Chuy Valencia Talks About Measuring Up to Achatz and Bayless

Chicago has long been known as one of the country’s top dining destinations, but recently it’s earned a few more bragging rights with a Top Chef Master and Michelin three-star chef on our culinary roster.

But how does city’s obsession with celebrity chefs impact the up-and-coming talent? To find out, we checked in with Chuy Valencia, the chef and owner of Lakeview’s Chilam Balam.

In a city known for a few larger than life chefs – Rick Bayless and Grant Achatz - who have cultivated followings based on their reputation alone, how does it affect new chefs? Does it create healthy competition or foster intimidation?

I would say healthy competition – all those guys started off with a first restaurant venture and becoming head chef for the first time. The people with money who invest in bigger projects look for people who can turn around their investment quickly based on their name or media recognition – those are the major factors. Look at Stephanie Izard (Girl and the Goat chef and winner of Top Chef, Season 4). Before Top Chef she was well-known enough among the foodies, but now she’s a household name. Same thing with Rick – he’s been working 20+ years at Frontera and Topolombampo and then started building more concepts and doing a TV show.  It worked out perfectly. Those guys have gotten to where they are because they’re really good. There’s no question why Rick is so popular.

What have you learned from watching these chefs build their brands?

A lot really. Something that stands out for me is that you need to have a gimmick. Something that’s your signature. Rick is pushing the envelope on what people consider Mexican food in a mainstream sense. For Grant, Alinea was playing with the senses. His new concept (Next) is actually going back in time. His thing is mind play. They all have their unique thing. Stephanie does a great job on flavor combos – mastering Chicago gastro pub small plate cuisine.

Is there anything you’d do differently if you were starting over?

What I would do differently is use the power of social media. I’m just starting to push with it and taking baby steps. It does impact your business, more than people realize. Twitter does work.

Do you think Grant Achatz is transforming the industry and what would you want to attempt or incorporate based on his approach?

I think he definitely is. For example, the pricing and ticketing concept of Next is a new idea. It works just like selling a sporting event ticket, making it possible to get cheap yet extremely good food to the masses. You get the money upfront, staff accordingly and can figure out your costs way in advance. I’m becoming a fan of prix fixe in general because it creates less waste.  It’s really genius and makes sense since it works well for both sides. The restaurant wins because they already charged their fee and diners can sell off their tickets if unable to attend. They can be more conservative with labor, product and with scheduling in general.

Will you do anything differently moving forward based on watching the moves - and success - of these chefs?

Definitely. It’s really hard to innovate so much in restaurants now. In Chicago specifically, there’s so many kinds of restaurants and fusions and if it’s not cupcakes, its donuts or burgers or tacos. There’s  always something new and trendy. Someone starts it and then everyone else catches on and does the same thing. If everyone does tickets or does donuts like Gilt just started doing – people hop on a bandwagon, although they’re good concepts.

Are there mistakes you’ve noticed in the restaurant industry? Missteps that people can avoid when they get started?

Personally I’m not a fan of humongous restaurants. Sometimes they do well with volume, but I’m a fan of intimate small places. The country likes big, imperial images, but I think Chicago has a lot of cool, smaller high-end places. I think Next isn’t too big either. I remember reading only tables of four and one table of six for the chef’s table.

Overdoing with anything is bad. A while ago there was the baking craze – it was too much. You’ve got to chill out a little bit. Some things get overdone – bacon, pork belly, foie gras…even a concept. I’m getting a little tired of all these taco focused places. A lot are good, but onto the next thing. It’s cool, but been done.

Rachel Gillman has an insatiable appetite and an obsession with entertainment which pours out on the pages of CheekyChicago.

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