Chris Curren

Seven Lions

08/07/2015

Chris Curren is the chef at Seven Lions in The Loop.

A restaurant of this size isn’t like anything else. With our patio here, and our private dining spaces, we’ve got 500 seats. It’s a monster. There’s high expectations being Alpana Singh’s second project. It can get intense. They hold everybody that works with them to a high level, but at the same time they give us every tool that we need. They understand that for me and my team this is a creative endeavor, and they give us an opportunity to do that.

I’ve worked in restaurants of this size before, so I knew coming into it what to expect. That being said, you never know what’s gonna happen in a restaurant until it opens. You come in one day and a vendor didn’t deliver something, or one of your guys forgot to order it, or somebody didn’t show up. All of a sudden you’ve got this VIP table that’s coming in last minute ‘cause one of your owners threw you a curveball. Or your cooler’s down--- something always happens. It keeps you on your toes. It can be aggravating and drive you insane, but it’s also part of the adventure.

We walked into this place with eyes wide open. About the level of expectation, the amount of volume that we’re gonna be doing. We’re on Michigan Avenue across from the Art Institute, it’s a high-traffic area. We’ve had a few surprises about the demographic, what people are looking for, when we’re gonna be busy and when we’re not. But we walked into it aware that it was gonna be a big, big job.

I was born in upstate New York. We moved around a lot, we lived in Connecticut and south Jersey. When I was eight we moved to Cleveland. I always tell everybody I’m from Cleveland, ‘cause that’s where the majority of my years were spent. That’s home.

I watched Julia Child, Yan Can Cook, and Great Chefs on PBS all the time, but that was me liking it without realizing that there’s something that could be done with it. Nobody in my family was in the industry, it really wasn’t prevalent back then. My dad was your typical business executive, my mom was a speech therapist. They both retired recently. That was normal to me. That was everybody in our neighborhood.

I went to a private, Catholic, all-boys high school started by the same group of monks that started the University of Notre Dame. So their whole thing was: you graduate from here, you go to Notre Dame. You can’t get into Notre Dame, you go to another good college, preferably Catholic. You get a degree in business or law or medicine. You move back to Cleveland, you have sons and you send them to our high school.

I went to the University of Dayton. I had a great time. It was a four year party, for sure. But I got my first issue of the alumni magazine from my high school and on the cover was Iron Chef Michael Symon. He is a graduate of my high school. He had just opened up Lola, and that was the first inkling, the first time it popped in my head: you can work in a restaurant and be successful and make a decent living to support a family.

I’d never realized that. My parents took us to restaurants growing up. My dad travelled around the world for his job so we were introduced to a lot of different types of cuisines, from a very young age. But we never saw the real fine dining. My dad was in the military, and when we lived in Connecticut we’d go to the Officer’s Club at West Point for special occasions. It was pretty fancy, but not intense fine dining.

I started working in the student union at Dayton, cooking and working the snack bar. Food Network started coming on then, you saw the emergence of celebrity chefs. The respect level for the industry in general started going up. It wasn’t just a band of misfits any more--- even though it still was, and still is now. It wasn’t perceived that way anymore. More and more the notion came to me: why can’t that be something I do?

The biggest challenge at Seven Lions is writing a menu that’s approachable enough for the clientele that’s down here already, exciting enough for the people that are gonna come here because of Alpana’s name, and easy enough to execute where we can do it for 500 people. There are a lot of challenges in writing a menu like that. You have a sixty-seat restaurant, it doesn’t matter what kind of menu you write ‘cause you’re never gonna be busy enough to make it challenging. Here, execution becomes an issue.

Our lunch today, we sat 120 people in thirty-five minutes. You’re not doing over a hundred people every half-hour with really intricate plates. But we still wanted to make sure that our quality of food was good, with interesting flavor profiles. We take the fine dining mentality and approach to what we do but we’re also conscious of the fact that we need to do it for volume.

I like to get everybody involved. My sous chefs and chef de cuisine are involved in menu development, it’s more of a roundtable discussion. They’ve seen things that I haven’t seen, techniques that I haven’t seen. You can throw ideas back and forth at each other and get better dishes as an end result. But I told them from day one, I don’t want to put a dish on the menu because we can execute it. I want to put a dish on the menu because it’s something that we’re proud to serve.

We take each menu item and put out one to play with, taste, see how it works. Then we figure out how to execute for volume. Can we take it ahead of time so that it’s a two- to three-step pick up when it’s fired, to give our line cooks an easier job? Sometimes we get there and sometimes we don’t. Sometimes you can’t do certain things so far ahead of time, and it’s too much of a bear to do à la minute. Those ideas you push off for something down the road.

It’s more of a struggle for sure. The way we built the menu, we’ve got the general menu and then we’ve got a big specials section where we can bring in things from local farmers and deal with hyper-seasonal ingredients. We’ve got a salmon dish on the menu that we serve with summer vegetables and a beurre monté. In a few weeks it’ll be autumn vegetables, very easy to transition. I try to I change three or four dishes on the menu every week.

