John des Rosiers: Wisma Air, And What’s With the Three Bowling Pins

John des Rosiers at Wisma in the French Market.
John des Rosiers at Wisma in the French Market. Photo: Sky Full of Bacon

On Friday we ran the first part of our conversation with John des Rosiers, the chef of Lake Bluff’s Inovasi, who has now entered the city with his Wisma chain of shops offering naturally-raised, made-from-scratch prepared foods at the French Market. We revealed on Friday his plans to expand into the university market with Wisma U., beginning in a few weeks at Robert Morris College, Roosevelt University, DePaul and others. In the second part of our conversation, he tells us another market he plans to enter (hint… Wisma Air), and he talks about Moderno, his impending Italian restaurant in Highland Park. But first, he reveals the secret behind the three bowling plans glued to the counter at Wisma in the French Market.

So what’s with the bowling pins?

Every store has small little touches that are only for that store. Every store has numbers somewhere, and this is our third store, so it has threes everywhere. Libertyville was number two, so it has twos. Small detail things like that are something that we think is important and that tell our story.

Okay. So you talked about Wisma U. going into colleges, but you said you have another lousy-food market you’re going after. Could it be… airports?

Exactly. First Wisma U., next Wisma Air. I love what Rick Bayless has done with Tortas Frontera, any time I go to the O’Hare I stop there. But also, every time I go it takes seven minutes to get a sandwich, and not everybody has that time. So Wisma will be a natural fit for that, something you can just grab and go that’s good food, real food. It’ll be coming later in the year.

Do you change the menu up very often?

All the time. We added an enchilada with handmade tortillas, a confit chicken leg wrapped up inside it with basil and onions, we added a chicken jambalaya dish.

A lot of times we’ll ask customers, what kind of things do you want to see. And we’ll have them fill out little comment cards. We’ll always listen to what people tell us— we tweak and adjust the menu every month, month and a half or so. We’ve got about six new items coming in in the next month, because we’re always trying to continually improve the store.

Especially being in the city now, are you going to be adding more ethnic dishes and things like that?

Some of the new stuff is definitely going to be like that. We’re working on a couple of Indian dishes— but that’s something else, too. If we do something that’s ethnic, like when we said we’re going to make a jambalaya, it’s going to be properly made, with the right blend of spices that we make ourselves, the right cooking techniques, the right type of rice. So it’s going to taste like the place it comes from. We’re working on a couple of Indian dishes right now, and maybe a Chinese dish— an actual Chinese dish, not an American Chinese dish (laughs).

Speaking of ethnic, you’re also opening a new Italian restaurant in Highland Park, Moderno. What’s the story on that?

The idea behind Moderno is that more and more there are young chefs in Italy who are starting to use different cultures and blend it with their cuisine, like people do in Japan, like we do here in America. (In America we just call it American cuisine because we just throw everything together anyway.) It’s happening a lot in the Italian restaurants in Italy but it isn’t happening a lot in America, so that’s why we’re building one of our own.

There are things about Italian cuisine that are very important to them, and to us. So we’re being respectful of them. One of them is that everything is made from scratch. We have five different pasta recipes for different shapes, different noodles, things like that. Another is simplicity, letting our ingredients shine through. All of our dishes have five components, and no more. So if we’re making a pasta dish, the pasta’s one of them and there’s four other things besides the pasta, that’s it.

But then the modern part comes in because we’ll take, maybe a traditional dish from Bologna, but then we’ll bring in something from Southeast Asia or Spain or France or something, to throw in a different culture. The idea is that there’s small touches, throughout the menu, that are just a little bit different from what a traditional Italian place would be.

Most of what the buzz so far has been people saying you’ll never make it in a suburb like that without these old school Italian dishes people are used to.

They said that about Inovasi in Lake Bluff, too, and we’ve been here three years and we’re about to open our sixth place in three year. So I think we’re doing something right.

Vision and understanding of the future is a very difficult thing for most people to grasp. We have a team that is very good at understanding what things will be like at a certain point in time and then making a concept for that, and helping to set the pace for these things coming.

We know exactly what we have to do in Highland Park, and we’re going to do it. The quality has to be better than everything else around it, and that’s exactly the reason why Phil Rubino is going to be our chef. His family’s from Sicily, and I can’t find a single human being in the city who doesn’t think he’s a great chef, so that’s why he’s going to be our executive chef at the restaurant. The service is going to be at a very high level, and it’s a knockout of a restaurant.

People are willing to give you some latitude on the cuisine if everything else is at a high level. If all the pieces are at that level, just the small differences in the cuisine aren’t going to turn people off. But I like when people tell us we can’t do something. Because we usually do it anyway and so far it’s worked out pretty well.

Previously: John Des Rosiers: First Conquer the City, Next Wisma U.

John des Rosiers: Wisma Air, And What’s With the Three Bowling Pins