Kurt Guzowski and Thomas Rice

Tête Charcuterie

05/22/2015

Kurt Guzowski and Thomas Rice are the chefs and co-owners of Tête Charcuterie in the West Loop.

Why did you guys decide to feature charcuterie?

KURT GUZOWSKI: It’s been interesting to me ever since I was a kid making sausage with my dad; the artistry, the refinement that goes into it. When we first started this project back in 2011 we felt charcuterie wasn’t being showcased enough in Chicago. It’s a time-tested tradition, you can go all over the world, in Europe, in Asia, everybody has a headcheese, or a fresh sausage, or something dry-cured, all types of it. All types of chorizo, all types of blood sausage.

That’s something Tom and I share, the culture behind food. What made people cook that? It’s interesting to take it and put our twist on it, with new techniques and stuff. Our a la carte menu is very technique-driven, and I like to think of our charcuterie as very technique-driven too. Everything’s got its ratio, its percentage, and we try for good texture and good flavor across the board. Not just one or the other.

It’s a tricky thing to do, we did a lot of recipe testing, we tried and we travelled. We went to Paris, we went to Germany, we went to New York. To eat, to try some of the best and see those cultures.

THOMAS RICE: It’s an up-and-coming conversation, a trend in the United States: charcuterie and sausages. Living in France for over a year, I remember going to grab a jambon or pâté in between shifts. Coming back to Chicago and I had a couple different things here that were being produced by chefs and I thought: that’s not sausage, that’s not charcuterie.

KG: It didn’t have that culture behind it. It’s so important, if you bite into a sausage you want to understand why. The culture behind it. There’s a reason.

Is it fair to call French your strongest influence?

TR: I don’t think it was ever a conscious decision to make it a French direction at all. The name is French, sure, but that came from a drunk conversation that I had with a friend of mine. It was never the concept to be a French restaurant. Our backgrounds are French, I’ve worked in France, worked with French chefs, the technique that we both learned has been French. Sausage making and charcuterie? It’s a worldly conversation. And there’s really no border, no uncommon ground.

KG: We were originally gonna name the place Headcheese but Tête had a much better ring to it. [laughs] In France, charcuterie is something they’re very proud of. That culture, what they grow, why they grow it, grown for flavor, it’s meant to be good and the end product’s meant to be better. That’s what we try to carry on over here.

Is the goal to respect tradition as closely as possible, or interpret that tradition in order to create something new?

KG: I think it’s somewhere in the middle. Our country pâté is pretty straightforward. We want that tradition here. We’re gonna take it the way we cook it, and there might be some subtle tweaks, especially as the culinary scene has grown, some of the molecular cross-through and things like that. There are variances for sure, and it’s very seasonal. Right now I’ve got some spring garlic in one of the terrines, with spring onion and ramps, there’s morels in it, with veal and sweetbreads. A terrine’s got to have a little decadence no matter what it is. It’s got a refinement, that elegance to it.

We try to portray that traditional aspect of it, bring it here. Growing up in the Midwest I go right for it. I think that people are becoming a little more adventurous with the whole animal thing, and the consciousness of vegetables, why they’re grown and where they’re grown. You see the flavors and everything come through.

TR: I walk through that door every morning and I just walk into a restaurant. I look at what we’re doing and it’s respect for who we are as Midwesterners, who I am as a Chicagoan, who Kurt is as a Chicagoan. We cook food that we want to eat, that we think bridges that gap between… I don’t know, what people are looking for, something different, something exciting, something that has emotion on a plate, that tells a story and connects people.

KG: My answer was better. [laughs]

TR: Every interview, he makes sure he gets that in there.

Do you make everything in house?

KG: Yeah. That’s a tricky part of it, a big test. For a while we had to use West Loop Salumi because of the whole city ordinance, getting the HACCP. Also managing the production time; we’re going through product a lot faster. That pork belly, that salumi, it goes a lot quicker on the front end, but on the back end… you can’t cure it any faster. In Chicago as the seasons go you gotta adjust, add a humidifier, add an exhaust, more or less, constant changes. We have at least three seasons, if not four. [laughs]

How do you keep the quality up in your own kitchen?

