Dennis Stover

Villains Chicago


Dennis Stover is the chef of Villains Chicago in the South Loop.

Villains recently reopened after a “reboot.” How did you get involved?

I had nothing to do with the old location. It was about a great beer selection and bar food. The owners had a good brand going but they wanted to jump start it, or take it to another level, so they sought out a new location and wanted to bring in a chef. There’s no kind of, for lack of a better term, “chef-driven” or proper restaurant in this area. There’s five places where you can get wings and bar food. That’s great, I get it, but I think the neighborhood should have some other variety.

It was January of last year and I was in-between jobs so I had a lot of feelers out there. I was at my father’s house on a Friday night. He lives an hour from here, past Joliet in Channahon, way out there. I was taking a break from the city, because working in this industry it’s hard to find time see him. I get a text message from the general manager, Marco Silva, at 12:30 at night, it was short and sweet. And I thought, if this guy’s sending me a text that late either he’s crazy or it’s a serious, legit thing. Who’s gonna send somebody a message like that to a complete stranger?

I got excited and amped up. We talked on the phone the next day, we set up an interview and did a tasting a week later.

How did you prepare for the tasting?

I didn’t have a place to do the tasting, but my friend Nathan Sears had just opened up The Radler in November. Him and me, we go way back, we were line cooks together at Vie, he’s a homie. I called him up and said, “I’m trying to get this job, I want to do this tasting really bad, can I do it at your place?” So I did it there, it went off without a hitch, and I’d like to think that had something to do with it. I’m forever grateful to him for allowing me the use of his space.

I want to say it was eight or ten dishes. I did a chicken, a burger, octopus, pork belly, a couple veg dishes. I went shopping, started prepping the whole day afterwards in my studio. The next day I secured Nathan’s kitchen at The Radler and finished it up there. I’ve done a couple tastings out of my little studio. It’s kinda fun, but it’s different. I’ve got some good gear for the house but you don’t get all the bells and whistles you do in a professional kitchen.

I cut my teeth cooking with chefs like Paul Virant and Paul Kahan. They’re probably the closest guys in this town to doing it all locally-sourced, done right. So I’ve got some ideas, and so do the owners: “Hey nobody’s doing this, so can you do it? What about burgers? We want a burger.” When we talked in the very first interview, they said, “Maybe five burgers. How many were you thinking?” And I said, “One? Let’s make one bad-ass burger.” Because at the end of the day it’s still gonna be beef, you’re just doing different things on top. So why not make one that’s really delicious?

None of this food is unapproachable. But in some of the Yelp reviews when we first opened, people said things like “It’s so obscure” and I wondered… Okay, I had a chicken gizzard dish and I was using piloncillo, which is nothing more than a refined cane sugar from Mexico that tastes like molasses. A little more going on than brown sugar. So why don’t you engage the server and say, “Oh, what’s this?” We’ll tell you, it’s great.

Do you think part of the issue was that people had expectations based on the earlier version of Villains?

Well, I think for all the original cats that went over there… they came back with the impression that there’s still gonna be wings and quesadillas and eighty-two types of burgers--- and sorry, I let them down. But we wanted something chef-driven. This neighborhood needs a restaurant with a Randolph Street vibe, so the people who are moving here don’t have to leave the neighborhood. They’re building two more buildings down the street, and they just finished this one.

So it’s coming, and we want to be... not a pioneer in the neighborhood, but the first of this kind of restaurant.

Practically speaking, how do you build the menu?

By keeping up with what’s happening. Obviously, I like certain ingredients more than others, and I’m constantly talking to farmers: what do you have down the road? When is this gonna start popping? We had this trout dish that I was a fan of, with Romanesco. That was a short window, I already had to tweak it after two weeks, it’s cod now. The Romanesco was from Nichols Farm, and it was so delicious and wonderful I was grateful to have it for the short weeks I had it.

I like that challenge, I think that’s the way food should be. I’ll probably say it a hundred times but there’s a proper way to do things, and I try to stick to that ethos. As long as you still make the guest happy. And it can be done. A lot of people think, “Ugh, it’s locally-produced so it’s too expensive.” No, it’s not. You have to source properly, do a little homework and make phone calls. It helps to have a great relationship with these guys.

