are starting to go bad.” “Well cut ‘em up and put ‘em in an omelette.” “The mushrooms are starting to turn.” “Chop ‘em up real good, we’re gonna throw it in an omelette.” I want to show you the freshness on top, and not just chopped up, so you can see what you’re getting. Because you eat with your eyes, and if it looks good, nine times out of ten it’s gonna taste as good as it looks.

And I wanted to make it that way, and I told my best friend, “I’m gonna change the omelette,” and he said, “You’re gonna change the omelette? How are you gonna change the omelette? The omelette’s been here forever.” And hung up on me! Told me I was crazy. I told him, “I’m gonna change the way the omelette is supposed to be made,” and then I came up with the deconstructed, everything on top, and making it just like I said--- I was determined to change breakfast. I just wanted people to enjoy breakfast, I wanted them to enjoy it without syrup, to say, “Man, you don’t need syrup for your pancakes, you don’t need syrup for your French toast.”

Most restaurants, they only have one or two specials. I want to dazzle you with all kinds, because my mind is ready to go. Why can’t we have ten? I want you to walk in this restaurant and never be able to say “been there, done that.” Because you never know what’s gonna happen. I want to keep customers coming back and wondering: what are they gonna do next?

And when I can’t do that anymore then that means that… [laughs] You know?

What about the people who come in expecting the standard stuff?

I have had people come in and want standard things, and believe it or not I’m a standard person, I like traditional breakfast. When you come here, you got people coming from Gary, people coming from South Holland, people coming from Matteson, you got people coming from everywhere, and I ask, “How many breakfast restaurants did you pass to get here?”

“Oh, a lot.” “Think out the box. Go for it, try a special, if you don’t like it I’ll buy it.” Because I stand by it. I have done a hundred-and-one different French toasts without doing cinnamon. Because everybody does cinnamon, uses it as a base, then puts strawberries on it blueberries on it, whatever. So I won’t use cinnamon.

You make everything from scratch?

I make everything from scratch. If I buy sausage, a case might cost me a $180, to get patties already in. If I go buy a pork loin, might cost me $30 and I can season it and make it the way I want to make it, I think I’ll go that way and I’ll come out a lot cheaper. And it’s fresh, it’s a win-win situation for everybody.

I sat down on my couch and I said to my wife, “What’s your favorite CD?” And she’s like, “Where did that come from?” “Tell me what you can listen to from the first track to the end track without having to change it, and dance to it. That’s what I’m gonna do with my menu.”

Anything you pick, you’re gonna love it. It took me years to do it. Sometimes chefs get three or four great things on there, and the rest is just mediocre. So this is what we’re gonna do: we’re gonna make our own chicken sausage, we’re gonna make our own pork sausage, we’re gonna make our own biscuits from scratch, we’re gonna make our biscuit gravy from scratch. Let’s make it a light gravy with a little sweetness to it.

Who puts chicken inside the waffle? Who makes it a sweet potato waffle, with a sweet nutmeg hot sauce? And combines all those flavors into one thing? “Wow, that’s a lot, am I gonna like that?” We shave our own hash browns off the potatoes, and it takes us forever. We crack our own eggs. I do not use liquid eggs, we crack our eggs. Why not give my customers the best I can give them? And if I can’t I’m gonna die trying.

What are we gonna do about the sandwiches? You know what, let’s make real turkey for our turkey clubs, let’s cure our corned beef in house. Let’s pull our own pork. Let’s make our own fish ‘n’ chip batter. Let’s do everything from scratch. “Well that’s gonna be a lot of work.” So what? That’s what we’re here for. I love to cook, and that’s cooking.

You know, anybody can go back there and take something out of a box or a bag or a can. That’s not cookin’. I wanna cook, and I want my guys to cook, and the guys that I got back here, they weren’t cooks, they were just droppin’ food. Now they’re cookin’. They’re using real garlic, they’re using salt and pepper, they’re tastin’, they’re makin’ sauces from scratch, and that’s what I wanted to do.

That’s why I want you to come to Batter & Berries: you might be able to duplicate what I’m doing, but you cannot put the love in the food that I’m puttin’ in it. And that’s the key.

This restaurant can spoil a person. Breakfast food shouldn’t be this good.

That’s a good thing. Think about this: say we go out and have breakfast, or dinner, or whatever we go have. And it was really good. But we go to work, and we’re around the water cooler, we talk about the place that was really good--- but we might not go to that place any more this year. What can I do to make it so it’s on your brain?