KG: We have a glass case, so we can always see the quality. [laughs] You gotta find that person that wants to do it as good as you do. He’s got a good attitude towards it, he pushes himself. I can give you all the direction in the world, show you how to do it, but if you’re not willing yourself to look at your notes or whatever and try to exceed that, it’s not gonna happen.

TR: We hope they understand the seriousness of the food chain. If they see our faces blow up when the farmers arrive with our products, the passion and the excitement--- that should translate to a young cook. Why is my chef getting that stir-crazy about a carrot, or lettuce, or a ham that we just got? Because we have to. It’s our responsibility, it’s my life.  I don’t know anything else. I don’t want to know anything else.

KG: Literally, he doesn’t know anything else. [laughs]

TR: They see us having these conversations, these emotions with the farmers and they get influenced by it.

Speaking of local purveyors: is it a two-way street, where you can make requests for certain meats and vegetables?

KG: For certain things, yeah. All the farmers are hungry for that knowledge, that growth, they want to do it. It’s what they’re passionate about.

TR: The farmers are starting to open up their eyes, they’re very receptive. The chef’s gotta drive the market for this. We’re the street in the middle of the consumer and the farmer. We know what the customers are looking for, and the farmers know what we’re looking for. But we’ve gotta demand more from both parties. We have to be responsible for educating our guests about what farmers are doing. From produce to livestock to the whole agricultural side of it.

We understand that with the different growing seasons the Midwest might not be as fruitful right now as California or New York, but something we’ve discussed from the beginning and along with other chefs is that we want more from our farmers. We’ve seen ingredients from all throughout the world and we want to get as much as we can here in the Midwest.

KG: Farm-to-table is great, it’s our background, it’s what we do. It’s all about the farmer’s market, we’re driven by the vegetables.  We might be a little meat-centric but we’re driven by the vegetables. I have four seed magazines in the back. We went through and we picked some seeds and I gave them to five different farmers, and now they’re all growing something that we want. We went a little overboard. [laughs] We said: grow what you can.

Leaning Shed Farms, they’re gonna grow like a couple different varieties of peppers, cucumbers, tomatoes. Peter Klein from Seedling Farms, I went with fruit and herbs for him. We even talked to him about letting the pigs come and eat the fall off, the end of the season fruits and things. Ken Myszka at Epiphany Farms, talking about his pigs, they’re acorn-fed and finished on black walnuts. The conversation got on that, how we had a bag of black walnuts and he’s like, “You guys use those? I finish my pigs on those.” The flavor’s amazing.

TR: That’s what it all comes down to. Flavor. Flavor, period. Nothing else matters.

KG: Grow for flavor, that’s what it should be. It’s tricky but really getting that farm-to-table, that vegetable, that green garlic and morels and the ramps that are in the veal terrine, with the raised veal and the sweetbreads from the farm, it’s a great, great product. It gives you that edge. To me, that’s what Midwest is. We’re farms, we have a lot of farms. We’re surrounded, why not use it?

Why do you think that charcuterie will resonate with Chicagoans? Is there a greater mission to this as well?

KG: I’ve always said that charcuterie always goes with anything at anytime. What does it pair with beverage-wise? It pairs with everything. We originally didn’t have it on lunch, but people were asking for it so we put it on lunch and it sells. It’s unfamiliar to them, but it is familiar, that kind of… I hate to say it but meatloaf, lunch meats, that stuff.

TR: It’s an ongoing, five-year trend here in Chicago. It has a history and a culture here. We’re the new genre, the new generation, and not from just a business standpoint. We don’t have that history. The grandparents didn’t pass that on to our generation. The consumer doesn’t necessarily recognize that yet, and when they go to restaurants and they see prices on menus, they don’t understand that correlation: why is it so expensive to go out and eat today? Because guys like us are trying to take care of people like you. Giving you better product, better flavor, and hopefully that whole cycle catches up sooner or later.

KG: Everyone wants what they didn’t have.

