Tony Bezsylko and Ethan Pikas

Cellar Door Provisions

12/04/2014

Tony Bezsylko and Ethan Pikas are the co-owners of Cellar Door Provisions in Logan Square.

Is there a simple way to define the mission of Cellar Door?

ETHAN PIKAS: I think that what we’re trying to do is really just showcase the ingredients that we work with, and try to respect the folks that grow the ingredients, although that’s becoming--- I don’t know if it’s passé, it seems like it’s used as a trope more and more--- but I think that we truly mean that here. It’s very vital to what we do.

It also explains, in my mind at least, why our food is pretty simple, plated simply. There’s usually one primary ingredient and then a few other supporting ingredients involved in any one dish, rather than an eleven, fifteen component thing, which I have done in the past and find just overwhelming. Part of what we’re trying to do is simplify down to a very essential idea of what one ingredient does in a dish.

The relationship also with the folks that eat here is of primary importance, which is why we wanted this huge, open room. I think that we’re trying to create a community, more or less. Or be part of a community, maybe not create.

TONY BEZSYLKO: We respect these ingredients that are grown or raised by people we know personally, who are doing a really good job in being very responsible and innovative. They put us in touch with practices from across the world and the past. These simple ingredients and preparations respect the whole system that we’re part of, the whole community that we’re a part of, and it seems to bring people together in a meaningful way.

EP: The whole thing feels like a conversation.

Why are your relationships with purveyors so important?

EP: On a selfish level it feels good to me to be in direct contact with the people that are growing the food, because I admire what they do so much. There’s an aspect of identifying with the people that are growing these things that I think might be my favorite part of the job.

There’s no way to be moved by an ingredient that is grown anonymously and just sent to you. To know that someone you know has painstakingly grown this thing from seed, it’s a totally different thing, and then there’s the fact that the food is gonna be better as a result of it too. It’s one of the reasons why we wanted to do some sort of simple food, because it doesn’t need to be manipulated if it’s really well-grown and sent over here within a day or so.

TB: You can taste it. I mean it tastes different when it’s grown by someone in your community who you know and trust. You listen to some of these farmers’ stories, about how they… I mean, they’ve been working this land, they’ve been cultivating this land, and stewarding it so intensely, and you can taste it when the product comes in. So the relationship is important for everybody’s experience in order to learn about that, understand it, and feel connected to where our food comes from.

The people who are doing that kind of work, who are intensely stewarding some little, cold tract of land in northern Michigan, those people are not going to be in relationships with some giant corporation. Those people are going to be looking for others who want to be a part of a smaller community.

EP: As a cook, when you have that relationship you are less inclined to mishandle an ingredient, or be wasteful.

TB: When there’s a connection with the purveyor I think any cook wants to do justice to their work just like we would want to do justice to each other’s work here in the restaurant.

How do you create and cultivate these relationships?

EP: We have done it just through research, really. And talking to other restaurants as well. I think that I found Werp Farms, as one example, originally through some lettuces that were sold at maybe Scofflaw or maybe it was Lula Café, I can’t remember which.

TB: Or maybe Longman & Eagle.

EP: It was one of those three. We had them at a restaurant and they were clearly beautifully-grown lettuces. But then when I spoke with Tina Werp on the phone it turned out that they’re growing all sorts of amazing stuff, and I was blown away when they sent us like a sample of their root veg. It’s unparalleled.

TB: The Dill Pickle too was really helpful, which is a food co-op on Fullerton where Ethan and I met, and I bought produce. I worked there and bought produce there, and I learned a lot about who’s out there, and who’s doing good work.

EP: I think that’s where I first heard of Three Sisters, they had been at Green City but I don’t think I had anything until the Dill Pickle.

TB: And also other peers, I learned a lot about what kind of grains were in the area by working with a bread maker on the South Side, Lauren Bushnell. We’re always learning from peers, from people who come in and talk with us, other restaurant folks who tell us about some amazing product they found and how good it is and how responsibly-grown and raised it is. Yeah.

