Rachel Dow

The Betty

06/05/2015

Rachel Dow is the chef at The Betty in the West Loop.

Why did you choose to focus on small plates?

RACHEL DOW: I love sharing food. I’m trying to push that on people; that way you try three or four different things, not just one. It’s kind of a suburban notion to have single entrees. Or from an older generation. Sometimes it makes sense: you’ll have vegetarians, or people just want that one thing—I get it. But I’d like for people to push themselves and try something they’ve never had before.

I don’t think our menu is terribly esoteric, but we had some ladies that came in last night and they were like, “Everything on your menu is too foreign. We’re just gonna get the cheese plate.” I understand there’s a level of comfortability so I try to divide it, where there’s some things that are unfamiliar and some that people are a little more comfortable trying.

How do you keep the small plates from feeling like side dishes?

I look at the menu as a whole, how each dish balances each other. I balance the texture and the acid for each plate so it can stand alone, too. That way if they just order one thing, it doesn’t feel like a side dish. I don’t like side dishes for that reason. I want it to be a complete thought. I don’t want it to just be broccoli with butter.

I think that came from a steakhouse mentality, from à la carte. You ordered your protein and then you picked whatever side dishes you wanted. When you think about growing up as a kid, and how your parents made food, it functioned in that way also. You had chicken parmesan, but then you also had broccoli and salad. It’s just a mindset that people grew up with and are familiar with. We’re gonna break it!

How would you describe the style of food you make here?

It’s not cuisine driven and it’s not concept driven. People always ask: “What kind of food is it?” It’s a tough question to answer. It’s my food. The sum of my experiences in restaurants growing up. The first menu I put out, I said it was selfishly everything I would wanna eat if I had my druthers. We have to define ourselves in some way. Is it New American? What does that mean? If you say that to someone, it honestly doesn’t mean anything.

I jokingly have called it “Modern Grandma”. They are familiar flavors, but there might be ingredients that people aren’t familiar with. I feel like the flavor palate is definitely very approachable even though some of the ingredients might be a little challenging. But it’s nothing way over the top and crazy. I don’t wanna say comfort food, cause comfort food evokes heaviness and richness. I try to keep it balanced and have a fair amount of vegetarian dishes. A complete thought as a vegetable dish, not like a side dish.

They told me I could do whatever I wanted. No one’s ever said that to me before! That’s why it’s a broad palate. It’s Rachel’s food, so “Modern Grandma” it is. I always say: just imagine if you had a well-traveled grandmother who loves entertaining. That’s the gist that I’d like to give to people.

How do you approach your dessert menu?

The desert program isn’t bananas here. I do the desserts, but I have a pastry team here which produces them for me, because I don’t have enough time. I love pie. There’s always a rotating pie of sorts on the menu, and it’s a smaller, tart-type situation. I’ve found that if you try to cook a whole pie, the crust gets floppy and it’s not as good. I’m not a huge sweet tooth person at all. I’m more for the cheese, if we’re gonna talk about that. I like smaller bites. The pineapple upside down cake is pretty small.

What’s in it?

It’s pretty much a traditional pineapple upside down cake. No leavening, it’s just milk, butter, brown sugar, Amerena cherry. There’s fresh pineapple on the bottom, then a brown sugar syrup. You put the batter on top and bake it, so it’s really moist. And it has an Amerena cherry whipped cream.

I’ve paired it down to a hazelnut caramel, they’re chocolate covered—and then house-made peppermint patties, if you want a little bite. Sometimes we have friends and family or industry people, and it’s an easy “Hey I know you just stuffed your face, but here’s a little sweet something to end your meal with.”

How is this different than other projects that you’ve worked on?

Probably the fact that it is a tandem bar and restaurant. We have a strong bar program and a full menu. I feel like when people come in here they expect snacky, they expect bar food. My policy is no sandwiches, no French fries. Anything outside of that is fair game. Some of the newer items I’m putting out I am trying to do a little more snacky.

