When Chef Chris Nugent announced in October that he was bidding adieu to Les Nomades, a River North bastion of French cuisine, to open his own restaurant, Chicago’s food scene was abuzz with excitement and bewilderment.
Excitement to see what Nugent, whose skills are highly regarded locally and nationally, would do given free range in the kitchen. Bewilderment as Nugent revealed his plans for Goosefoot: the eight- and 12-course tasting menus were sure to set foodies drooling, but the intimate 34-seat dining space would be BYOB and…wait for it…located at 2656 W. Lawrence Ave.
This reporter, who lives within spitting distance of Nugent’s new address, wasn’t the only one to wonder whether he’d leased the place sight unseen or somehow lost a bet. Just saying, this particular strip proved even too downscale for a second-hand clothing store.
“Certainly we knew we were on Lawrence,” says Nugent, who’s lived in the neighborhood for more than five years with wife, Nina. “I know everyone thought I was going to go out and do this $2-$3 million place.” Instead, he and Nina opted to take the leap into ownership sans investors. “I didn’t want that stress,” Nugent says of having to answer to financial backers. “I’m happy with a small BYOB.”
In the weeks leading up to Goosefoot’s December 11 debut, the jury was still out on whether Nugent’s fans would trust his instincts and follow him to the outer fringe of what can legitimately be called Lincoln Square. “I was very nervous,” he confesses. After installing the Open Table system, the slow trickle of reservations seemed to confirm his worst fears. “I thought, ‘What did I do? Wow, we’re in trouble. I don’t think anybody’s going to come.’”
Of course they came.
Early bookings have been buoyed by Les Nomades loyalists as well as food bloggers keen to get in on the ground floor of the potential Next Big Thing, like Apple fans camping out for the latest iPhone. Reviews have been of the ecstatic rave variety. “It’s exciting to see how people are enjoying the food,” Nugent says. “You wake up one day, literally there’s a day, you wake up and say, ‘I built this.’”
With the hectic rush of the opening behind him, Nugent, now managing on three hours of sleep instead of 30 minutes, took a rare breather to talk to CSJ about the road that led him from his hometown of Endicott, N.Y., to Chicago’s North Side.
The idea for Goosefoot, named after a genus of plant that includes quinoa, began simmering as far back as 2001, when Nugent signed on as executive chef of Betise in Wilmette. “It was the exact same thing as owning, except you don’t have the risk,” he explains of the position. “If something was broke, you had to fix it. It’s your responsibility to make sure the restaurant survives.”
The transition from chef to owner is not for everyone, though, Nugent says. “I don’t think everybody can have their own place. There are a lot of creative chefs, really talented people, who don’t understand numbers. It’s a unique combination.” In Nugent’s favor, not only is he a numbers guy, but Nina just happens to be director of finance at the Hilton Suites on Michigan Avenue.
About five years ago, Nugent began searching in earnest for a suitable spot to hang his toque. Following the advice of fellow chefs, including Mindy Segal of Hot Chocolate who learned the hard way, he hunted for a pre-existing restaurant space to avoid the prohibitive costs of building a kitchen from the ground up. But it was Charlie Socher, of the dearly-departed Cafe Matou, who gave Nugent the final nudge to spread his wings.
“He said ‘If you’re going to do it, you would have done it by now.’” Nugent took the comment as a challenge. “That was the push I needed.”
The Nugents signed a lease in July 2011 to take over a space previously occupied by the blink-and-you-missed-it Rendezvous Bistro. “Then we dragged our feet for a little bit,” he says.
After seven years at Les Nomades, Nugent felt a strong allegiance to owner Mary Beth Liccioni. “It was an honor to work there,” he says. “Mary Beth has put the label on sophisticated dining and elegance. I wanted to make sure [she] was ready to have an easy transition.”
While still running the kitchen at Les Nomades, tweaking the menu to ensure his successor could reproduce the dishes, Nugent teamed with Nina to pull together Goosefoot in their “spare” time. “My wife is the design person,” he says, “but the tape measure is mine.” The couple selected chairs crafted in Grand Rapids, Mich., and banquettes from a company on Chicago’s South Side. “We wanted to keep things local,” he says. “With the economy, we wanted to keep business in the Midwest.”
Their concept for the interior: represent and respect Nugent’s past while reflecting modern sensibilities. Tables, for example, are generously sized and spaced, per Nugent’s directive, partly for diners’ comfort and partly for practical considerations. “I don’t want them all crowded together,” he explains, adding, “during an eight- to 12-course meal, you need room on the table.”
The restaurant’s clean lines and simple color palette lend the space a Zen-like feel, a purposeful contrast to the gritty urban environment outside. “We kind of wanted people to walk into a different element,” he explains, “to transform into a different atmosphere.” Despite the rather sparse decor, the room projects a fair amount of personality. As a nod to Nina’s roots (she hails from from Sao Paolo, Brazil), Goosefoot pipes in bossa nova music over its sound system. Other personal touches: menus are printed on planting seed paper and the dining room’s few decorative items, a small framed watercolor and a trio of Rodin sculptures, are all reminders of the owners’ honeymoon in Italy and France. It’s like a Mom & Pop shop that just happens to serve lobster with licorice root.
