Jimmy Papadopoulos

Bohemian House

06/12/2015

Jimmy Papadopoulos is the chef of Bohemian House in River North.

When we first met you mentioned your work is “perishable”. Can you elaborate on that?

It’s a perpetual challenge chefs face. An artist can paint a picture that will hang in a gallery for centuries, a film producer can make an amazing movie and it’ll be enjoyed for generations, great music can live on well after the artist is gone--- but what we do, you’re only as good as the last dish you put up. You’re only as good as what you’re doing tomorrow, not what you did yesterday. It continues and continues, and that perishability is what makes a restaurant truly special. The food, the talent, the synergy are all something that you have to balance day-in, day-out.

Are you originally from Chicago? What drew you towards cooking?

I was born and raised in Downers Grove. Honestly, I was kind of a punk growing up. Rebellious, dropped out of high school. I had no direction. But my first job was a dishwasher at a pizza place: I loved the camaraderie of the kitchen, it was like a little band of pirates. I was big into art growing up, I was always drawing and sketching. That’s why I’m littered with silly tattoos. [laughs] Creating was a big thing for me, designing things, I was always drawing food. I had dropped out of high school, I was working the fish counter at Whole Foods. I had no idea what the hell I was gonna do with myself.

One day I thought: okay, I’m going to culinary school. I’m gonna become a chef, that’s my career. That week I went to CHIC, took a tour, signed up, then got hit with $50k in student loans and all the other crap that goes along with it. [laughs] I got my first job at DeLaCosta here in Chicago. It was a Spanish-Latin restaurant. There were some talented chefs there and a lot of French bones of cooking.

It was an eye-opener, because I thought I was gonna get out of culinary school making money and being a chef, and instead it was: here’s $9 an hour, we’re paying you eight hours a day but you’re working twelve. Holy shit, am I cut out for this? Do I want to do this? My chef would come in and point out oyster mushrooms: see how these look, the quality. But I didn’t get it, I saw what he was talking about but I didn’t have that excitement for food yet. It didn’t bite me until one of the cooks recommended I read The French Laundry, and that book was the turning point in my career. I read Thomas Keller's philosophies on how to treat things with simplicity, focusing on ingredients, and it blew me away.

I was still living in the burbs at the time, so I went to work at a Marriott hotel. It's a completely different side of the industry. I stayed in the company for a good seven, eight years. I bounced out to the Renaissance in Schaumburg and started running their steakhouse, but I never let working in a corporate environment stifle my creativity or my love for my craft. You can talk to all the guys I worked for… I didn’t follow the rules all the time. [laughs] I disliked the slow-moving corporate structure, sitting in meetings, stuff like that, but what I did love was that I had the ability to play with ingredients that I would bring into my kitchen. I learned how to lead and develop a team, and mainly develop myself. Who I would be as a chef. It was a good foundation for me. Good structure, good building, but I always wanted to get back to running a kitchen much like the one that I have at BoHo.

There is a strong history of Eastern European culture in Chicago. Are you trying to tap into that?

Absolutely. Our owners Markus Chwajol and Dan Powell both have Bohemian roots, and they always wanted to open a restaurant. They were eager to bring that kind of cuisine to the city, because they knew it was a concept that our otherwise amazing food scene needed. They were originally considering a beer garden - once they found this space they realized that the concept could shift to be a more intimate, chef-driven establishment and ultimately Bohemian House took shape.

How did you familiarize yourself with traditional Czech and Eastern European food?

We went out to places like Czech Plaza for an old-school Czech-style smorgasbord--- schnitzel, bread dumplings, potato dumplings, paprikash, roast duck, sweet & sour cabbage--- and annihilated all this food. You see a culture preserved through cuisine, a way it has been for fifty-plus years, from Czech immigrants who have successfully kept a piece of their heritage here in Chicago.

I would spend my nights researching classic menus and dishes. You’ll notice pierogis on a Polish menu, a Russian menu, a Czech menu. Spätzel too, all these dishes are interchangeable within the cuisines--- like how in America everybody makes chili, right? We all do it differently, and it’s the same thing when looking into rustic, humble cooking. Pierogis might be a little different, goulashes might be a little different, but they’re still the same style of dishes.

How did you approach the challenge of delivering your style of cuisine while honoring this Eastern European heritage?

I had to look a bit into the history of the cuisine, to move forward into defining what our cuisine would be at BoHo. You see what’s been accomplished and think: how can I bring this to a new place? I can use a little technique, a touch of finesse and bring this to a space with the same soul of deliciousness but with more refinement to it. I felt once I saw where the cuisine has been, I could decide where we are going to go with it. It helps give our cuisine thought and purpose.

I had about three months to piece together our opening menu, so during menu development I looked to our name ‘Bohemian House’ for a fair bit of inspiration. One side was the artistic, free-spirited, 'hippie' nature of a Bohemian, and the other was the ancient kingdom of the Czech Republic that was known as Bohemia. The food is styled with that same kind of approach: at the core of it we’re cooking with a European mindset, but with a bit of free-formed beauty to our dishes in the way of a Bohemian spirit.

Our menu is structured with pierogi and schnitzel and paprikash and all the dishes you’d normally find, and we bring a new face to them without bastardizing the heritage or the culture behind this cuisine. We make everything in house, start to finish. We make our own dumplings and knackwurst, we make our own mustard, we make Bavarian pretzels. Last summer when we had peppers in we pickled over 200 pounds of peppers to get us through the winter months. You have to think like that here in Chicago.