We’re doing a foie torchon and a potted cheese, basically a cheese ball in a little coupe glass. I didn’t want to do the jars, I feel like those are kinda passé. It’s charred green garlic, cream cheese, chives, like Boursin almost. So I’m going to make crackers and wheat thins and radishes and carrots. It’s a want that I see. We sell so many cheese plates, it’s ridiculous. I think it’s because it’s easy to eat and you can pick at it. You don’t need a knife and a fork or a plate.

How often do you add new menu items and how do you come up with them?

I’m always working on something. Whether I have time to focus on it is usually the biggest stumbling block. I’m thinking about changing and adding five or six dishes right now. It depends how things sell and what’s available. We rotate seasonally. We’ve had the spiced cauliflower on the menu this whole time, we had a pomegranate sofrito, but now those are out of season, so it’s pineapple. It’s organically evolving, but definitely focused on seasonal changes.

I usually start talking to my vendors about ideas I have floating around. If I’m gonna put octopus on the menu, is that available? What are the sizes? What are the prices? One book that I really love to use a lot is called the Flavor Bible. It’s listed by item—for example, “Oysters”,—and it’ll mention additional flavor pairings by cuisine and give you ideas you hadn’t thought of. Like, I’m gonna do this crumble and I could do saffron and paprika and maybe that would make sense.

It helps with brainstorming, thinking about all the textures and flavors. You just have to sit on it for a while. You can’t think, “Alright, this is my first idea, and this is the best.” Because then you start making it and you’re like, “Ehhh, this doesn’t look very nice on the plate.” You problem solve as you go.

How do you determine what dishes stay on the menu?

Pretty much what sells. I love the clam dish, but I think it’s a harder sell. It’s brothy. Clams feel unfamiliar as a main item. So I’m gonna change it a little: add some mussels and other fish to make it more like a cioppino, which is a San Francisco fish stew. I’m gonna put ‘Nduja, which is a spreadable salami, on the toast to dip in there.

Seafood has been a little bit of a struggle here. I love seafood, and I feel like in the summer months it’s a little more attractive because it’s lighter. I had a redfish dish here when we first opened, and redfish is...you don’t see it very often. It’s a farm fish from southern Texas. But it’s very lean, it tastes very chicken-like. We had the skin crispy, trying to turn people onto it. But it wasn't working very well, and now I have skate wing, which I also love because it’s nice and mild.

I think we have a challenge here because we’ve been trying to define what we are to the public. We are a bar and we are a restaurant. People seem to want it to be one or the other. I feel like if you're going to Publican or other places that are chef-driven specifically, people are a little more inclined to try things they are unfamiliar with because they’re expecting to find that kind of gourmet experience, whereas I’m trying to expose and use things that I really like, for people to try. But we’ll make it happen, I’m feeling good about it.

What’s your culinary training background?

I went to Kendall College. I was originally a graphic designer before that; I was a career-changer. Everyone hates that term in the culinary world. It’s a weird thing that happened with all the Food Network things. People in culinary school blew up; it’s the new art school. “You don’t want to go to a traditional college? Go to culinary school. You love food right?” But it’s a very hard industry. I don’t think people really realize that off the bat.

A lot of career-changers are in their late thirties and forties. I mean, it is a young men and women’s industry. You’re up on your feet for twelve hours a day. It’s hot. You’re carrying large, awkward, sharp, heavy things. It’s not for everybody. But I had worked in restaurants, I worked at a gourmet food store. I’d always loved cooking. I didn’t want to do office work. I talked to my mom and brother and they were like, “Why don’t you go to culinary school? It hadn’t even really crossed my mind. I thought maybe I should listen to my mom for once. It actually worked out. And it just suits my personality. I like being on my feet. I like being active. I’ve always played sports. I liked doing art growing up, I liked working with my hands and doing fine detail work. And I have a sailor’s mouth.

Did you have an inclination that you wanted to do it? Or was that sort of your a-ha moment when someone suggested it?

It was an a-ha moment. I was thinking about taking the firefighter exam. I was like, “I could do that. I could carry somebody. That would be fun.” I was in that mid-twenties struggle. Even when I was going to college the first time, it was hard to know what you wanted to do. I stumbled into graphic design. It wasn’t even what I went to school for. I was doing art at a community college and my friends were in the graphic program and I met a guy who saw my sketchbook and offered me a job. I didn’t have a degree. I started doing storyboarding and I enjoyed it, but I never felt as if I was as creative and as driven as my peers as far as doing artwork and being passionate about the industry.