If we can’t figure out how to execute a dish we don’t put it on the menu, but I was never gonna let volume dictate the direction that we go. We have a thirteen-seat private dining room where from time to time people have a six- or seven-course menu. Maybe that dish is something we do for those times. I’ve got a lot of talent in my kitchen team. My chef de cuisine Patrick Russ was the executive chef at The Dawson, and before that he was at Next. He’s got a lot of creativity and a lot of talent. Anytime people give us carte blanche to go ahead and wow them, that’s fun.

The hardest part was getting over my parents’ perception of culinary school. Were they going to respect it? Ultimately they wanted me to be happy, and if this was something that was going to make me happy they were all for it. But I think they were a little worried too. The summer before my senior year in college I decided to go to culinary school, but I wanted to graduate and have a degree to fall back on in case this whole thing didn’t work out.

After I graduated from Dayton I started culinary school in Pittsburgh. At the time it was the third-ranked culinary school, behind CIA and Johnson & Wales. It’s gone now, it’s defunct. Realistically I would have been better off getting a job at the best restaurant I could as a dishwasher and working my way up.

After culinary school I moved back to Cleveland and went to work for a big corporate restaurant group, Bravo, as a sous chef. That’s where I got my high-volume experience. I relate a lot of that to this. I got lucky in that job. The executive chef, Bruce Kalman, came from Chicago. He had owned a deli on Wells called Five Boroughs Deli, but his fiancée at the time was from Cleveland and she wanted to move back.

He taught me more about food than any other person I’ve ever met. He helped drive me into fine dining. Nine times out of ten had I walked into a restaurant like that, I would be working there for the rest of my career. I still didn’t know anything at twenty-four years old. He taught me how to line cook in high volume and put out a quality product. He taught me about new ingredients and techniques that I had never seen. He talked about Charlie Trotter, about chefs that I had never heard of. He got me into reading magazines and books and cookbooks, things that really get your creativity going.

And then I left and thought I was gonna get out of the industry. I had a long-term relationship with a girl and it ended because of the hours I was working. I was looking at it: is this what I want to do with the rest of my life? My dad travelled a lot for work. He was always there for the important things, he was always there for birthdays and for baseball games, all of it. I don’t want to make it sound like he was never around. He was great, and went out of his way to be there when he needed to be.

But he was gone a lot. I always told myself growing up that I wasn’t going to be that kind of person. I was gonna be there with my family, I wanted to be there every night with my family. I took some time off.

I ask: what motivates you in the kitchen?

This is a question that comes up a lot, and I go back to the same thing: I like making people happy. In this business you have to have that. I’m married, I’ve got a two-and-a-half-year old son. I live in Elgin, forty-five miles away. I drive to work, it adds another three hours on to my work day. There’s a lot of sacrifice on my end, on my family’s end.

You come into a job where every day is a fucking hassle. Somebody on your staff’s complaining, you’re babysitting, you’re playing therapist. Some days you’re Mister Fix-It, an electrician, a plumber, whatever it is. That’s the majority of my day, it’s not the creative part. To look at it and say, “It’s okay for me to spend fifteen hours a day, more times than not six or seven days a week, away from my family,” the only way you can justify that is because you like making people happy.

When you can see making people happy in the dining room… it’s an instant gratification thing. Otherwise it’s stupid. Why would anybody do this to themselves?

I got sucked back in.

There was a restaurant that was starting to build this reputation in Cleveland. It wasn’t only Michael Symon any more. It was called Three Birds. Another server that I worked with told me one day that they were looking for a sous chef. On one of my days off I walked in with my resume. Three hours later I got a phone call from the chef. It turns out I had handed my resume to the owner. They hadn’t even told anybody that they were looking for a sous chef, my guy knew somebody there. It was the right place at the right time.

Three Birds was owned by a guy named James Bell, his aunt was Bonne Bell of Bonne Bell Cosmetics. They make Lip Smackers, the flavored chapstick. His grandfather started the company and named it after his aunt. The restaurant was his hobby. He built it in the office building for Bonne Bell in Lakewood, the first suburb west of Cleveland. There’s a lot of bars and restaurants in that area.

James had gone to culinary school in Wyoming and opened a restaurant right out of it when he was twenty-three. A few years later his dad called him: “You need to come back home, we need help with the family business.” He sold the restaurant and moved back to Cleveland. But he still wanted to go back into the restaurant business, so his dad leased him part of the space and he built out the restaurant. When they opened up, they were top-twenty best new restaurants in Esquire. All this publicity and all this press for a Cleveland restaurant, which besides Michael Symon no one talked about.

I jumped at the opportunity. I did a tasting and a stage, and they hired me. That was the second most influential place in my career. John Kolar, the executive chef, had just moved back from New York, he was also a Cleveland native who had worked for Jean-Georges. That was my first real step into what fine dining was like. We had another guy on the line who had been the executive chef for fifteen years at Mercer Kitchen in New York, another Jean-Georges property.

This is a guy who ran one of Jean-Georges’ kitchens and he was my pizza guy on the weekends. There was a lot of creativity going around in there, it was one of those restaurants--- honestly, it’s a restaurant I’ve been trying to recreate ever since I left. Not the dining room, not the food that I was putting out, but the feel that the employees had walking into the restaurant every day. I’ve never been able to get to that point, and I probably never will. But it’s always my goal. That’s how special it was to me. I was there for a year and a half.