For those who have been referring to Goosefoot as “that French place,” Nugent would like to clarify.
“I certainly know classical French food,” he says. “Obviously I have a history and a style guests have come to like. But I also have something I haven’t said yet, something I have to get out.”
He approached Goosefoot as a blank slate, combining his French technique with a more contemporary American approach and an emphasis on artisan farm products. Ultimately Nugent settled on a tasting menu as the best way to present his vision; eight to 12 courses gives him a broad canvas on which to create. “With each dish you have different flavor profiles and also texture,” he says. “And if somebody doesn’t care for something, it’s not a huge course.”
Basing his menu on market-driven ingredients also gives Nugent an opportunity to constantly refresh the menu. “We’ll be changing four dishes every few weeks,” he says, “as products go out of season.”
Vegetarians take note: While fixed menus can be a nightmare for non-meat eaters, Nugent designed each dish to stand on its own with the protein swapped out. “I think vegetarians are very forward thinking about food,” he says. “As long as we know in advance, we can pull something together.”
Le Plat du Jour
While roasted quail with beluga lentils might not sound like comfort food in any traditional sense, Nugent creates his dishes to have reference points that take diners back to their childhood. Think pasta with truffle essence instead of mac ‘n’ cheese.
This sense of nostalgia might explain why, when asked to name his favorite meal, Nugent quickly settles on Spiedies, a dish unique to the area surrounding his hometown of Endicott. “Where I’m from is a tight-knit Italian place,” he says. “It’s hands down the best Italian food in the U.S.”
Consisting of marinated meats (typically lamb) served on a skewer and wrapped in Italian bread, Spiedies was a staple at the Nugent household following Sunday mass. “It’s a simple dish,” he says, “but it means something to me.”
Les Plats Principeaux
Though Nugent is a graduate of the culinary program at Johnson & Wales, he credits Chef John Daly with his introduction to fine dining.
Daly ran the Drovers Inn outside of Binghamton, N.Y.; he and his wife Kate were friends of the Nugent family and took in an 11-year-old Chris when Nugent’s mother died. “He was an unbelievably talented chef,” Nugent says of his mentor. “It was just like the planets aligning. Here I was in this kitchen, to be sitting in the ’80s and early ’90s at a classical French restaurant, I fell in love with it.”
Nugent learned more than just cooking technique from Daly. “For me, the most important thing is, you take care of your staff. There was nobody better at that than John Daly. He was a rock. He would calm your spirit, teach you how to be a person of integrity. I would hire someone who has character and integrity over an amazing resume. He just was inspirational like that.”
These are lessons Nugent has applied to his staff at Goosefoot, which includes lead caption Chris Crispino, who manages the front of the house; Misael Sanchez, a Les Nomades veteran (“I just saw a lot of spirit in him, I wanted him to be part of the team”); and Julia McOsker, who answered an employment ad by showing up at Goosefoot’s back door with duck confit, cassoulet and braised pork belly. “I was like, all right, that’s all I need to see. She reminded me of me,” Nugent says, recalling the days when he would volunteer to wash dishes in a kitchen just to part of the action. “It says a lot about a person to go above and beyond.”
In the same way that Daly took him under his wing, Nugent feels a similar obligation to the next generation of culinary professionals. In his bio on the Goosefoot website, Nugent is uncommonly candid about the emotional impact of his brother’s unexpected death in 2009.
“I wanted people to understand,” he explains of posting the personal information. “It was life changing. I always thought my brother would be there.” Over the past seven years, Nugent has only taken three breaks from work, including his honeymoon. The loss of his brother forced him to reexamine his priorities. “It was a learning experience. Chefs like me, I was always about the food,” he says. His advice to up-and-comers: “You never know what could happen. Take a step back.”
While his talents in the kitchen seem destined to push him toward the “star chef” category, it’s hard to picture the soft-spoken, rather shy Nugent joining the cast of The Chew anytime soon, though he insists, “When I get in the kitchen, I’m a little intense.” Offered a spot to compete on Iron Chef, Nugent turned down the opportunity when producers informed him of the three-month commitment. “I belong in my kitchen,” he says, “so I said, ‘We’ll have to pass.’”
He touches every plate that comes out of Goosefoot’s kitchen, not just to maintain standards but because cooking is a skill to be practiced every day.
“You don’t go into cooking to be somebody,” he says. “These days, I think people to to culinary school and think you’re a chef. You’re not. It’s a foundation, and then you’re going to be out there and not make any money and work for talented individuals and learn.” Success comes to those who “put their head down, do what they do best, and somebody recognizes that talent. It’s just you doing consistently every day what you think is right and what you’re passionate about.”
Rather than jump at the chance to fill the pending Charlie Trotter-sized hole in Chicago’s dining scene, Nugent’s goals for Goosefoot are more modest. “I’m just trying to run my first business, cook great food and have the people who are coming enjoy the ambiance and cuisine,” he says. “This was my dream; I’m content right now. And sleep deprived.”