Kendal Duque: ‘Cooking is Beautiful’

Kendal Duque at Chicago Firehouse.
Kendal Duque at Chicago Firehouse. Photo: Sky Full of Bacon

Veteran chefs tend to be practical, let’s-get-this-done-people guys and gals, but sit them down, as we sat Kendal Duque down at the bar of the South Loop’s Chicago Firehouse, and even with nothing stronger than water, you may be surprised by the philosopher you find hiding under the chef’s jacket. The Ecuador-born Duque, who started in biochemistry, got the cooking bug in his 20s, worked for Jean Joho at Everest and Rick Tramonto at Tru, and attracted his biggest attention as the opening chef of Sepia. He’s been a bit out of the limelight for a couple of years— he’s kind of been having a life. But with Chicago Firehouse owner Matthew O’Malley he’s about to open City Tavern across the street at 1416 S. Michigan, which will give him a chance to express himself in the context of an 18th century-style tavern serving creative comfort food and drink. (See our slideshow of his food here.) Our chat with chef Kendal Duque is below.

So, you have an 18th century restaurant in Chicago. What’s that all about?

Well, Matthew had an inspiration. He was traveling in New England, and it simply struck him— and I think that’s all it takes in life sometimes, something strikes you— and he came back all inspired to do a tavern of that era. He had it all visualized in his mind, and we sat down and talked about how we could make it reality.

It’s an experience that we’re really going for— that communal feeling of the old tavern. We’re hoping to strike a balance in every aspect of that feeling— with beautifully crafted cocktails, with a craft beer program, and with the food. How I’m imagining the food is, how I would want to eat in the tavern setting. I’m not approaching it with all this research of the period, which could almost be too campy, but what would I feel comfortable eating in such an establishment. Everything very approachable, quality driven with a chef’s touch— just to give it some style and uniqueness. I don’t really believe in complete originality, but I do believe in experiencing my personality in my craft, which is cooking. It’s tough to really pinpoint how it’s going to come out, but it’s how I cook and how I want to live and be entertained at City Tavern.

So it’s not particularly New England food, but American comfort food…ish?

You could say that, in that nothing is unfamiliar. But still, it is my duty and my desire, really, to give each dish its own personal style, its own element of surprise for the guest, whether it’s some offal, or an interesting ingredient. I’ve worked in the past, especially in the summer, with some of the farmers at Green City Market who will grow stuff for me or who will inspire us by bringing in new seeds or growing us something in particular.

I’ve been exploring and researching old cookbooks, sort of the older, more classic cookbooks, I’m exploring their style, which is making me think more about how we eat right now. The specials are going to be a little more gutsy, a little more eccentric, chef-driven stuff, stuff that I think other chefs and people in the industry would appreciate. There are so many old cookbooks— I go to old bookstores and just find hidden gems. I went to New Orleans last summer and I went to a couple of old bookstores there and I shipped back like three or four boxes, Creole stuff and old French cookbooks. That stuff is so beautiful because it was just, like, the crafting of their life.

We always need something for us to stay awake and alive in our daily routine, which is running a restaurant, cooking every day. I don’t want my energy for what I love to be diluted in any sense. So that kind of setting that we’re talking about at City Tavern allows me to showcase and do what I like to do, and not be contrived or horned into a specific style of cooking. After all these years of being in the kitchen, and how difficult the life is, it’s an opportunity to really live it out and enjoy myself. I’m in my 40s, I’ve hit my stride, I’m always contemplating every moment, it’s a chance for me to live in the moment and really do what I do best for myself.

After Sepia, it seemed like you kind of dropped off the radar a bit. Is that how you see it?

It’s all just… a part of my life. Sepia was one of the opportunities where I was able to do what I wanted to do. It was not revolutionary by any means, but it was different in that— I don’t have a lot of chef friends, I wasn’t reading about the business all the time, I was kind of closed off in my own little world. From that I created what I wanted to eat, the restaurant I would want to go to. And I think it paid off, in that it explored how a chef-driven restaurant can be successful because of the personality speaking in it. At that time, when we opened up Sepia, there was no nomenclature for what we were doing. People would ask me about Sepia, as they do now about City Tavern, what’s the restaurant going to be like? And you can’t explain it because there’s no reference point yet.

But it wasn’t like I wanted to be a celebrity chef. So when you say I was on the radar, that people were talking about me, it was just because I was doing what I wanted to do, what was a good fit for me and right for me and I was enjoying myself. I’d crank up the music in the kitchen, and be there from six in the morning until one in the morning, and it was really pretty much a labor of love. Everything about it was my sweat and tears.

If I fall off the radar because I’m at Chicago Firehouse, it’s because I’ve taken a turn in my life, and maybe focusing more on my personal life. I’m married, I’ve got two children, I have a third one on the way, and I’ve always perceived my professional life as being on a parallel track to my personal life. I’m always happy where I am; whether I’m on the radar or not doesn’t matter to me. I want to enjoy myself, have a nice lunch, hang out with my partner who’s my kitchen manager, and talk deep thoughts about the restaurant life, or what to do today about our staff.

So it’s about the day to day, and who’s eating here now.

That’s the quotidian life that we lead in the kitchen and it’s nothing more than that. We’re not scientists, or artists, or great doctors or anything. It’s just our life.

I ask myself why I got in the business and that’s it— I just love the way the food smells, how the food is going to come out visually, how people are going to enjoy it, how loud the music is— every aspect is important. That’s why I love cooking on the line because when you cook on the line, everything is so immediate— it’s there, one second, and the next second it’s dead. Cooking is beautiful, I’ve never wanted to step out of the cooking world.

But the other stuff [that goes into running a restaurant], I’m pretty good at too— fortunately I have a left brain and a right brain. But the part that really turns me on and gets me through the day is the cooking process.

Kendal Duque: ‘Cooking is Beautiful’