A year ago Chris Nugent was hidden in plain sight as the chef of the acclaimed, but forbiddingly French restaurant Les Nomades, a legendary name more admired than actually visited by Chicago’s fooderati. A couple of weeks ago, a steady drumbeat of positive reviews for his intimate new Lincoln Square restaurant Goosefoot climaxed with Goosefoot beating out Next and 18 other spots for the top position on Chicago magazine’s list of the 20 best new restaurants in town. Chicago’s judgements aren’t necessarily picked up on by other publications— who remembers that Bistronomic topped the list over Girl & the Goat and Ruxbin last year?— but in this case the Cinderella story of Chris Nugent’s little BYO triumphing over the world-famous Next has undoubtedly given Goosefoot a big boost among 2011-12’s diverse crowd of hot openings. And in an age of big, glitzy joints, a cozily romantic 34-seat neighborhood spot like this, with the chef’s Brazilian-born wife Nina (a former hotel finance director) warmly working the front of the house, has an almost nostalgic charm, reminding you of iconic neighborhood spots that helped establish our modern cuisine scene in the 80s and 90s like Erwin, Cafe Provençal or Jimmy’s Place.
So who is Chris Nugent and why are we just now discovering him? We popped by Goosefoot one morning to ask him these questions. He is, first, a modern chef with a strong French influence, the result of seven years helming Les Nomades in the footsteps of its imperious founder, Jovan Trboyevic, and the former husband and wife team Roland and Mary Beth Liccioni. Mary Beth hired Nugent some months after she and Roland divorced and he went off to other projects (Le Lan, Old Town Brasserie, etc.), and now that Nugent has moved on (to be replaced by Roland again), she’s as full of praise for him as he is with admiration for her.
But Nugent also worked at two of Chicago’s most influential American restaurants in the past couple of decades— MK and, going further back, Prairie, which introduced the concept of farm to table to Chicago diners in the late 80s and early 90s. He talks about all these influences— and the excitement of his unexpected honor— in the interview below.
So, you’re the best new restaurant in Chicago, according to Chicago magazine. Was that a surprise?
Definitely a surprise! The team was very excited. All the chefs on that list are just outstanding, we were just happy to be included in the list.
Did they come in and shoot photos? Did you know when they were dining here?
I had no idea— I was busy in the kitchen, I wouldn’t spot anybody. They did photos early on, for the hot list and things like that. I thought maybe they were reviewing us for the back of the magazine.
Has the phone been ringing since the issue came out?
The phone’s been ringing since the beginning, obviously after Chicago magazine it’s been ringing more. But it’s been very steady for at least the last couple of months, really just from the people in the neighborhood. People are very supportive— Chicago is just one of those rare cities that’s going to get behind somebody that’s opening their own business and putting it all on the line.
Have you been to Next, the number two on the list that everyone has to compare you to?
I’ve never been! You know, we work— I think I’ve just been somebody who’s worked his whole career, but also in the last year, we’ve just been so focused on this project since July, and if you’re building something and you’re trying to open a restaurant, you don’t really have time to go out and eat. And when you’re running another restaurant [Les Nomades], you have to focus on that and every guest, make sure their experience is special. Then you go home and work on this project.
Well, let’s talk about how that happened. How did you get from Les Nomades to Goosefoot?
When I started at Les Nomades I told Mary Beth that I wanted this to be my last position as an exec chef, I wanted to move into the ownership realm. And she was like, “Are you sure? It’s a lot of work!” (laughs) But she knew that was my goal, for my wife and I to find a small restaurant that we could own. We basically saved our money for seven years— we did this without investors.
It’s funny how I wound up there. I had met with Mary Beth and she wanted to hire me when she and Roland were getting divorced and he was leaving the restaurant, but the date that he was leaving kept moving, and finally, I had never met my in-laws, so I went to Brazil. And of course she calls. I get back and there are all these messages— “Chris, I’m ready to bring you on.” “Chris, did you get my message?” “Chris, I need to talk to you!” And finally she had hired someone else— two chefs actually, an executive chef and a chef de cuisine, only the chef de cuisine was really the one in charge and the executive chef worked for him, it was weird. And I was just, sorry, Mary Beth, these things happen…
But the chefs she hired, I think they were good chefs but they weren’t right for Les Nomades. So we stayed in touch, and finally after the new year she let them go and she hired me. And when I walked in, she handed me a pad and paper and said go downstairs, write down everything you need, and change the menu tomorrow. I tell you, when I left I spent a lot of time making sure everything at Les Nomades would be ready for Roland, because I remember how it wasn’t ready for me at all when I arrived. I spent a lot of time training my people to take over my job, teaching my sous chef how to order, stuff like that.
Was Roland a mentor for you in any way?
Believe it or not, I’ve only met him about three times. The first time, back when he was starting Old Town Brasserie, he came to talk to Mary Beth and he barely spoke to me. We’ve talked a little more since then, as he was taking over Les Nomades. That said, I have a lot of respect for him after working for so long in that kitchen.
Where had you been before Les Nomades?
I was at Betise in Wilmette before, which was a little French bistro owned by Nancy Brussat who had Convito Italiano. It was a chance for me to take that first step out as exec chef. I had a lot of other opportunities as a chef de cuisine, but I passed them over to come up to Wilmette to spend time and kind of fine tune my food. Before that I was part of the team at MK right after it opened, and Prairie a long time ago at Dearborn and Congress, that’s why I made the big voyage to Chicago from upstate New York.
For me, Prairie was like the perfect restaurant— farmers walking in the back door with produce and bison, it was just amazing. The gentleman who brought us the bison, he’d come up in his station wagon and deliver it, then he’d sit in the restaurant in his cowboy hat and order his bison well done. (Laughs) We’d put a little extra sauce on it, but he loved it, and he loved coming up to the city and he was very proud of his product.
[Prairie chef Stephen Langlois] spent a year traveling through the midwest, talking to a lot of people that had come from Europe that made the midwest their home. And he walked through the traditional recipes with people, learned the certain bread that the grandmother made, all those recipes. And he kind of put his little spin on them, and some of them were just so great that he left them alone. Prairie was about midwestern cuisine— he’s the founder of midwestern cuisine, Stephen Langlois. In my eyes it was a perfect restaurant, it was wonderful.
How is Goosefoot’s food different from Les Nomades?
I’ve obviously lightened things up a little bit here. Les Nomades is classical French with a modern touch to it— I approached the menu there with 50% respecting the clientele that had gotten us through all the years and kept a wonderful operation like that running, and the other half of the menu was a little bit forward thinking, to kind of keep the chef in me happy and moving forward.
So when I came here to open Goosefoot, I had a lot to say in regards to forward-thinking food, but I also know that classic technique is very important, and so it’s modern food with some classic flair.
So why this neighborhood? What made you pick Lawrence Avenue?
Well, we live right down the street, I can walk to work. We knew the neighborhood would support us. It’s probably 60, 70% people from the neighborhood and it’s mostly people who work downtown but they don’t want to have to drive all the way downtown, valet their car and then drive all the way back. They like having a place they can go in their own neighborhood.
With so many restaurants moving away from fine dining, when you opened your own place, did you have any thought about scaling it down in some way?
You know, each chef has their own vision. I’ve been in this for a long time, I have twenty-plus years in the business, and I could never walk away from fine dining. I enjoy the experience of having the guests come in, coming for the creativity of the food, coming for a longer meal— that’s why I got into this business. You don’t open a 34-seat restaurant on Lawrence Avenue that’s BYOB to make money. You do it because you’re passionate about food, about cooking and about entertaining people. You might make a little money but it’s really about passion. So this is our small first step.