Farms come up, they may have something one day, but when you go to order it for two days later they say, “I’m sorry...” That’s fun, that’s what you’re given and it changes. Did we want this much rain in June? No. But it happened, you know?

You mentioned locally-sourced ingredients, and doing things right. Can you elaborate on that?

Man, I love my farmers. I’ve been dealing with them going on ten, twelve years now. From where I started, bustin’ my cherry as a line cook, until now, I developed those relationships. Especially LouisJohn from Slagel Farm, he and I are tight and I’ve tried to bring him anywhere I’ve been. Another one that popped up: a good friend of mine, Todd Moore, he started Jefferson Twp. He’s getting some beautiful animals so I’d like to eventually start using some of his product.

I don’t see why there can’t eventually be a place in Chicago where 99.9% of the food is sourced from this area. Like seafood: if it’s not from here it doesn’t go on the menu. Citrus: there’s no citrus grown in the Midwest, but there are other ways around it, you can use lemon balm and bergamot that grow here. In a dream world I hope that can happen for me someday. People take a cop out: “Oh, it’s wintertime in the Midwest.” Isn’t that the challenge of being a chef? Yeah, you might only have root vegetables and things like that to work with, but make it happen.

It can happen, you can get sugar from Michigan, beet sugar, so there’s ways around--- the only thing you might have to allow yourself is salt, and maybe olive oil. But if that’s the case I would bring that in from California. Other than that, if it’s not… give yourself a 500-mile radius, and if it’s not coming from here it doesn’t make it on the menu. I think it would be a neat challenge from a chef’s point of view, I think it would be great for the cooks involved, and even better for the guest.

In this day and age, with sustainability and all those neat buzzwords, leaving less of a carbon footprint…. A lot of people do this, but some people don’t hold true. You can’t bullshit. Organic is a silly buzzword to get you to buy more products. Some of these farms, they’re not USDA certified organic but they’re still doing it the proper, respectful, and right way. They don’t use sprays and pesticides, they practice proper farming the way it’s been done for... a long time. [laughs]

It’s funny, because people say farm-to-table, but doesn’t every single piece of food come from a farm? I get what it means, but at the same time Monsanto has farms.

How do you balance your desires as a chef with the wants of the clientele?

I have a policy about this. We do a burger that doesn’t have tomato on it. But when tomatoes start popping here, and if we get some nice ones kicking around for a couple weeks, when somebody wants a tomato with their burger I will allow that. I will not put it on the burger, I’ll put it on the side of the plate and they can doctor it up however they want.

That’s not me being pretentious or a jerk. There’s not a piece of lettuce on there but if you want a piece of lettuce I’ll put it on the plate. I don’t want to though… this isn’t Fuddruckers, build-your-own-burger. You can take things away, if you don’t like beef fat mayo or bread-and-butter pickles you can obviously not have them on your burger, but you’re not going to add and build your own.

I have a seventeen-year old son and he’s working for me over the summer, he’s back there bustin’ suds. He’s the best date in the world because he’ll eat, or at least try, everything. I understand you may have a restriction or allergy but otherwise try it. You don’t have to like it, but I think you’re an adult and you at least owe it to yourself to try it.

I know the guests should… they deserve what they want because without the guest we obviously can’t open the doors. And I will do everything to accommodate the guest, but at the same time I wish they would trust who’s in the kitchen a little bit more. And trust the producers, what Mother Nature is giving you at that time. Be patient and wait for tomatoes to come around.

Why do you think people are hesitant to try the more adventurous items on your menu?

I blame some things on what happened after World War II, making everything convenient and easy, and it’s sad. You go back pre-WWII and you had no problem getting tongue or sweetbreads at the butcher, and now people think chicken in this country is only breast meat, white meat. It’s a damn shame.

And then you wonder why there’s obesity and diabetes. People forgot how to can and preserve, it goes on to so many things and you’re not gonna sit there and blame the big corporations but it’s just--- it’s sad that we’ve gotten away from it because now we’re trying to get back to the way people should eat. We’re getting there, but it’s taken a minute because Americans had to learn how to eat.