Every time you think about going out to eat, “Let’s go to Batter & Berries.” Whenever you’re thinking about breakfast, wherever you are, I want Batter & Berries to come off in your head. Now you might not come, but you thought about it. And that’s what I want. You never know what I’m gonna do. If you think you know, “Next time I come I’m gonna get this off the menu,” and then next time you say, “Well, I can’t get this off the menu, I gotta try this.” I’ve got customers who’ve been here about a hundred times, and haven’t even turned the page, can’t even get to the dinner items, or the lunch items.

I think good food, it’s in your heart. That’s one thing we all have in common, is eating. We might disagree about a whole lot of things, but if you don’t eat, you die, and we all want to eat, and we all want good food. I don’t know anybody that wants mediocre food, nasty food. We all expect when we go somewhere, that something will be fantastic.

How do you create your dishes?

It’s funny, I walk in on Thursdays, and I know what I’m gonna do. I don’t even know what next week’s french toast is. I gotta have it out by Sunday. Tomorrow, when I come to work, it’s gonna hit me. And I just let it do that. When I think about omelettes… I don’t have a truck come here. I go pick out my food, hand picked, I go get all my food. And I get my inspiration when I’m in the warehouse and I’m looking at all this different food, I see some chocolate tomatoes and it’s in my head, I want to do something with those chocolate tomatoes, okay, I’m gonna grab these tomatoes.

Then I go where the cheese is, what cheese do I want to use? I want to use that cheese there, I want to use a roasted garlic, tomato basil cheese. So what am I gonna put with this roasted garlic, tomato based cheese and these chocolate tomatoes? Let’s get some duck, you know? And it just starts going in my mind, I start working with it, I put it together. And next thing I know, it’s a hit.

I just want to keep giving you something, I’m still hungry. With all the success that’s happening out here, I don’t sit back and say, “Well, I’m good.” I want to keep giving it to you, I’m still very hungry, because I want the people to have the best. And I want to keep giving it to you. I don’t ever want to stop because I think I got you. I want to do everything I did to get you, and I’m gonna do everything I can to keep you.

What’s your favorite part about having your own restaurant?

My favorite part of it is the customers. It makes me cry to see them standing outside to want to eat my food. To see that means a lot. How can I disappoint them? I gotta put on the best performance I could ever put on. I don’t take it for granted, and I never will. And that’s the best part--- just seeing these people, average people that work every day, that take the time out of their day to get dressed, and drive, and wait in traffic because you’re going past downtown, you gotta get here some kinda way. You’re going through all this traffic and then you sit here and you wait, so half your day is gone for you to come here.

Anything else?

My family. My wife and my kids are tremendous because they give me the energy to do what I have to do. You know, I don’t have to worry about going home and taking care of this, and doing that, my mind is clear. It’s free, I have no worries. And that means a lot to me because without that, my mind is clouded and I can’t create. And my best friend of thirty years. He doesn’t know how to cook, he just watches my back and makes sure that I’m focused, I’m okay, and that means a lot to me.

Are you originally from Chicago?

I grew up in the city, I grew up on the South Side of Chicago, in Gresham, which is on 83rd and Ashland. Right now I’m a resident of Bronzeville. I love it. I’m never gonna leave the city. My goal is to open up more restaurants, believe it or not I don’t really want to open another Batter & Berries, I want to open up an Italian joint, I want to open up a French joint, I want to open up a steakhouse.

I got more things I want to give you, I got more things that I want to offer to you guys. I’m not scared of failure. You know, if you’re afraid of failure you’re in the wrong business. That just makes you stronger, it makes you hungrier. I don’t think, “Well, I can do anything and they’re gonna love it.” No, no you can’t. You gotta give them the best. And if you can’t give them the best then don’t do it.

Put love in it, love what you’re doing. Because if you love what you’re doing believe it or not you’re gonna start loving it. Don’t just be here--- I don’t want anybody in my restaurant that’s just here for a paycheck. If you’re in this industry, I want you to be here because this is what you do.

And now I think I have some of the best cooks in Chicago. These guys are performing for five hundred people, and they give it their all. Every day, believe it or not, I cook, I have beer and wine after work, and we sit down and we eat and we talk, and that’s a big thing. I have no call offs, I have no problems with employees, because they want to come to work, they’re not just walking in the door like, [sighs] “Another day.” They’re cheerful because they know that they’re appreciated.

Batter & Berries