What defines the cuisine tends to be time and place - people cooked off of what their land offered them, obviously. That’s why their cuisine was rooted in meat, pork, potatoes, vegetables, dumplings, things like that. It’s their geographical location--- and ironically, it echoes the Midwestern palate of ingredients. Granted every menu always has a fish, a pasta, a steak, a poultry, the standard format, but we do it in a European tone. When you see our food on the eclectic, mixed-matched, antiqued china you see the artistic heritage of Bohemia. I think it brings the whole experience together.

We've had Czech people come in, or Polish people and say: “These don’t look like the ones I grew up on, but they are some of the best pierogies I’ve had." The soul of European cooking is there. Last night we did egg noodles. We made our own homemade egg noodles with braised rabbit and salt-roasted carrots. The broth is made of spring garlic and English peas and some sour cream and marjoram. It seems like a pasta dish, but when you eat it you get this old-school Polish vibe. If I came in and tried to cook 100% classic Bohemian, Czech food - I don’t think it would resonate. I can’t cook as good as some Czech grandmother, I can’t replicate the history and magic they have! [laughs]

There are a lot of baked goods throughout the menu as well.

Pastries are huge in European cooking. Jessica Vasquez is our pastry chef, and she’s a rock. She came in, took over the department, and has been pushing us forward. The best thing about it is that you get to bounce ideas off of each other, and she takes it and runs with it. Hey, let’s do a Bavarian pretzel with a German brat and house-made mustard and Gouda. She’s takes it and does a Bavarian braided pretzel. We researched a dish recently called lángos, it’s a Hungarian street food, fried potato dough like a savory elephant ear. It’s got this beautiful texture, moist and fluffy, and they usually top it with garlic, sour cream, cheese, they’ll do raw onions on it and stuff. We brought that dish in and she owned it.

Jessica’s banging out our strudel, kolackys, chocolate custard, and doughnuts. She spins all different types of ice creams for our dessert menu. Then when we get to weekend brunch, she makes an amazing almond poppy seed cake, dark chocolate scones, Lithuanian-style bacon buns, and all different jams and preserves.

Speaking of brunch: do you approach it any differently from dinner service?

From a business standpoint I have to look at the menu we have at night: how can I integrate this food without causing a lot of extra labor and production? Brunch covers are gonna be different than dinner, it’s a different check average. I still have to make sure that it represents what we do with our dinner service. I’m really proud of our brunch, I think we’ve been killing it.

All the elements are there: we’ve got baked goods, a couple different pastries, sausage on the menu. We have a schnitzel sandwich that’s a monster: it’s a pounded schnitzel, we ferment our own sauerkraut and braise it down--- it’s a three or four week process to ferment to the right level--- and that’s on the sandwich. We top it with Emmentaler cheese and pork broth and serve it on rye bread. We’ve got smoked beef tongue hash where we cure it like pastrami and smoke it, serve it with potatoes and poached eggs and mustard hollandaise.

You guys make a special point to highlight your staff. Why is that important to you?

Its a huge piece of our culture, to celebrate the people that bring BoHo to life every service. The industry has plenty of horror stories where people get berated, and are continually told that their effort is shit--- most people have a decent picture painted of what the underbelly of the restaurant industry looks like.

Cooking is a tough job. These guys are on their feet all day, busting their asses. In the front of the house they’re dealing with all of the issues and stresses of ensuring that every single guest has an exceptional time in the dining room. You have to promote and be grateful for the fact that you have people who come in a work toward the common goal of offering our guests an experience worth remembering.

Your team are the real gears of the operation. Chefs, people in hospitality, and artists alike--- I like to think that most of us strive for the accomplishment of watching someone enjoy something we created. I know I love when I have a really great meal, when I’m still thinking about it the next day. For people that love food, you prepare yourself for the excitement of experiencing what a restaurant is doing. You enjoy the element of surprise, it becomes theatrical in a way. I feel that’s why open kitchens have become such a big trend in the past decade. People love seeing the chefs, seeing the energy that’s going on back there.

At the end of the day--- what’s the core of this business? People, nourishment, connection. I want to cook for a purpose. That’s what cooking means to me.

Is it ever difficult to bring that sense of purpose to your work day in and day out?

There’s days when you wake up and wish you could just go back to bed! Ambitious people want to succeed, they are driven to be successful in whatever capacity their definition of the word is--- sometimes we feel like we’re invincible and we can just continue to push and push: “Ahh, there’s a little more to give!" Other days you just wish you could press pause for a few hours. The industry can be so mentally taxing at times, because you care about your craft and ensuring that everyone’s experience is as good as you know it could and should be.

You have to juggle all these departments of life, of who Jimmy is as a chef, as a dad, as a husband, as a leader and a friend. All these different outlets of yourself, at the end of the day it’s spinning all these different plates: one starts wobbling then you’re back to this one, and back again. I think that’s why a lot of chefs end up never getting married, or divorced, or have addiction issues and stuff like that. So much of themselves go into it and it’s easy to fall into the trap of attempting to handle every aspect of everything.

How do you balance being both a chef and a family man?

I try to unplug from the kitchen, and when I’m not at BoHo I try to be with my family. They’re my purpose for pushing, trying for greatness. It’s really challenging. I wake up in the morning and see my boys for half an hour, I usually eat breakfast with them every day, then I gotta shower, get ready, get myself to work. It’s so quick, and the time with my wife is limited even more. The quality of time is the most important: you try to pack as much into thirty minutes a day as you can, because they’re sleeping by the time I get home. We are expecting our third, our girl, in two weeks. Number three! My wife and I are done! [laughs]

If you had the day off tomorrow what would you do?

I would go home, throw on a pair of sweatpants, my slippers, and just be dad. Cook with them, get something and grill. Open a great beer and chill, and laugh. I think being happy is the purpose of life. Being fulfilled and being happy. Fulfillment ties into happiness. When you have those minutes, and moments you have to pull them, and hold them in your heart, head and soul.

Bohemian House