We got an email from a chef simply asking us to check out what he was doing, because nobody was. We didn’t know him, but we knew the restaurant on north Lincoln Avenue and had been there years before, when it had another name and concept. So we took the chance— and found exactly what we think makes Chicago’s restaurant scene so strong, that there are neighborhood places like this doing food with a high level of integrity and skill all over the city, making dishes that you’d be happy to eat in any restaurant you could name. The chef is Tim Cottini, a veteran of places like North Pond, Ambria and Cafe Ba-Ba-Reeba. The restaurant is Fork, in Lincoln Square, formerly Fiddlehead, a gastropub which Cottini has moved toward, well, a farm to fork orientation. And the dish you want to go eat right now is his winter salad— some salad!— with roasted pork belly, maple roasted squash, and hunks of gingerbread tossed with kale and vinaigrette; it’s ridiculously good. We spoke with Cottini about how a Lettuce corporate chef wound up in a neighborhood place on north Lincoln Avenue; our interview, a short slideshow of a few of his dishes, and the menus are all below.
So how did Fiddlehead become Fork, and how did you wind up here?
It changed over in 2011, and I came on halfway through 2012. The chef who transitioned the changeover left at the end of 2011, and they tried it under the sous chef for a while.
I had known the owner David [Byers] for numerous years, we worked together over at North Pond briefly. I had been at Cafe Ba-Ba-Reeba for six years at that point, and you work for a large corporation, there’s a lot of work that needs to be done, and I think when my daughter painted a picture of our family without me in it and our nanny in there… I said “All right, I need to change my life.”
I came over in mid-2012, and in terms of the kitchen started doing my thing here, which is basically farm to fork, no pun intended. The Lincoln Square Market here is absolutely fabulous, I basically take a two wheel dolly over there and back my SUV up to it and I go to my one farmer and say, give me 200 pounds of potatoes, give me 50 pounds of eggplant, 20 pounds of zucchini. I have a lot of strong relationships with farmers like Klug Farms from my time at North Pond and Cafe Ba-Ba-Reeba.
What’s the difference between what Fiddlehead was and what Fork is?
Fiddlehead was a little more white tablecloth, trying to be a little more pretentious. A lot more entrees and appetizer focused, where now we’re focused more on the small plates and the sharing aspect of things. We’re a gastropub, in terms of dishes that can be enjoyed with a beer or a glass of wine.
There’s always been a strong focus on our cheese menu— we have over forty cheeses here. 15 charcuterie selections of which we’re doing four, soon to be five, in house.
Let’s look at what we want to do here. We sell beer, we sell wine. Let’s focus on the beer. You’re in a German neighborhood, you go out to eat and have a beer, so people start to look around for something to nosh on. So we start doing in-house pickles, we do pretzels.
Is that the tapas influence?
Kind of. I try to put no more three or four items on the plate, but okay, say you’re using butternut squash. I can use it diced and roasted, I can use it fried thin and crispy, I can candy the seeds— there’s three things on the plate but you can do it a variety of ways without the flavors getting muddled.
That all sounds pretty simple, but you were at Ambria which in its day was one of the fanciest fine dining spots in town. What was it like going from that to tapas at Cafe Ba-Ba-Reeba?
I was at Ambria for two years. Chef Christian Eckmann took it over to kind of bring it back to its glory and he had spent over a year in Spain, and with me coming from North Pond we did a lot of the farm to table, molecular gastronomy food. We would take beautiful farm-raised peppers, roast them, puree them, add the agar-agar to them, let it set into a gel, slice the gel, and serve it over a pickled anchovy on toast. Something as simple as that was one of the best things you’ve ever eaten in your life.
I left there about three months before it closed, when they announced it was closing to reconcept. They were saying, we’ll let the staff try some ideas out for the new concept, see what you can do, but I think they had Laurent Gras signed and were just waiting [to make it L2O]. So my guy got me out of there and sent me over to Ba-Ba-Reeba. Here’s a place that was getting a thousand pounds of potatoes from Sysco, and I’m figuring out how to get a farmer to bring a thousand pounds of potatoes at a price point that’s competitive. It was dealing with the farmers to figure out what they have a big harvest of and how we can work that into our menu mix and move volume.
We would constantly be looking at our sales histories from the week before to figure what to order. Ordering would take an hour and a half every day, and like I said, I’d never get to see my family because I’m looking at sales histories and marketing mix all day. We’d have one thing starred or highlighted on our menu, and then we’d reprint the menu and something would get moved because one of the people at corporate would switch something because Rich wanted it switched over, so okay, but nobody would know until we noticed that hey, our sales have tripled on that item. Why’d they triple? Because we moved the highlight from this to this.
In my time there, I learned so many details about things like menu placement. I come here, a little neighborhood place, and they say we’re not moving enough chicken, so I say well, move it up on the menu. And they’re like, what? How’s that going to make a difference? And we move it up to the top and, sales double.
So in terms of farm to table ingredients, is it pretty much where you want to be or are you still working on it?
It’s always changing, always growing. I had a guy come in today from an Italian importer who saw that we had burrata on the menu. And he’s trying to sell me this burrata that they make in California that’s really really close to what they do in Italy, with a really thin skin and really creamy on the inside. So now it’s working with him to see what price point we can be at and what else we can get from him to be able to use this beautiful burrata from California.
That’s what it’s about, finding people who can look at what you’re doing and give you a better raw product to start with.
This is a neighborhood that’s really taken off in the past few years as a restaurant row, even some really high end places like Goosefoot and Elizabeth which it certainly never had before. Do you think the neighborhood has responded to what you’re doing— and that it can support this scene?
You know, my grandparents lived in this neighborhood. So I’ve seen how it’s changed. It’s a very affluent neighborhood. You look at the homes especially toward the lake, there’s some big, million dollar old homes. And this is a place that, in 2008 or 2009 was probably looking to close. And under my predecessor and now myself, we’ve made it work again. I think we’re doing some great stuff here, especially the charcuterie and the other things we’re making in house. I think the neighborhood has definitely responded to that.