TR: And that story has to be told. It has not been told here yet. Even back to the farmers, everyone says they want to be farmer-friendly, but there’s not enough of it. The neighborhood, the community, conversations have to start amongst all of us. And there is a real conscious conversation going on, you see in place and in action but it needs to be deeper.

KG: People ask about West Loop Salumi, how’s your relationship, and I say it’s great, we talk salumi all the time. We try his, he tries ours. It’s a symbiotic relationship.

TR: We have similar problems. We had similar growing pains.

KG: We’ve met farmers through him, he’s met farmers through us. It’s that a whole regrouping of everybody. Like Thomas said earlier, there’s that gap from our grandparents to our parents, the boom and change, where we lost something. We lost that farmer relationship, that growth, that respect for things. Using the whole animal, why is that so popular now? Because we didn’t have it. Now it’s interesting again because it’s a learning thing. It’s growth, as a person, as a culture. We’re trying to redevelop a culture here through food. I think it’s on the right track.

You guys are trying to rediscover a food culture that was lost on the prior generation.

TR: There’s still some cool little family traditions going on. I know the guy in back of my father’s house, he still goes and buys pigs, grinds it himself, makes a sopressata, hangs it in the basement, he’s an immigrant from Italy. He keeps it going, he showed his kids that. You see all these pop-up farmer’s markets in these smaller towns, that’s what we’re talking about. There’s farmer’s markets every weekend.

KG: We’ve lost touch a little bit, but people want to revisit it. It’s knowledge, it’s learning.

TR: A conversation I had yesterday with my cousin: she said, “We went to the farmer and the eggs were brown. Why are the eggs brown? We usually just get white eggs.” It’s just that whole conversation, that education. “This is why. This is why it’s brown, this is why it’s better for you.” It’s unfortunate that the vast majority of people don’t know. They’ll shop at Whole Foods but they really have no idea what it’s all about.

I don’t want to say we’re pioneers by any means, but we’re definitely an original concept. There’s a story on the whole new upbringing of charcuterie that correlates everything back to the old-world Chicago meatpackers and stuff like that.

KG: Chicago needs more permanent open-air markets. A lot of other cities have it, we need to have that place where everybody can set up and have that conversation because that’s gonna help your education, you’re gonna meet chefs, you’re gonna meet your neighbors, you’re gonna meet the farmers. In essence we’re all neighbors, we’re all here. It’s great. We can share recipes, build from that. Then you have the ground zero places that open up right around there, it makes for a good community.

Did you have any reservations about having an open kitchen?

TR: That’s another moving part to the whole chef thing nowadays. You gotta be seen. People want that connection, they want to be able to come up and see it. We’re the modern day rockstars, we get it. And the whole celebrity chef thing is what it is, I think we all understand that’s the direction we need to go. We’re genuine, humble guys. I don’t think we’re gonna lose track of that.

KG: It’s about being approachable.

TR: And it’s great for the staff too, cause it’s not just us. We can’t do what we do without them, and it’s important for the customers to see that, see these guys as well.  The camaraderie of the kitchen, man. That’s entertainment, that’s a stage.

KG: It used to be a bunch of degenerates locked in a room at the back. [laughs]

Why did you guys decide to join forces?

KG: It’s funny, we were both working on different projects. He had his, I had mine, and they both didn’t materialize for whatever reason. I was actually working with him, he was consulting, it was something we were doing to have a job and kill some time while we realized our projects weren’t going anywhere. And we always talked about our other projects, we’re both similar people. You know, you drive by a space and you think: what could fit there? Your mind’s always going.

TR: We were a bit jaded that we never really got an opportunity. We knew what we were capable of, and we were looking for a chef position. One jaded, and two we knew we didn’t want to work for anyone. We didn’t want to take anyone else’s bullshit. We knew we could do better, just looking at the landscape in Chicago from a chef’s perspective. We knew there was a lot missing from food. And we had a secondary idea, of sausage and charcuterie.

Has running a restaurant met your expectations? Are you happy with how your concept became a reality?

