RIA’s Danny Grant On What It’s Like To Be a Food & Wine Best New Chef

Danny Grant at the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen.
Danny Grant at the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen. Photo: courtesy Huge Galdones/FOOD & WINE

They are an elite group of barely over a dozen, the Chicago winners of the Food & Wine Best New Chefs honor over the past two decades. A few have moved on (Sandro Gamba, Kevin Shikami) but most remain, forming the foundation of our dining scene— Achatz, Bayless, Izard, Joho, Kahan and more. And the newest one is Danny Grant of RIA and Balsan in the Waldorf Hotel. We talked with him about his experience, from getting the news to being feted in Aspen at the Food & Wine Classic, as well as about his current spring/early summer menu at RIA. We’ll have a slideshow of that meal tomorrow, but today, here’s what it’s like to suddenly be one of the most acclaimed chefs in America.

So, did you have a good time in Aspen? Talk to anybody cool in particular?

Oh man, just to get out of the city and be out there, it is beautiful on multiple levels. And I guess the person I was most excited about getting to talk to was Thomas Keller. I mean, talk about a guy who has worked his way up to the very top. Rubbing elbows with people like him and some of the other Best New Chefs was fantastic. I’ve been working really hard, and for the first time I got to sit back and enjoy the accomplishment of what we’ve done at RIA.

Also, my GM and some of the staff and I all went whitewater kayaking, which was amazing.

What was it like when you got the call? Did you celebrate, or did you just have to forget it and get back to work?

Pretty much. I mean, they call you like two months before and you have to keep it secret. It was funny— I never answer my phone during service, but I got a call at 5:00 p.m. and I just happened to answer it. And it was Dana Cowin [Food & Wine editor]. And I was like, no way! And she said, Yes way!

She called at 5:00 p.m., really? Doesn’t she know what a chef’s likely to be doing then?

Yeah, it made me wonder, what happens if you don’t answer? Do they go to #11 on the list? (laughs) But I was just kind of stunned for a minute, and then I just had to put it aside and get to work. I know there are these people who try to guess who got it by watching the Tweets to see who’s suddenly going to New York and all, but fortunately I have family in Long Island, so it’s nothing out of the ordinary for me to turn up there.

So let’s talk about your new spring menu. How long have you been serving it?

I’d say it solidified about two months ago. That was when some of the ingredients like the English peas in the foie dish started to get really good. But then they change as the season goes by, so that’s part of the fun for us— you get the foundation down but the dish will move with the season, like we’ll change the English peas to sweet peas at some point.

All the vegetables are as local as possible. Not everything, but we use as many morels from local sources as we can, we try to use as much Klug asparagus as we can, and then we have some other growers we work with in Ohio and have amazing product.

What we like to do is pair these local ingredients with luxury, like lobster or caviar. It’s the luxury and technique that takes these local vegetables, which anyone can buy now, and takes them to another level. Like we have a white asparagus dish, and the asparagus is poached in this lobster and shellfish cream stock. The building of flavors takes that to another level from the home cook buying the same ingredients.

My GM and I went to Paris for a week recently, ate at a bunch of three stars. One thing we noticed is how they utilize so well everything from their area. You sit down anywhere and you know you’re in Paris. So we’re trying to do the same thing in the midwest, to represent the food of our region in a particular way. Like, we have an amuse we call cheese curds. It’s a super-thin fried globe that we fill with a light cheese mousse, so it’s a long ways from a fried cheese curd, but it uses midwestern cheese and it’s served in the box the cheese came in. So that’s our way of embracing the midwestern tradition of starting a meal with fried cheese.

How do you develop dishes?

We really work on them for a long time. We try our food a lot as a team. We conceptualize it together, discuss it as a team.

One thing we’re really trying to do with our new pastry chef, Aya Fukai, is make dessert just as much a part of the same menu as everything else. I really dislike when it feels like two different restaurants, like you’re eating this meal that’s a certain way and then suddenly dessert comes and it’s like— blueberry cobbler! And you’re like, hey, where am I?

I have a great relationship with Aya. It’s a rare thing where we have this connection and it seemed like clicked on day one. She’s able to talk savory dishes as well as sweet, so we conceptualize it all together so there’s a seamless transition.

For our clients in their seats, we want to show them a show, and have it be the same show from the same mind all the way. We like to go to the tables and talk to people. It’s important for me to be able to talk as passionately about the desserts as Aya does, so we really try to make them all be part of what we created together, as a team.

A slideshow of RIA’s spring menu will appear tomorrow.

RIA’s Danny Grant On What It’s Like To Be a Food & Wine Best New Chef