EP: I guess the farmer’s market is helpful for that too, but I don’t think it should be underestimated, either, the importance of the Dill Pickle to us.

Do you think that Cellar Door is an extension of the Dill Pickle ethos?

EP: In some ways. We pick and choose.

TB: Yeah, we pick and choose. But we are very co-op minded. We don’t want to be traditional bosses, we want there to be a discussion among the people who work here about what’s best to do for this place, beyond just our individual selves. So yeah, it’s been a huge influence. But obviously we’re a very small business with very simple and limited financial, start-up investment from the two of us, and ultimately we’re on the line. So it’s not a truly democratic institution in the way that the Pickle is trying to be.

EP: But far more so than any restaurant I’ve ever worked in.

TB: Yeah. And the thing about the Dill Pickle is that everybody who’s a member actually buys a share, so there’s this attempt to create this radically democratic, like direct-democratic thing over there. Here it’s just a little bit harder to do. But we’re constantly talking about the spirit of all those kinds of co-op type things. And we go to the Dill Pickle still, Ethan goes almost every day, I go a few times a week.

So the availability of ingredients dictates what goes on the menu? Is that an oversimplification?

EP: I mean that is the gist of it. What I try to do is look at availability lists, and I very often place all of my orders before I’ve written the menu.

But I’ve been cooking for so long now, and because I peruse cookbooks constantly, I fit things to appropriate dishes, or knowledge of traditional French dishes, or Mediterranean dishes, or something like that. And dishes are malleable, unless you’re trying to respect the tradition to the utmost, you don’t use this type of flour in this dish or something like that, which isn’t really our approach.

I feel like you can just kind of manipulate things as needed, so depending on what’s available, if you’re open to it it can really--- anything can happen to it, more or less. Like a sweet potato can become a dumpling, or it can just be presented as what it is, or you can do a savory tart. It’s more driven by what we want to work on. Like some skill we want to develop or something we want to expose folks to that they maybe haven’t seen before.

TB: Don’t you always order then write the menu?

EP: Yeah. But sometimes I’ll have an idea in my head for a week or two weeks or something, so that kind of exists before ordering.

TB: So you’ll be kind of predicting. I mean, everyone waits for tomato season, already thinking about tomatoes because you know they’re about to come up, but it really is directly related to what we’ve got available. A good example is that tomatoes showed up in a dish when it was like freezing cold, in a really surprising way. And that’s just because there were these super-late season, acidic tomatoes, and we got them in and put ‘em in a quiche.

EP: Yeah, Dan from City Farms had these green tomatoes that I think they just had to take off the vine. Those were really good. One thing that we should stress is that because the dishes are so simple it’s not that overwhelming of a task to write the menu. I mean, it’s enjoyable… sometimes it seems laborious but it’s not like writing a series of dishes with fifteen components that all have to correspond really well. There’s usually maybe six at the most. It’s not like, a heroic effort.

Beyond available ingredients, what else influences you when you write the menu?

EP: What I try to do is think about balance in the dish, honestly. Most of my training is in French cuisine, so I often think about traditional French dishes, and then I think about maybe a way of adding an element to that dish that’s slightly unfamiliar, either to the dish, to me, or the folks eating it. Or maybe all three. Just to keep it interesting for all of us involved.

Usually a dish will have something technically involved too, at least a little bit, because I like that aspect, like a laminated pasta dough, or a cracker, or something like that, to add a technical element that’s provocative to me. But really it just comes down to balancing it out, and sometimes the ingredients just kind of do it on their own. The other thing is that there are all these chefs that I love and respect, so I’ll see a dish that they do and will be inspired by it.

You know, if that chef, say someone like David Kinch in California, is doing this amazing like vegetable velouté dish or something that I’m blown away by, I have no problem doing a version of it on the menu. It feels good to me, it feels like we’re somehow, even though he may never know about us, we’re somehow tied to what he’s doing. That’s a cool thing to me.

Are there areas of the restaurant you hope to develop more in the future?

