As a 13-year-old growing up in Beirut, Lebanon, Mike Chalhoub couldn’t wait until his school day was done.
Unlike most of his friends, he had more to look forward to than playing ball or riding a bike after classes.
He was going to his job as a busboy at The Summertimes restaurant, where he would soon be immersed in the aromas of cumin and coriander and freshly chopped cilantro, onions and garlic, while the chefs sliced, sautéed and shouted orders to each other for chicken shata or the lamb and chicken shawarmas, for which the restaurant was known.
“My boss saw my passion for food and hard work,” Chalhoub says, “and soon promoted me to cooking.”
By age 18, Chalhoub was running the snack bar, night club and main restaurant of a nearby hotel. At 23, he opened a restaurant on the Ivory Coast.
“Soldiers came and took it over,” Chalhoub said.
He moved to the United States and worked in several Mediterranean eateries until starting the Troy location of Grape
Leaves in 2004.
“It was challenging,” Chalhoub says. “I wanted everything to be perfect: fresh, delicious, healthy and, especially, consistent. And, you know what? Everything, thirteen years later, is still the same consistent quality.
And,” he says, “I guarantee that what you enjoy here today will taste the same when you order ten years from now!”
Each morning, Chalhoub and his brother and general manager, Brian, shop for fresh vegetables and meat and deliver them to the three Grape Leaves locations (Troy, Oak Park, Southfield). The chicken will be marinated; the lamb, roasted; the vegetables, washed and sliced: all readied for the stews, salads, sautees and specialty dishes that will be made-to-order for dine-in or carry-out lunches and dinners, as well as catered events.
“I wish I had photos of one wedding we catered,” Chalhoub says, “with a whole, baked lamb. It was fantastic. Everyone loved it!”
Diners eat there often and are treated like family. “Hello, Squash Guys!” Brian says, greeting longtime customers, Dodie and Warren, as they enter. They hug Brian warmly.
“We started coming here eight years ago,” Dodie says. “Currently, we’ve had to omit dairy, sugar and meat. Here, we can always have the most healthy and delicious meals.” Warren laughs.
“That’s why you get to know the boss! Look! They made me these fresh-cooked cottage fries to go with my cousa (stuffed squash),” Warren says.
“My crew is the best,” Chalhoub says. “Though some of the wait staff leave for other careers after college, 90 per cent of my cooks have been with me for many years.”
And, though Chalhoub now leaves most of the cooking to his staff, today he motions, “Come! I want you to see the creation of my favorite dish: chicken ghallaba!”
He washes his hands and dons gloves, apron, chef hat. With a 10-inch, razor-honed knife, he slices onions, peppers, carrot – even mushrooms – with lightning quickness and tosses them into a sizzling pan. The vegetables are cheerfully thrown in air and then land amid marinated chicken breast he’s added.
“Now,” he says, spooning a red powder over the skillet, “here is for the special taste: my own spice blend!”
Holding the plate of golden chicken with its mound of brilliant vegetables and rice, Chalhoub smiles and says, “If you want to stay healthy and eat delicious food, come to Grape Leaves. A visit a day keeps the doctor away!”
Rose Morenz probably didn’t consider herself a trend-setter in 1989 when she made potato pancakes for her 6-year-old grandson Victor.
The recipe was a natural for woman of Hungarian descent. But while potato pancakes may not be as American as apple pie today, they aren’t necessarily thought of as ethnic dish either.
“There was something about them,” Victor Morenz said. “She diced all of the potatoes by hand. She had very finely diced onions. Simple seasoning. They were the best potato pancakes I’ve ever had.”
While not originating in the United States, many recipes have been so altered from what they were originally that it is often hard to think of them as ethnic.
“We’ve all grown up eating all kind of ethnic food, which basically has become American food,” Morenz said. “Tacos at this point are essentially an American food. There are probably as many taco places in America as there are in Mexico.”
Morenz, now 31 years old, and his wife, Emily Gilbert, also 31, have purchased a restaurant in Chicago that has established a reputation for what is called New American fare.
Home Bistro restaurant owners Victor Morenz and Emily Gilbert near Lake Michigan in Chicago
Home Bistro, or HB as it is more popularly known, became a destination spot when it was owned by the Hearty Boys, Chicago caterers Dan Smith and Steve McDonagh. They at one time hosted a Food Network show. They called their restaurant in the Boystown section of Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood HB, a Hearty Boys Spot.