Six months after I started the executive chef left. James, because he had the cooking background, made himself the executive chef. He’d taste our dishes and tell us what he thought, but realistically he was never in the kitchen. Maybe one night every couple of months he’d work a station, if we needed to cut labor or he wanted to do it. But mostly James let me and another sous chef run the kitchen. It wasn’t a big place, inside we had seventy-five seats plus a huge patio that made it 150 seats in the summer. It was one of those places where you could do intricate food.

Then one day I looked at it: where am I going to go from Three Birds? James is the executive chef, he’s never gonna promote me. Do I go work for Michael Symon? At that time it was us and him.

Our clientele is all over the board, and so their expectations are all over the board. There are people who have never heard of us, who walk in off the street because they looked in the window. We’ve got the foodies who are here because they love Alpana and The Boarding House. There are regulars at the Chicago Symphony, we get a lot of business from that. People who go to the symphony are a little more sophisticated so they’re expecting something different.  We’ve got people who work down here in for lunch, or for after-work drinks.

But I don’t think we can consider all their expectations when we’re working on the menu. We focus more on doing good food. We do four- to five-thousand covers a week between lunch and dinner. You’re not gonna make everybody happy. The goal is to put out a good product for a good value, every day. When you do that you build a longevity in the restaurant. Over time people will start to understand what we’re about, and then we’ll be a trusted name: you can go there to get a good meal.

I met Dan Marunowski when I worked as a sous chef at Hyde Park steakhouse in downtown Cleveland. He worked the front of the house. Dan had moved out to Chicago a year before with his brother, his brother Mike wanted to do Second City. He was like, “Hey man, why don’t you move out here? You got a couch to stay on.”

I moved here on August 1st, 2006. I spent four months trying to find a job. You’re sending out resumes to everyone looking for a sous chef or chef de cuisine, and they have no reference of what these Cleveland restaurants are. It was difficult.

I finally found something. It’s not a place I like to talk about. But it gave me the confidence to know that I could handle Chicago. That was my biggest question, coming from Cleveland: do I know what I need to know? Am I talented enough to compete in this kind of environment? And I found very quickly: yeah, I could. A very respected chef, he and I did not see eye-to-eye on a lot of things. I was there for eleven months. I think I pissed him off one too many times.

Dan and I had been talking about opening up a restaurant since we worked together in Cleveland. I walked into the apartment and said, “We’re not doing anything now, why don’t we try to make this happen? I can take a couple months and try to figure it out.” I talked to my family and they said, “We don’t see why you shouldn’t do it. You guys have worked in the industry long enough.” My dad helped us get a loan for $125,000 dollars. We found a spot that had all the FF&E built into the lease. Also, in the lease they wouldn’t let us physically change anything in the restaurant. We couldn’t do construction and that saved us a lot of money. I tell a lot of people in the industry how much we spent on that restaurant and they can’t believe it.

We opened Blue 13 in July of 2008, which in retrospect was the absolute worst time to open a restaurant. Except maybe right before the Great Depression.

We did great out of the gate, but we were lost. Graham Elliott opened, L2O opened, Publican opened all right at the same time, and those were guys who were gonna get the press. Nobody knew who I was, nobody knew who Dan was. The little bit of press that we did get, a lot of it was thanks to Penny Pollack. When the market crashed so did our business. We struggled and we fought for four years. We had some issues with our landlord. We put so much into that restaurant. Not just work or hours, but our heart and soul.    

Two of our good friends ended up coming on as partners, one we hired as a manager and the other was doing all of our PR and marketing, and opening up during the days. The four of us, we sat there when we were having issues with the landlord, going back and forth. Attorneys… and my wife and I found out we were having a baby… we didn’t have the heart to keep doing it. We weren’t making enough money to make it worthwhile. But we had built our names.

It was a rough decision when we closed the restaurant. That stuff’s never easy, it’s never fun. But it’s part of the business. Things open, they close.

Then I got the opportunity with the Fifty/50 guys. They were getting me back to what I wanted to be doing with Homestead. It was full creative, whatever I wanted to do. And the menu for The Berkshire Room, which they were getting ready to open up. I also ended up revamping the West Town Bakery menu. It was a great experience. Scott Weiner and Greg Mohr gave me a great opportunity, but things happen sometimes. I wanted to take a step back and be with my family. Our son was about to be a year old. Are we gonna stay in the city, or are we gonna move out to the burbs? It took some time, I was disheartened with the Chicago dining scene.

We decided we wanted to relocate out there, and then this fell into my lap. I got a phone call from a recruiter that I work with. She had been hired by Alpana to find a chef for this restaurant. When you have an opportunity to work with someone like Alpana you can’t turn it down.

It’s funny, I was texting Patrick on one of his days off, just bullshitting, and he said, “I’ve never been this happy in a job before.” It made me think about the last time I’ve been this happy.

Maybe Blue 13, maybe Three Birds.

Seven Lions