TB: There’s tons of techniques that Ethan or I would love to work on but, just because we’re such a small staff we don’t have time. We would love to be doing more cheese, or charcuterie.

EP: And we will.

TB: Yeah, we will, once we get time and more staff. Breads, lots of savory techniques. Not necessarily bringing more complexity to a dish, just getting an opportunity to change up what we’re doing with these simple dishes. So there’s that kind of staff restriction, and probably other restrictions that any small business starts out with are limiting some of the things we can do.

What is it like working within those kinds of practical limitations?

TB: We’re able to do an incredible amount in the face of those things. People have been ordering stuff I never thought people in Chicago would be excited about, or even really open to. And sure, there’s some stuff that we try that doesn’t get ordered but none of what we do seems to alienate people or make them want to walk home and never come back, or something like that.

People have been so profoundly open around some of the stuff we’ve been trying out. There were some really strange dishes that we thought would restrict us but just didn’t.

EP: Yeah, we’ve done some like, pretty seriously fermented soups that were amazing but were… I don’t know, they’re unfamiliar.

TB: There was a porridge--- we sprouted these grains and soaked these grains, it was sort of a savory porridge that you might eat in the morning, but it was sour and tart and… it was super intense. And we loved it, but I don’t think we had tasted anything like it. And people were ordering it and we were like, “Oh my God, they’re not gonna like this,” and they loved it. They were like, “Holy crap, this is amazing.”

EP: We also have pretty severe limitations in terms of the number of burners that we have, we don’t have a grill, we don’t have a fryer. So the variety of techniques available to us is limited. Plus because we’re breakfast and lunch the menu isn’t coursed out, and so you can’t do a terribly complex dish as a result of that because you just don’t have time to pick it up and get it out to the diner.

There’s also the fact that we’re trying to keep our food costs low. We usually have one protein on the menu every week, because proteins are expensive things. And honestly, you can get tons of protein dishes at most other restaurants in the city. So we try to have one dish that highlights that, and then the rest are almost always vegetarian. And often we have a few vegan dishes too.

But I love the limitations that we have set for ourselves. Even though I often wish that we could break free from them sometimes, I think it’s kind of healthy for folks who are trying to do something you know, a little artistically driven, to set these boundaries for yourself. Because it gives you focus. It’s really cool, I’m pretty enamored of it actually. I think about it all the time.

TB: I haven’t worked in a lot of different restaurants so my experience around it is probably different. But it seems like there’s a kind of focus that we’re getting out of the place that allows for really getting close to some near perfect shit, you know? Around the very particular constraints that we’re under, with the kind of equipment we have, the amount of fridge space we have.

EP: That’s a good point too. We have no walk-in, so our ordering has to happen in waves as a result. That was also partially intentional, because I don’t like the idea of sitting on things all week or longer, which I’ve seen before. I feel like, although we’re to varying degrees more or less successful with this, I feel like a reach-in helps you be more organized with everything that you’re working with.

TB: You find stuff in it that might be about to expire and you’re like, “We need to use this. We don’t want to throw this away.”

EP: I actually don’t think of that as a limitation but it is.

TB: It is, but it’s getting us to actually do good work.

Speaking of self-imposed limitations: Cellar Door is open five days a week, for breakfast and lunch. Why not more?

TB: Ethan and I have always talked about being able to do something like this while we’re also taking a little bit of care with ourselves, and our personal relationships. Just taking care of our health, and getting exercise and rest and stuff. Our limited hours come from those sorts of concerns, accompanied by the fact that we just don’t have a big start-up budget.

We want as many people as possible to understand why we’re not doing a 24-hour diner thing. Not just why we’re doing it in terms of the personal sacrifices we would have to make, or the sacrifices to the quality of the product, but the sacrifice to the quality of everybody’s experience here. I don’t think it would be the same kind of place, either in vibe or in what is drawing us together around this table if we were just doing the 24-hour-diner thing.