When we first opened up, I was doing a duo of beef if you will, it was Slagel Farm dry-aged sirloin and smoked beef tongue. I loved it. Beef tongue--- it’s a muscle, it’s no different than beef chuck. Just because it’s tongue doesn’t mean it’s taboo or gross. It’s one of those things. And we’re getting there. We’ve got Longman & Eagle, The Publican, those places that can push the envelope, Gabriel Rucker in Portland is able to do some really dope shit, getting better and better.

Villains has an extensive beer program. How does that relate to your work in the kitchen?

It’s funny how things can go full circle and you don’t even see it. Being an opening member of The Publican back in 2008, doing a beer-focused restaurant--- if you’ve ever been it’s like a European beer hall. “Hey, there’s not just Miller Lite and High Life.” Places like that, and Hopleaf, and the American craft beer scene starting up…

But this is a whole other level. There are a lot of places that have great beer programs, but take for example our draft system: there’s only five or six places in the country that have the dual cooler system we have here. That’s pretty badass, to get the beer poured properly. All those little nuances, it’s just like wine. And now beer’s even getting to that with Cicerone training and all that. Bigger beers with higher alcohol that need to be poured at different temperatures.

People are losing their minds for it, they go nuts, so one of the people we wanted to touch were beer geeks, beer aficionados. And we are, again we’re providing stuff that you can’t get anywhere in the city. When we opened up we had forty Mikkellers--- nobody had that in the world! That’s pretty rad. Some people were lost, but hey you gotta weed them out, you can’t please everybody as much as you want to. The beers are constantly coming and going, like the food. I think that’s wonderful. This brewer, he may only produce so many barrels--- here’s five of them, I only made ten. And when it’s gone it’s gone. That’s the neatness of it.

What other restaurant experience do you have? How did you choose cooking as a career?

I was executive chef at HotChocolate--- the savory side obviously, Mindy Segal is doing her wonderful pastries and killin’ it. I was executive sous chef at Longman & Eagle and sous chef at Big Star for two years. I worked at Vie as a line cook, I was opening crew at The Publican as a line cook. I’ve been a private chef, and a couple other little odds and ends.

I did a career change late in the game. I was in the military right out of high school, from 1993 to ‘95, and so I took advantage of the Illinois Veteran Grant. If you enlist for a year of active duty the state will pay what is the equivalent of four years of education as long as it’s a state-funded school. The only thing I had to pay for is books.

We had a family trucking business for a long time, my dad started it in the ‘80s and I was working with him and starting to run it. My dad is not in the best of health, and right around 2001 he needed a kidney transplant--- and that’s when everything started to tank in the economy. Fuel costs started going through the roof, and so my dad said he wanted to merge with another carrier. If it’s your nuts on the table you may not like the job but you’re gonna do it, especially with family business, but I told him, “Dad, if it’s not ours I don’t know if it’s… I don’t want to do it.”

I said, “I should really think about going back to school.” I was twenty-eight at the time and I had this scholarship. I started researching, I was either going to be a history teacher or a chef, so I went to the College of DuPage… and here I am.

What makes this job so rewarding to you?

Last week was the Green City Market barbecue and we did a dish with grilled chicken hearts, a riff on a chicken salad. In chicken salad you usually have a nut, and celery, so it was grilled chicken hearts with Tropea onions, celery, lovage, currants, a little bit of aioli in there, and pistachios.

This guy comes up and he was so excited for chicken hearts, he was losing his shit. He’s eating them and loving life, loving this dish. And his girlfriend next to him, she’s vegetarian. For three years. She said, “Since you won’t stop talking about it, raving about how good it is, I’m gonna try it.” So I got a vegetarian chick of three years to eat chicken hearts.

That doesn’t mean she’s converted or anything, the point is she tried it--- and liked it! For me, that’s fucking awesome. That’s why you come back. I’m not trying to convert vegetarians or tell people how they should or should not eat, but just trust me.

Last question: what do you like to do outside of the kitchen?

Dennis points to the USC baseball cap the interviewer is wearing.

Don’t hate me, but we’re only forty-five days away from Notre Dame football. [laughs] I love all things Notre Dame.

Villains Chicago

Villains Chicago

730 South Clark Street
Chicago, Illinois 60605


Interviewed by Vincent Labriola

Photos by Vincent Labriola