So I was talking to people about it, and they mentioned getting back into food. I’ve always entertained and loved to cook. That definitely changes after you start working in the industry. I still like entertaining but it doesn’t really happen as much, sadly. It’s what I do for my job, so when I’m at home it’s not really what I do with my friends. But whenever we get to have those times, it’s amazing. BBQs in the summertime. Spending time outside.

Are you still making any art?

Here and there. Usually for someone’s birthday, where I’m like, “Oh, I should make a thing.” Occasionally, I have ideas and want to, but honestly there’s just not enough time. Last night I got home at 12:30pm and had to get up at 8:30am today, and I have a dog. It’s hard being a single dog mom. You know, taking her out and making sure she’s not bored to tears, then getting all my stuff together, coming here and trying to change a menu. Then dishwashers aren’t showing up—yeah, lots of plates spinning.

Any misconceptions about working in this industry?

That it’s constantly creative. It’s pretty much drudgery for many years of your life. A lot of repetitive taskwork, and learning and mastering knife work. A lot of not glamorous practice. Peeling garlic. You’re mopping, you’re sweeping. You’re cleaning. It’s greasy. Another misconception is when you date someone they're like, “Oh my God, you’re gonna cook for me all the time.” Nope. You can come into my restaurant and I’ll cook for you. It’s not a thing that’s gonna happen very often.

And pay rate. Man, it’s been a struggle. Especially for back-of-house. Something’s gotta give eventually. I don’t know the answer. It’s bare minimums of money. And honestly, when I got out of culinary school the amount of money they wanted back—I just heard about the loan forgiveness and I said, “What? Why haven’t I heard about this yet?” The amount that they’re wanting you to pay, and the amount you’re making—it takes a long time.

Kids are in a big rush, I get it; but that’s part of the industry that they really need to know about ahead of time and prepare for. We have kids coming in and think that they should be making more. I remember I had a pastry guy come in and we offered him a position and he’s like, “That’s really not enough for me to live on.” He was asking for $20 an hour which is well above anything that any standalone restaurant would pay. Hotels pay more because they have deeper pockets and they’re not making money on the restaurant, so they have a little more leeway there.

I’m still learning. And I’ve been cooking for nine years now. Kids wanna just rush in there so they can make money and be a sous chef. They want the title, they want the money. You gotta hunker down and get rid of the attitude and start workin’. That’s what needs to happen.

On the flipside, what are your favorite parts of your day?

I like variety. I mean, variety is the spice of life. Sometimes I’m working the line. Sometimes I have to do paperwork, which isn’t that exciting. Events are really fun. You get to hang out with your industry peers and show off a bit. Get a little press. They’re not terribly difficult.

Having friends and family come in and being able to entertain how I’m not really able to anymore. Making them feel special with some champagne and seeing them enjoy themselves. Show off the space and what we’re doing. We’re really proud of it, and it’s exciting to have people in—we love all of our customers to come in and enjoy themselves, but especially industry and friends and family.

What do you do when you’re not here?

Sleep. Sleep a lot. Catch up with friends because I’m here a lot. Sleeping, catching up, doing laundry. Trying to get out on the bike when it’s nice out. Just started getting nice so I’ll be doing more of that to work off the winter GrubHub. Hanging out with my dog. Attempting to clean. Which sometimes happens.

Are you from Chicago?

I’m from Kansas City originally. I've been here for about twelve years. I’ve paid enough parking tickets to be a Chicagoan by now.

When you do get the chance to cook at home, what sort of things do you like to make?

Egg tacos are my jam. Over-easy or scrambled eggs with cheese and salsa. Pretty simple. I eat a lot of vegetarian stuff at home, because it’s low calorie. I don’t eat very well here. It’s quick, it’s healthy, it’s usually in the freezer. I can just heat it up. It’s not that exciting I know.

The Betty