Meet Todd Stein, Executive Chef of Cibo Matto

Tomorrow evening marks the opening of Cibo Matto, the last of The Wit hotel’s ambitious trio of restaurants to unlock its door. Helmed by chef Todd Stein (formerly of mk, he’s back in Chicago after stints cooking in Minneapolis and at David Burke Las Vegas), the kitchen will be churning out comfortable, authentic, accessible Italian dishes for dinner, with lunch service kicking in in a few months. We caught up with Chef Stein — who also oversees the kitchen for The Wit’s Roof — to see how he’s faring with the pre-opening jitters.

Welcome back to Chicago! What brought you home?
Obviously this opportunity brought me back — but after being in Las Vegas for the last couple of years I really wanted to come back home and be in the city. I need trains, taxi cabs, and trees! As great an experience as I had in Vegas, this experience presented itself and it was a very natural fit.

Do you see a difference in the Chicago restaurant scene now versus how it was when you left in 2006?
I do, yes. I see a lot more of what people consider to be more honest, real food — I think people, chefs are cooking a little more simply. I’m not taking away from certain chefs — Grant [Achatz], you know — who cook in that complex style, which certainly still exists, but I think with the economy and the way people are thinking about food, this move towards comfort is happening.

I think It’s cyclical — it happens every couple of years, people go back to more simple cooking like that. I think in this case a lot has to do with the economy, but still, people fall in love with these comforting things and want to bring them back.

Does that shift in culinary attitudes play in to your design of the menu for Cibo Matto?
Well, I really started working on the menu in January and kept going at it until about three weeks ago. I wanted to cook things that were familiar for people, but in a restaurant style. My mentality is that I want to be cooking Italian style with an American heart. What i mean by that is that the great thing about Italian cuisine is that it’s so local, town to town, region to region, and American cooking is similar to that — the way we cook in the north versus the south. So it feels very natural to be cooking in an Italian style using great American ingredients.

Was the menu informed by your time at the other restaurants you’ve worked at?
It’s pure me. I lived in Paris in 1994, but I spent a lot of time in Bologna, in Italy - where my sister lived - and as soon as I treid that food I knew that was my style. At the places i’ve worked over the years there have been Italian influences, sure, but this is it: this is the food i’ve wanted to cook for twelve years. It’s really the culmination of everything I’ve been doing for my entire career.

What are your favorite dishes on the menu?
I really love the chicken liver dish over charred onions and polenta. And I love the scallop dish. But the sweetbread dish is truly outstanding: beautiful fried artichokes, crispy fried lemons, all with this lemon emulsion of preserved lemon pureed with olive oil with some chili flakes underneath. It’s my favorite.

Besides the food, what else has you excited about Cibo Matto’s opening?
I’m really excited about the room. It’s a really casually elegant, sexy room, and when you fill it with people and there’s activity going on, it’s a very special space. it’s got a really warm, comfortable, slick feeling and it’s really wonderful. There’s a tremendous, I think 40-foot, fresco on the ceiling done by an Atlanta artist named Todd Murphy — it’s really bacchanalia-esque, layers and layers of photographs. it’s the centerpiece of the dining room — it really adds to the warmth and slickness of the room.

Anything left to do before the opening tomorrow?
We’re all in the kitchen prepping today. Of course there’s last-minute running around always, but i think we’re pretty set.

Cibo Matto opens for dinner Tuesday, July 7. For reservations, call (312) 467-0200.

Meet Todd Stein, Executive Chef of Cibo Matto