Reaching the 10-year mark is a remarkable achievement in the restaurant business — a quarter of newly-opened eateries don’t make it past the first twelve months. For Bistro Campagne, 4518 N. Lincoln Ave., the milestone is a testament to the leadership of Chef Michael Altenberg, who supported the use of organic and sustainable ingredients long before they were buzz words.
Which is why Altenberg’s sudden passing in March makes this month’s celebration bittersweet for staff.
“We have a little bit of a heavy heart. The thing that’s been difficult for me, I considered him my best friend,” says Todd Feinberg, Bistro Campagne’s general manager. “I haven’t had a proper chance to mourn. All my energy is going to holding this place together.”
Although Altenberg’s family has retained ownership of the restaurant, day-to-day operations have fallen to Feinberg and Chef Adam Dittmer, who spent a year training under Altenberg. Their message to diners: Yes, we’re still open, and no, nothing’s going to change. Not a single staff position has turned over since Altenberg’s death.
The restaurant, which hits the sweet spot between neighborhood bistro and destination dining, had been enjoying some its best years since opening, and Feinberg isn’t about to tinker with a successful formula. “Our focus now is maintaining and building upon [Michael's] culinary vision,” he says. “We’re continuing to strive to do better within the framework of the concept. You’re not going to come in to see foam or smoke and mirrors on your plate. As a French bistro, Michael never wanted to go outside French countryside fare. He was never into molecular cuisine. It’s a trend, it might even be a brilliant trend, but he was into timeless, rustic food.”
A 10th anniversary menu, dedicated to Altenberg and available through the end of May, draws on classic dishes from Bistro Campagne’s early years, including frog legs, braised lamb shoulder and pork belly. Wash it all down with specially-priced bottles of Tripel Karmeliet, Altenberg’s favorite beer that has been on the menu from day one.
“It’s one hundred percent a tribute to him,” Feinberg says.
Now it’s up to Dittmer, the former chef de cuisine at Bin Wine Cafe, and Feinberg to carry Bistro Campagne forward.
“Michael had a very strong moral sense in what he was doing,” says Feinberg, who was drawn to the chef’s food politics and also served as GM at Altenberg’s Crust. “We make the best attempt we can to use the cleanest product.” That philosophy also extends to Bistro Campagne’s wine program, which Feinberg oversees, having absorbed Altenberg’s lessons. “They all have to be from small producers and we try to be organic or biodynamic, which is sort of like ‘super organic.’” (Feinberg, who originally dreamed of becoming a meteorologist, discovered a way to connect his passions for weather and wine through the study of terroir.)
With Altenberg’s spirit continuing to guide decisions, Feinberg sees no reason why Bistro Campagne won’t be celebrating anniversaries for years to come. “He’s laid the framework for a successful business. The proof is on the plate.”