Their executive chef, Joncarl Lachman, took a New American approach but with a Dutch emphasis. He purchased the restaurant himself in 2007. Lachman owned two restaurants when he helped judge the 2010 San Pellegrino Almost Famous Chef Competition, a contest featuring 16 chefs from eight participating culinary schools, including Le Cordon Bleu School of Culinary Arts, from which Morenz graduated.
Morenz prepared a pork tenderloin roulade stuffed with cranberries, candied walnuts and sage, served with fried mashed potato pancakes and trotter and cranberry demi glace for the competition. His dish also featured frizzled parsnips and braised red cabbage. Morenz’s entry finished second in the competition.
Lachman recruited Morenz to serve as a line cook at another restaurant he owned, Vincent, in Chicago’s Andersonville neighborhood. Shortly after, in January 2011, Lachman named Morenz sous (second) chef at Home Bistro, and Morenz became HB’s executive chef in January 2013.
Morenz explained how his New American approach applies to a white anchovy pinxto appetizer on Home Bistro’s menu. It includes a French canapé, with pickled peppers as a Spanish item. The anchovy is skewered with a cucumber base and piece of fried hallumi cheese, which is Middle Eastern.
Executive Chef Victor Morenz with White Anchovy Pinxto appetizer
What’s American about it? “The fact that I’m American,” Morenz said. “I’m not using any ethnic preparation of anything. I’m doing it my way, which is with French technique.” For instance, in the white anchovy pinxto, “I take a pinxto from the Basque region in Spain, but put Turkish cheese on it along with the traditional ingredients of white anchovy, pickled peppers, and tomato viaigrette on a baguette slice.”
“It’s a melting pot of cuisine with familiar foods,” Emily Gilbert said of HB ‘s menu. They wouldn’t be mixed together in an ethnic approach. Wikipedia defines New American cuisine as a trend originating in the United States in the 1980s.
“New American cuisine is generally a type of fusion cuisine that assimilates flavors from the melting pot traditional American cooking techniques mixed with foreign … components,” Wikipedia said.
“New American cuisine makes innovative use of seasoning and sauces. Originally based on French Nouvelle and United States cuisine, New American has since progressed to include elements of Asian, Latin American, Mediterranean and other cuisines.”
Morenz and Gilbert plan basic aesthetic changes in the building, which features classic Chicago architecture. The structure has been owned by the Weinberger family — now David Weinberger — since the 1920s. It has about 1,800 square feet, including the kitchen, and a seating capacity of 40.
There are no expansion options at HB and restaurants in Chicago can’t have liquor licenses unless they have more than one restroom. With one restroom they can opt for a bring-your-own-bottle approach and charge a corkage fee. Home Bistro has no such fee, which makes BYOB a popular option exercised by virtually all of its customers.
Executive Chef Victor Morenz, left, and Sous Chef Corey Bowers
Morenz and Gilbert, who is a program assistant in gender and sexuality studies at Northwestern University, describe HB’s atmosphere as rustic, cozy, intimate, romantic and candle-lit. Morenz said HB, which has a 4.4 rating from Yelp, is a neighborhood restaurant with a lot of destination diners.
Morenz said he started cooking for fun in high school. He sought to master chicken marsala, preparing it for his family. He said running a restaurant in Chicago is a tough business., involving long hours and a lot of hard work. “But it’s easily the most satisfying work I’ve ever had,” Morenz said. “There is instant gratification every day because you get to see people really appreciating what you spent all day working on.”
HB’s staff includes Corey Bowers as sous (second) chef, who attended culinary school with Morenz, and David Devore as front-of-the-house manager, who has worked at HB since it was affiliated with the Hearty Boys. An artist who also was with the Hearty Boys, Matthew Lew, is creating some pieces for the restaurant that feature Morenz and Gilbert’s dog, Elvis.
Front-of-the-House Manager David Devore, left, and Executive Chef Victor Morenz
Home Bistro is open from 5:30 to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, from 5 to 10:30 Friday through Saturday, for brunch from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday, and dinner Sunday from 5 to 9 o’clock.
The restaurant is available to be rented out for private events on Mondays. Groups also can rent out the dining room, with a family-style option offered for $40 (plus tax and tip) for a four-course meal.
The restaurant is located at 3404 N. Halsted St., about a mile from Wrigley Field. The phone number is (773) 661-0299.