F&W Star Chef
RESTAURANT: The Purple Pig
LOCATION: Chicago, IL
EDUCATION: Johnson & Wales University (Providence)
EXPERIENCE: Del Posto, Lupa, Esca (New York City)
Who taught you to cook? What is the most important thing you learned from them?
For the basics, definitely my dad [legendary Chicago chef Jimmy Bannos Sr., of the Cajun restaurant Heaven on Seven]. When I was 9 and 10 years old, he’d take me to eat a tasting menu at Charlie Trotter’s. He taught me to be open to new foods from a young age.
For my career, Mario Batali taught me his philosophy about food and Mediterranean culture. When you work for Mario for a while, your palate changes, for the good. We were always taught to season everything to. the. end. You do not need to ask for any salt at one of his restaurants. Everything is just flavor, flavor, flavor, flavor. And pasta, of course.
I worked at three of his restaurants—Del Posto, Lupa and Esca. Besides my father, Dave Pasternak is my mentor. I truly have more respect for that guy than almost anyone. There aren’t many guys like him anymore, with his blue-collar mentality. He’s still a no-bullshit guy. He still works; he’s still present in his kitchens. Before I started there, I was scared. Everyone said, “Oh, you’re working for Dave, that’s going to be tough.” But I saw that if you work hard, there are no problems. He demanded a lot of us, but that’s how it’s supposed to be.
What was the first dish you ever cooked yourself?
As a kid, my mom cooked for us all the time. I loved making tacos with her. We’d have them about once a month. I always enjoyed cooking the ground beef, rendering out the fat and stirring in the spices. I just loved sitting there over that pot and not moving. Something about that mesmerized me.
And what is the best dish for a neophyte home cook to try?
Something in the soup department, like a basic chicken soup. My dad always says, if you can’t cook a soup, that’s the base of being a cook. Chicken soup is straightforward enough where a home cook should be able to handle it easily. I love soup. I find it very satisfying. It’s truly comfort food.
Favorite cookbook of all time?
Mario’s Babbo cookbook. I had it with me when I was in Italy, before I worked for him. I was there for like six months. I was 20 years old. I didn’t know shit. I read his book cover to cover, page by page. I like looking back at all my notes that I took then, like “What’s this?” Certain ingredients that I didn’t even know. That’s when I knew, “I gotta work for this guy.” I guess you could say it changed my life.
Name two dishes that define who you are.
1. Our fried pigs’ ears. When I was testing everything out for the menu for the Purple Pig, I knew I wanted to make pigs’ ears. I didn’t want it as a garnish; I wanted it to be the heart of the plate. And ears are not easy to make taste good. At all. We’re also on Michigan Avenue, so there were so many question marks about whether people would go for it. When we first opened, a 65-year-old businesswoman walked in and without hesitating ordered a bowl of pigs’ ears, and was chilling like this is the best thing ever. Now we sell hundreds of orders a week. I have a lot of pride that it worked.
2. Our pork neck bone gravy. That’s a family recipe from my mom’s side of the family, from her mother. (My mother’s 100 percent Italian; my dad’s 100 percent Greek.) The dish is second nature to me; I’ve eaten it my whole life. To be able to incorporate it on the menu—my grandmother’s 86, she comes in for it! Since we’ve opened, I don’t think I can take all the credit, but now other chefs are using pork neck bones. And nobody used them before.
Is there a culinary skill or type of dish that you wish you were better at?
We just started our own house-cured salume program. I just built a walk-in temperature-controlled specifically for it. I love indulging myself in stuff like that. I’m always looking to try to educate myself. Now I’m diving into all the great books of salume and sausages, trying to perfect it.
What are your talents besides cooking?
I’m a big gym rat. I love to work out. It keeps me sharp. Two days a week, I meet with a trainer in the morning before work. It’s tough because of how many hours the restaurant takes up. But if I go a week without working out, mentally I’m not the same.
What is the best bang for the buck ingredient and how would you use it?
Pork liver. It’s 69 cents a pound. It’s pretty special to me. You don’t see too many pork livers floating around in American restaurants. They can be pretty harsh, like pigs’ ears—funky and gamey. I eat everything and there’s nothing I don’t like, but straight-up cooked pork liver? It’s pretty tough for me to swallow. Our pork liver pâté is a fan favorite, but even after four years, it’s challenging every single time I make it. It requires a three-day soaking in milk and salt, changing out that milk every day to extract that gaminess. The secret ingredient may be my favorite part. When I was testing the recipe, my test kitchen was Heaven on Seven, my Dad’s restaurant, the original one. I saw a bottle of my dad’s house-made Worcestershire sauce and added a little of that. It all came together.
Name one secret-weapon ingredient.
Lemon and roasted garlic. My cooks joke about it in my kitchen. If one of them says, “This needs something,” the others will say, “Well, we know it needs more lemon!” I’m huge on the balance between salt and acid. And we always have pureed roasted garlic on hand. We use it in sauces, broths—you name it. It adds nice depth of flavor to everything, plus it’s a great binder. I’m using it right now for our stuffed squid, with bread crumbs and prosciutto.
What's the best house cocktail, wine or beer, and why?
I’m simple as far as my go-to drink: I get a vodka soda with lemon twist. For beer, at the end of the night, I love our Peroni on tap. I think we sell more Peroni than anybody in the country, for sure the Midwest. There’s something about it out of the tap—it’s just so damned refreshing. Fine, if it’s the end of the night and I’m not even eating anything, I like something ice cold with drinkability, like Skouras Moscofilero.
If you were facing an emergency and could only take one backpack of supplies, what would you bring, what would you make and why?
A nice cast-iron pan, olive oil—of course—butter, salt, lemon, some nice seasonal vegetables, some kind of cheddar, guanciale and call it a day. I think I’d do some type of egg dish, whether that be a nice frittata or omelet, something comforting and delicious.
What do you eat straight out of the fridge, standing up?
At home, I love sandwiches. I’ll eat one every day of my life. Whether that’d be the most basic ham and cheese, or a PB&J, I don’t care. I’m always eating it standing up and my wife is always telling me not to stand up. This is what I do.
Who's your chef idol and where would you take him or her to dinner?
Besides my dad, since I go out to eat with my dad all the time, I’d have to go back to Dave. I’d like to go to his neck of the woods on Long Island. It’d be cool to go catch our own fish; he’s one of the best fishermen around. Or I’d go to Blue Ribbon and sit at the raw bar with him, have them set up some nice oysters and raw clams and shoot the shit.
What is the most cherished souvenir you've brought back from a trip?
I like to collect mortars and pestles. I got one in Greece on my honeymoon. The whole shop, everything was made from olive wood. I still use it and love it.
If you could invent a restaurant for your next (imaginary) project, what would it be?
Every day I dream patiently about the day I can incorporate pasta in my restaurant. At the Purple Pig, we want to do more Mediterranean on a broader scale. I don’t want to incorporate a pasta here and there. The kitchen’s just not set up for it. If you’re going to do it, you need the pasta tanks, the cookers, and that takes up half the kitchen. My kitchen is tiny, so I miss it. I really do. Cooking it every day when I was working all the pasta stations for Mario, learning from the best—I’m beyond passionate about it. I have an obsession. So when that day comes when I can work on another project, that’s what it will be.