I sat down with Chicago’s “Prince of Porc” and Food & Wine Best New Chef Jason Vincent to chat about the upcoming opening of his first restaurant, Giant, which should happen any day now. Formerly executive chef at Nightwood, Vincent took the last two years off to stay home and raise his two daughters, but now he is returning to the Chicago food scene with a 44-seat outpost in Logan Square. We already know what he totally hates (bad kimchi, Yelp), so I delved into what he does like: design, unusual ingredients and the state of restaurant culture. Predictably: Strong opinions (see video below) and oddly, no pork!
Oh, and he started by giving me a present — a little jar of…something!
Talk to me about the little condiment jar you just handed over. Is this a reflection of what Giant will be?
My partner and I just had a long talk about the use of dashi in something we had just eaten, and I think he got concerned that I wanted to open an Asian restaurant. But food is about the balance: sweet, salty, bitter, sour and umami. You have to find a way to get that one extra thing in there. Using unique ingredients that you wouldn’t normally associate with American cooking, like dashi, gives it an earthiness and unusual flavor profile that you want.
But yes, this condiment is totally shelf-stable, easy to make, crazy delicious and packed with flavor. So that’s the goal: Midwestern food with big flavor. We want the menu to read as “normal” as possible, even though we’re going to have a disclaimer statement at the bottom of the menu that reads “We put weird shit in the food — let us know if you have allergies.”
My understanding of your food style is very back-to-basics; stripping away the pretense and hoopla and focusing just on rich flavors with high-quality, simple service. Is this the vibe you’re aiming for with Giant?
Yeah, I mean I can eat the shit out of some chicken wings in public [laughs]. But you’re right. No offense to anyone at the table, the reporters, the PR agent and all that stuff, but…it’s too much. It’s gotten away from being about someone who cooks food to someone who serves food to someone who eats food. This is the basic chain of events, but now [dining out] has become this huge solar system where all kinds of things are moving around and suddenly having dinner at a restaurant is this huge other thing. The restaurant is supposed to be the sun: People come there, they are happy, then they leave. I know I’m being naïve about it, and there are people who are going to read this and say, ‘This guy has no fucking idea what he is talking about, he doesn’t even have one restaurant.’ And they’re right; I understand that there are necessary evils and things that will happen that I can’t foresee right now.
“The whole thing about being a chef and that once you put on a chef coat you have to be serious and you can’t make dick jokes…it gets really old really fast.”
Has taking two years off to raise your children changed the way you cook or your perspective on food?
I will admit I think I got a little bit rusty. I have to really concentrate when starting new projects, which forces me to drill down on details. It’s also been an interesting vantage point to see trends in the industry, like the popularity of ancient grains. It’s made me steer clear of doing things like that and made me really want to get back to like…pastas. Braises. Roasts. Grilled stuff. A plancha. It’s a very basic setup at Giant.
You just recited a handful of different cooking methods. Is the menu at Giant going to be technique-driven?
Absolutely. I mean, we aren’t going to have a slicer. If we’re going to slice something, we’re going to do it by hand as perfectly as possible. It’s the Persian rug argument, right? The last stitch is imperfect. It’s interesting — it’s proof that it’s actually made by a person, and it’s textural. Like if I get a few pieces of Serrano ham that are a little rough and aren’t quite perfect, that’s texture. That’s something else — it’s more salt, it’s less salt. I don’t see a problem with that.
The press release for Giant was very tongue-in-cheek. Can you speak about humor and how a sense of playfulness affects your approach?
I worked in kitchens for a long time before I went to culinary school, before I was a chef. I think I like being in a kitchen more than I like being a chef, you know. The whole thing about being a chef and that once you put on a chef coat you have to be serious and you can’t make dick jokes…it gets really old really fast. Don’t get me wrong, there is a time and place for putting a dick on something, but you can do so much more. You can write a menu description that reflects the weather outside that day. You can make each dish very, very personal for the moment. The next day, that same dish can be something completely different because it’s sunny outside, so you add tomato and green coriander seed, for example. But that has to be funneled through the writing of the menu. It’s not because I need control; it’s because the menu is really personal. And sometimes it’s funny, but sometimes it’s not. Maybe we have a fight in the kitchen earlier in the day about how a dish is communicated to the guests, and so that tension comes through in the menu, too.
Do you think that poses a scale issue, though? Can you achieve that kind of intimacy and tone in a restaurant that isn’t only 40 seats?
I don’t know. Maybe someday I will. I did my internship at Commander’s Palace, and we were doing crazy covers — Mother’s Day we did 1,400 people — and this is all handmade food. Their staff was huge, but ultimately in my opinion they got across what they wanted to get across, which was unabashed Southern hospitality. I do think it’s possible.
Design is a huge part of the restaurant experience and creating that tone, too, especially now. Guests want a whole experience, not just a great meal.
I was able to sit down with Rick Bayless, and this guy, he is the man. His advice to me was in hindsight. He’s been through this for 20 years now, and he was like, “Listen man, maybe half the people who come into your restaurant give a shit about what’s on the plate.” I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to be depressed or not [laughs]. Like, what does that mean? But coming from him, he’s such a nice guy and he’s so Zen about it, he was saying, “Just understand that going into it, and you’ll be way better off. Everyone else cares about the vibe and the room and the service. My point is, don’t think everything is about the food, because it’s not.” And this is coming from a guy who makes millions of dollars a year on his food! It really resonated with me. He is humble enough to know that the food isn’t enough.
What’s the interior vibe you’re going for at Giant?
We hired a local designer with a very subdued, hip vibe to her. Giant will be comfortable; it won’t be alarming or jarring. She does a very good job of pulling from many different eras seamlessly. There’s a lot of custom millwork and unique houndstooth fabrics. My point is, it won’t look dated in five years. That was my main concern: I don’t want the restaurant to need a face-lift in a few years. A friend of mine is making all the tables by hand and installing them. There’s going to be a little hook on the tables to hang the menu so you can keep ordering.
I appreciate that. There is a pressure in restaurants to order my meal as the chef has it structured. There’s almost too much structure.
Right, and this goes back to the conversation about restaurant experience. That is the chef’s experience; it’s not the guest’s experience. And the thing is, stuff like the [table] hook forces us to be incredibly efficient. We’re only going to have four cooks for a 44-seat restaurant. We need to be ready. If somebody is going to order something else, it can’t take 20 minutes. We have to figure that [flow] out.
Last question. It’s baseball season. What’s your game-day menu look like?
It goes like this: two hot dogs for my oldest daughter, two brats for me; then we go from Dippin’ Dots to peanuts to popcorn to whatever else she sees. She goes to baseball games for the food. I’m happy with two brats, peanuts and two beers.
We were doing menu testing during the last game, trying out a fried rabbit dish that will be on the menu. But I’d rather just be sitting on the couch with a pizza, not cooking anything, enjoying the game.
Giant is slated to open this May at 3209 W. Armitage in Chicago. Check out the restaurant’s Instagram in the meantime (and for updates).