KG: We’re a couple of intense guys. Our expectations for others are high, but our expectations for ourselves are even higher. We’re our own worst critics, in between the two of us it’s just… you listen to us and some of the things we say to each other, people probably say, “Oh my God!” [laughs] We don’t take anything personal, it’s a bigger goal to grow and learn and become that better entity and exceed our own expectations. It’s one of the hardest things.

TR: There’s been some conversation going back and forth: how do we identify ourselves? Are you meat, are you vegetable, and honestly...

KG: We want to drop that whole misnomer.

TR: Everyone brings it up to us, and we’re the only two who ask: why do I have to think about that? I’m a chef, I’m a restaurateur, I’m a businessman, and I want to cook what I want to cook. I want to give the consumer something different that no one else is doing.

KG: A lot of people even ask: who does the charcuterie?

TR: It’s a two-headed chef thing. Who does what? Who’s got the responsibility, who’s the head chef?

KG: It’s a conglomerate. It’s a meshing of it all, bouncing things off each other. There’s some nights we talk about a certain dish, we’ll get three dishes out of one all of a sudden, we’re just bouncing our ideas around. Yes, no, good, bad. I’ve seen this, I’ve done that. We want to learn and grow and push ourselves.

We’ve stuck our ground, where we want to go. And it’s been a long road. Has it met our expectations? I think so. I didn’t know what my expectations were opening a business, this is the first one. And like I said we’ve got problems.

TR: Every day. You expect that stuff but when it comes you’re like: fuck, why did that have to happen?

KG: You’ll have a great month--- and then your expenditures go up from problems of rising this and that. There’s always a balance between the world. It happens. But the restaurant has not met our aspirations, which is a good thing because we aspire to be way more, and we always will. We want to do other projects, we want to bring more to this city, we think we come from a good angle and we have fun doing it.

At the end of the day, do you think your restaurant represents authentic, modern Chicago?

KG: I think so. We want it to represent ourselves, and how we think of food, more than just being Chicago because we’re from here. It’s home, so I don’t think like that. This is how Chicago is? This is how we are. This is how I am. Come eat my food, and let me show you what I think of farmers and foods and how I want you guys to eat. That’s the Chicago way.

TR: It was only a matter of time before Chicago had our chef renaissance. The chef community here, to see all these other places lighting up, we’re rounding out Chicago as a culinary destination. With the James Beard awards, Chicago did an amazing job putting it all on the line. The conversations, the interactions with all these other chefs, it’s awesome. That’s the reward we get for what we’re doing.

Did you have that moment where you felt you were in control of your own destiny here at Tête?

TR: The first non-paycheck I had after I quit my job, I was like: fuck, this better work. [laughs] We were in too deep at that point.

KG: In control? I don’t know that I’m ever in control. [laughs] There was one day, after the restaurant was finished, a Sunday when no one was here. I walked in and did some work, had music on, and I just looked up at the rafters and was like: it’s ours. It was a nice notion.

TR: You know it’s funny, a couple weeks ago we were at an awards ceremony and Kevin Boehm got on stage and he said he cries at every new project he opens. That tells you what it’s all about, that’s the aspiration part of it. You sit inside these four walls, by yourself sometimes, and a tear might run down your face, you’re never fully in control of it.

KG: The emotion’s always going when we do something, I mean there’s a lot--- you can’t control everything, as much as you want to. It’s just emotions.

TR: We’re humbled, we appreciate everyone that’s helped us along the way, and we have a lot more to do. A lot more people to satisfy.

KG: I think that’s what’s exciting too, it never stops. I can’t just build something and say the project’s done.

TR: You have to keep the cadence, as my uncle told me. A nice, sweet message when we got that Tribune award: keep the cadence. Just cause you got it doesn’t mean shit. You gotta keep it going.

KG: Never give up, and just when you think you’re there, there’s a whole other hill to climb. You can’t ever rest on your laurels. I think that’s part of what’s exciting about it, what drives us. It’s that you can’t rest on that. Who’s your competition? No one and everybody.

TR: You have to keep yourself fresh, inventive, creative, hospitable.

KG: Do your part, keep your head down, do your vision, stick to it. You do that, and people notice it. I think they are.

Tête Charcuterie