It just seems so taxing, and exhausting, you have employees who never see each other, don’t even know each other, don’t work together, some are working at two in the morning, others in the middle of the day. And there’s no communication, no learning from each other, it just becomes big and kind of alienated.

EP: Sustainability is a focus of this restaurant, both with the food that we’re working with and beyond that. If we want to be a sustainable business that means longevity in our careers as cooks, and business owners and things. As far as I’m concerned, while we may currently be sustaining this business monetarily, we have not proven that it’s a sustainable business yet, because we’re working a lot of hours.

And it’s a common thing in the restaurant industry, but if we can achieve a situation where we’re able to work a 65 or 70 hour week and still monetarily remain in the same spot, then I’ll feel like we’ve done something really remarkable. Like Tony said, retain our health, because I know, having worked in kitchens for so long, there are very few healthy cooks.

The hours are difficult, and you’re constantly on your feet, and you eat very little, and a lot of folks smoke and drink and all that stuff. It’s not the way to retain a career. So that’s part of this whole thing: can we do this in a way that is good for us as well as good for the folks dining here?

What do you think Cellar Door provides to the Logan Square restaurant community?

TB: I think Ethan and I have estimated that about half, around half or more of our business is from within the industry. Some days it’s like an industry hang out, an industry gathering place, and everyone is running into people they know, they had no reason to expect would be here, and the whole dining room is full of cooks and managers and restaurant owners and bakers just all hanging out.

EP: One of the most gratifying things about opening this place is to see how much other restaurant folks love, do seem to love it.

TB: It’s crazy. It’s overwhelming.

EP: It means the world to us. Tony and I had talked about, before we opened, the fact that we were hoping that cooks would maybe stop in here before going into work, and spend some time, and when that started to be the case it’s just very flattering, for whatever reason it happens, we couldn’t really ask for more.

TB: For me it’s probably the highest praise, it’s really cool.

EP: Like that maybe we’re on the right track with things.

You describe what you do as “food worth gathering around.” Why is that sentiment so important to you?

TB: It has a lot to do with what I think we were talking about earlier, about relationships. One way into it is if you just start with what food is: food is what sustains life. If you really want to honor the idea that food is something that keeps us, keeps life generally going, you’ve got to put some time, energy, sincerity, and a lot of responsibility into putting it on a plate and serving it to people.

Or even putting it onto a plate and eating it yourself. Putting it that way might sound kind of crazy, almost Catholic or something like that, but I think there is a kind of holiness around this stuff that keeps things alive. And I think that is how we approach food, with that kind of sincerity. That’s how the people who raise and grow the food that we buy and prepare approach it. And that seems to be the way virtually all of our customers approach it. You can see the respect and the admiration and the joy around it every time.

EP: On a more direct level it probably stems from the bread gatherings. Prior to opening the restaurant Tony would have friends over to his house and he would bake bread on Thursdays, and it was just this amazing community of disparate people that just loved the act of being together, some were scholars and some were cooks.

TB: The most unlikely people were, are still friends now. It’s crazy, when they see each other in the restaurant.

EP: We all looked forward to Thursday night bread, all through the week, and I think a lot of people still wish we did it. It was really a pretty magical thing, it felt like a weight was lifted of you in some way. It was cool. And that’s actually--- I mean lots of places have communal tables, but I think we wanted a communal table to bring that feeling from Thursday night bread into the restaurant. And so if we can pull that together now and again, at least, it would make the food more meaningful.

One last question: if you had the day off tomorrow, no consequences, what would you do?

TB: That’s awesome.

EP: That is a good question.

TB: Do you have one?

EP: Well, this may be a bit cheesy. I have a lot of answers to this but the most important one is I’d spend time with my girlfriend and soon-to-be wife because I don’t see her enough. But then I’d probably read some cookbooks.

TB: You probably would.

EP: Maybe go to the Russian spa.

TB: Yeah. I would definitely spend time with my wife but I think, weather-permitting, I’d take the longest bike ride my body could handle. To hopefully a quiet, pastoral, countryside with rolling hills or something.

Cellar Door Provisions